The murals, the first two stops on Anniston’s portion of the Civil Rights Heritage Trail, tell the story of the two buses that carried riders testing a Supreme Court decision that desegregated travel facilities in the United States. The murals at Ninth and Noble streets and on Gurnee Avenue were painted at the bus stations where the Trailways and Greyhound buses arrived 50 years ago to a crowd of Ku Klux Klan members.
One of the men in the crowd in 1961 slashed the tires of the Greyhound bus as it attempted to leave the station, and the men chased the bus down Alabama 202, setting the bus on fire when it stopped. The Trailways bus, which arrived about an hour later, was spared the burning, but it was boarded by Klansmen who beat the riders.
Only two of the seven Trailways riders are alive today, said Charles Person, 68, who was the youngest member of the original riders and one of the two surviving Trailways riders.
“This is a good day, I think, not only for Anniston, but also for the Freedom Riders,” Person said as he stood in front of the Trailways bus mural. “You can never undo what was done, but I think that what has happened here today is a sign that change can be made and, hopefully, young people among us will take this as a challenge to make America a better place.”
The next generation
The 40 students on the tour said they are planning to take on that challenge.
“I believe in the power of college students and the youth like myself to be able to initiate positive change in their communities and the world,” said Tania Smith, a student from American University in Washington, D.C. “I feel like this trip embodies young college students making a difference, risking their lives to stand for equality and justice and the re-creation of the rides just symbolizes that. My generation is willing to do the same.”
Rachael DeMarce, a student from Carroll College and a member of the Blackfeet tribe born and raised on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, had heard little about the Freedom Riders and civil rights movement before learning about the tour. But she knows the Native American struggle for justice and sees similarities.
DeMarce said the trip had been a learning experience, from her first time eating grits at Classic on Noble to meeting some of the people who made history in the civil rights movement.
“I think that I’ll be able to take all of this information back home to Montana,” she said. “We talk about Martin Luther King Day, we do service activities, but I’m not sure we have the full understanding of what happened here.”
As an intern working at the Bureau of Indian Education and working with the Montana State Superintendent with Indian Education, she thinks she will be able to teach other students what she has learned and help end the injustices that still go on today.
“I think that there are still inequalities present today and to remember what happened in the past, I think, kind of guides us into the future,” DeMarce said. “It’s really necessary that we don’t repeat what has happened, especially in this town.”
Even Anniston residents may not be fully aware of the Freedom Riders and what they were trying to accomplish. Greg Morrow, whose company made the signs telling the story of the two murals, said he had a superficial knowledge of the Anniston bus burning, but learned much more when doing the signs.
“I knew about the picture that was spread around the world … that’s about all I knew,” he said. “Working on the panels laid the story out from A to Z, everything that happened, so you get a real sense of what happened.”
Final event an exhibit
For most of the week, the Spirit of Anniston has been hosting events observing the 50th anniversary of the Anniston bus burning, which marked a turning point in the civil rights movement. The final event at the Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County on Saturday is the public opening of an exhibit of photographs of the bus burning. The exhibit, called “Courage Under Fire,” will open to the public at 11a.m.
Civil rights trail
Spirit Director Betsy Bean said she began planning for the events knowing how important it is to remember, but not realizing how much the project would affect her.
“This has been a labor of love for me,” Bean said. “Having been born, raised and educated in the segregated South in south Georgia, it’s almost my tiny bit of reparation, if you will, which I happen to believe in.”
Seyram Selase, an Anniston resident and a member on a couple of the city’s boards, attended some of the events and said he was moved by what he saw. The events could be the beginning of an honest dialogue among the residents of the city and that is the only way to heal the pain that events like the bus burning caused, Selase said.
“This is the roots of our city; this is where we come from and where we are about to go,” he said. “I think you can see that with all the reconciliation that has taken place with all of the unity that you see; white people, brown people, black people, indigo people — I think I even saw the Easter Bunny hopping around here — just to see everybody coming together for one big cause, makes me more optimistic about our city.”
The Rev. David Rice of the First Presbyterian Church of Anniston attended a Thursday night get-together among residents, students and Freedom Riders that inspired an apology and embrace between one of the Freedom Riders and the son of a man involved in the bus burning. He said he thinks the events are an opportunity for Anniston to move forward in improving racial relations.
“What a time of reconciliation; and to see Mr. Couch welcoming and embracing Mr. Thomas was a moment I don’t think any of us will ever forget,” Rice said Thursday as he walked from the Gurnee Avenue mural to the mural at Ninth and Noble streets. “There’s still much work to be done though. I think it’s instructive that 50 years was not enough time. I think that my children, my children’s children will be doing the work of reconciliation down the road.”
Bean’s work commemorating the civil rights movement in the county is not over. She is continuing to work on the Anniston Civil Rights Heritage Trail, which will eventually have 10 to 15 stops in Calhoun County, she said. The next site on her radar is West 15th Street. She hopes to install another mural and a small park to commemorate the black history of Anniston.
The funding is falling into place. Gayle Macolly, manager of remedial projects for Solutia announced Thursday the company will be donating $10,000. Jim Friend, division area manager for Alabama Power, brought to the mural unveiling a $32,000 check for Spirit, the first installment of a $100,000 pledge toward the trail.
The trail is something some residents think is long overdue. Elsie Jackson, now an Anniston resident, grew up in White Plains. Jackson never thought she’d see the day that Anniston would memorialize the bus burning, but she’s happy to see it.
“It’s just, we need to keep it going,” she said.
Eddie Spigner of Anniston said he has lived most of his life in Anniston and was aware of the bus attacks.
He has attended all the public events this week and is glad to see the attention given to race relations in the community.
“It’s lots better than it was,” he said. “The activities that brought us here today are not happening as they once were.”
The laws of the land have force people to change their behavior, but they have also caused people to re-examine beliefs about other people, Spigner said. However, he thinks racism still exists.
“There’s a lot of change that has to be made," he said, "but a lot of significant change has been made.”
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.