One of Calhoun County's darkest days is being remembered 50 years later by those who lived it as well as those who wouldn't be born for decades.
A group of modern day Freedom Riders--including college students from all over the country and a few of the original Freedom Riders from 1961--are retracing the route of that attempt during the Civil Rights Movement. A diverse group of Freedom Riders rode Greyhound and Trailways buses in 1961 to enforce federal laws mandating racially integrated travel and bus depot.
They were met with arrests in Birmingham and Jackson, Mississippi, and with severe beatings in Montgomery. Freedom Rider Willam Harbour says Montgomery "is where the blood came down the street, blood came down the street in Montgomery."
In Anniston on May 14, 1961, Mother's Day, a Greyhound bus carrying some of the Freedom Riders was attacked by a racist mob at the Greyhound depot on Gurnee Avenue. The bus' tires were punctured and the bus was followed out to the Birmingham Highway--now known as Highway 202--where it was firebombed.
"And I still to this day remember distinctly those words, of saying 'Let's burn 'em alive! Let's burn 'em alive!' " recalled Hank Thomas, who was on that bus as the mob--including a number of Klansmen--held the doors shut.
Thomas, Harbour and the current-day college students were in Anniston Thursday to see two murals unveiled. One, showing an intact Greyhound, is opposite the former site of the Greyhound station, now occupied by Howell Signs. The other, depicting a Trailways bus, faces Commerce Towers in downtown Anniston. Both include photos and captions explaining the Freedom Riders' story.
Charles Person was aboard the Trailways bus, the one that wasn't burned. But it had its share of problems, as Klansmen went aboard that bus and beat some of the Freedom Riders.
"We did not anticipate the level of violence that we found here in Anniston nor in Birmingham. But I think that you can never undo what was done, but I think that what has happened here today is a good sign that change can be made," Person recalled.
The bus made one more stop: the site near Highway 202 where the bus burned. It's also where Freedom Riders park will be built, and riders heard an explanation from one of the park's planners, Pete Conroy. They also saw a marker planted at the site.
The students were chosen from more than 1,000 who applied.
"I'm very interested in social justice issues, and I thought it would be an incredible opportunity to just learn from people that had done that kind of stuff, and hear their stories," said Diana Mahoney, a student from Messiah College in Pennsylvania.
Other stops on the tour include Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, as well as the final stop of the 1961 tour, New Orleans. The Freedom Riders 2011 trip began the same place as its 1961 counterpart, Washington, D. C.
1720 Valley View Drive