“Now it’s like it didn’t even happen to me, like it was a dream I had,” said McKinney, who as a girl, gave water to the activists who were beaten in the attack on the Freedom Riders bus. “But it’s important for you to be present for your own story or else someone else will tell it for you and they’ll get the details wrong.”
McKinney heard her story, as well as the story of the Freedom Riders, retold on Tuesday night at Anniston High School. An audience of about 80 people gathered for the special screening of the documentary Freedom Riders which will air on PBS on May 16 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.
A group of civil rights activists rode a Greyhound bus into Anniston on May 14, 1961 to protest segregation at interstate bus terminals in the Deep South. Their journey was temporarily halted by members of the Ku Klux Klan who firebombed the vehicle. A mob tried to hold the doors shut before beating the 13 members as they escaped the burning bus.
Artist John Will Davis was on hand for the screening, and displayed his 2007 painting “Freedom Riders” at a small reception after the film. Davis lived less than two miles away from the spot where the bus burned in Anniston in 1961. Although he was only four years old at the time, Davis remembers the confusion and chaos of the time.
“People came running into my parents’ house telling them what happened, and I remember how hysterical they were,” Davis said. “I remember the eyes of those people still.”
Georgia Calhoun, a member of the Spirit of Anniston’s board or directors, first started pushing in 1990 for something commemorating the Freedom Rides in Anniston. She met with objections from the city council at the time, which said that they didn’t want to discuss that part of Anniston’s past.
“People say, ‘why bring this up, it’s embarrassing.’” Calhoun said. “If we don’t tell our story, somebody will tell it, the world will tell it. It looks better if we tell our own story.”
Calhoun said she hoped the film would allow more people to learn about the Freedom Riders and their experience in Anniston.
“Our young people don’t know, our older people don’t know details,” Calhoun said. “But they know that it happened.”
The story is known by a group of middle school students at the Auburn History Club, who won the first place state prize for National History Day with their short documentary Driving the Public Into Desegregation Debate: Boynton vs. Virginia and the Freedom Riders. Auburn resident Kaitlin Connell and Tuskegee residents Sarah and Anna Kirk began work on their ten-minute film in September, and will screen the documentary in Washington on June 12.
“We know we wanted to do something on civil rights,” Connell said. “The Freedom Riders were the most interesting to us.”
“We live in Tuskegee, so it’s our area,” Kirk said. “It’s a really big thing.”
Anniston native Shandricka Brown said she brought her six-year-old son to see the documentary so he could see for himself the things people went through so he wouldn’t face the same discrimination.
“He was asking me questions like why did they burn the bus?” Brown said. “It’s hard to explain to him.”
Brown said she was born in the 1970s and thinks the generations younger than her are more removed from the Civil Rights era history of Anniston.
“They need to get in touch again,” she said. “We need to get a way for young people to understand.”
“Even if you try to close the door on it, there are some people who want to know about it, some people who want to learn about it,” Brown said. “If you don’t know about the past, you won’t know how to make the future better.”
Anniston Mayor Gene Robinson, also in attendance, said the film’s most powerful message came from Stokely Carmichael, who told what the Constitution meant to different races before and after the Freedom Rides.
“The Constitution means something to me,” Robinson said. “That history should never happen again. We should never apply the Constitution against anyone. The Constitution is for everyone, it is for America.”
Star staff writer Alison Smith contributed reporting.