Fifty-one years have passed since that Mothers Day when the ugliness of racism was revealed to the nation by a violent attack on civil rights activists passing through Anniston as they tested the U.S. Supreme Court ruling desegregating travel facilities.
For the activists, hurt and frightened, an act of kindness by a 12-year-old girl willing to turn a principle of treating others the way she would want to be treated into action became a glimmer of hope.
The park will memorialize them both and that is the way it should be, said the people who were a part of the historic event.
“Important events, they should be talked about,” said Hank Thomas, one of the Freedom Riders on the bus attacked at the site of the park. “When you go to a museum and look at artifacts of history and you compare that to where we are today. So, we need to know what happened here.”
Things have changed in Anniston since 1961, but it’s important to know how and why that change took place, said Charles Person, another of the Freedom Riders. It helps provide a model for young people as they prepare to improve their world.
“I hope it’s a place to come to reflect; I hope it’s a place to come to learn and to know the events as they happened,” Person said. “I think that will show the community too that in spite of our differences, we can work together for a common cause.”
Dark clouds threatened and even spit a few drops of rain onto the 150 or so people gathered under and around a tent set up in the middle of the future park. They were there to reflect on the history of the spot and how the events changed Anniston and the South.
The speakers on hand for the groundbreaking — which was symbolic, as nothing is being built there anytime soon — were philosophical about the events.
“I was 19 years old when I joined those 12 others — six blacks and six whites — on May 1, 1961,” Thomas said. “We stepped into the arena to fight the evils of segregation, American apartheid, and we arrived in Anniston on May 14, 1961.”
In Anniston, they met both the worst and the best of humanity. An angry mob firebombed the bus and beat the riders as they exited the burning vehicle. But a 12-year-old girl, Janie Forsyth, answered their cries with compassion and brought them water, Thomas said.
“Janie was only 12 years old and she became the angel in Anniston that day,” Thomas said.
The dedication of the park, Thomas said, was a decision by the community to move away from the hate that drove that mob.
“You’re telling the world that the Klan was not Anniston, but Janie was Anniston,” Thomas said.
The 4.5 acre park is meant to be part green space, part museum, said Pete Conroy, Freedom Riders Park co-chair.
“Envision this, three nodes; one node basically tells the story with signage of the civil rights movement of the '60s,” Conroy said. “Another node tells the story more specifically of what’s happening in Alabama at the time.”
All the signs focus on the historical marker that marks the spot of the bus burning that helped turn the tide of the civil rights movement, Conroy said.
But the park is still just a concept in need of funding to move forward. The park committee needs to raise about $2.5 million to complete the park. So far, it has about $170,000 in pledges and donations, said Alabama State Rep. Barbara Boyd, one of the forces pushing to make the park reality.
“I would really like to see us begin phase one, you know, I want people to be able to see something,” Boyd said. “When they start seeing something, then more people are going to come on board.”
The group has a concept drawing of the design created by Steve Lewis, a California architect and Freedom Riders Park advisory committee member.
The money raised so far is just seed money for the project, Conroy said.
But the group hopes to kick off a national fundraiser soon that will help raise the rest of the money and get the project off the ground, Conroy said.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.