Anniston's story of what's possible
Sep 10, 2010
by Phillip Tutor
There are two ways Anniston can treat the uncomfortable parts of its past.
It can disregard them, cover them in figurative sand, and hope
they're never revealed, as if ignorance will bring enduring calm.
Or it can embrace them. Discuss them. Be honest about them the
causes, the effects, the ramifications. And learn from them, turning
uncomfortable times into agents of modern-day change.
The latter is the wise choice.
It's not altogether easy, of course. We've seen that this week with
The Spirit of Anniston's efforts to commemorate this area's civil
rights heritage. Those efforts carry a permanent layer of painful,
distressing memories of violence based on the color of a man's skin
that can't be sugarcoated or historically rewritten.
Those memories are what they are: snapshots of tumult, a time when
Anniston endured spasms of the same racial tensions that overtook
countless other American cities during the 1950s and 1960s.
The comforting fact is that Anniston didn't become overwhelmed with
its demons as did Birmingham, the epicenter of the movement. Bull
Connor and his dogs, along with racists who bombed churches and
homes, killing children along with adults, did nearly irreparable
damage to that city's reputation; its unsightly "Bombingham" moniker
left a mean, ugly impression that only time and peace wore away.
In that sense, Anniston was fortunate somewhat. Yes, thugs attacked
Freedom Rider buses on Mother's Day, 1961. Yes, black preachers were
beaten bloody when trying to integrate the Carnegie Library two years
later. Brutality occurred. Anniston didn't escape the evil.
But Anniston was providential to have a core group of people of
peace, black and white, who bravely inched the city toward calm, not
chaos. It's a long list: From Phil Noble to Miller Sproull, from
William McClain to N.Q. Reynolds, from other members of the city's
Human Relations Council to those unnamed, Anniston benefited because
they did the impossible. They prevented Anniston from becoming a city
like Birmingham, which, according to historian Wayne Flynt, was
described this way by The New York Times: "Every inch of middle
ground" had been occupied by hate.
"Fear stalks the streets of Birmingham," The Times continued,
"fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the
whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife,
the mob, the police, and many branches of the state's apparatus."
Strong words, though decades old. That's even more reason why it's
imperative that the toils of those Annistonians should be honored
along with those of Freedom Riders and other brave souls whenever
this community commemorates its civil rights past.
Make no mistake: The Spirit of Anniston's effort to honor the city's
past is a commendable decision. It makes sense on several fronts, the
least of which is tourism and its fiscal potential.
The formation of a Civil Rights Heritage Trail, with stops at several
sites in Anniston, isn't an exercise wasted by promoting a past
that's best left there, covered and rarely discussed.
Here, the full legacy of the civil rights era creates a crowded room;
in it are rogues and villains and the black Annistonians who suffered
their wraths. But also in that room, and worthy of continual
commendation, are those who tried to keep the worst of possibilities
from happening on these Southern streets. Students should benefit
from that lesson. They need to see what happens when right-minded
people stand up against fundamental wrongs.
What was it that Noble, then the minister at Anniston's First
Presbyterian Church, wrote in "Beyond the Burning Bus"?
"To say the least, this was an interesting and challenging decade in
our nation and in Anniston, Alabama," he wrote. "Even though it was a
difficult time, Anniston found a way through it with a measure of
peace, and what is more, it brought freedom, justice and opportunity
to so many who had been denied it for so long."
That's why Anniston's civil rights story must be told.
It's a story of what's possible, of both sides of the human
condition, not merely of events some would rather we no longer discuss.
Phillip Tutor email@example.com
Historic marker issued to remember Freedom Riders in Anniston
September 13, 2010
ANNISTON, AL (WBRC) - Last year, a historic marker finally marked the
spot on the old Birmingham Highway in Calhoun County, where an angry
mob burned a Greyhound bus on Mother's Day 1961. Now, the Anniston
area's best known link to the civil rights movement will also have a
park to commemorate the incident.
The Freedom Riders rode through the South on Greyhound and Trailways
buses. Some were black, some were white, and all wanted to challenge
the Jim Crow segregation laws involving interstate travel. The U.S.
Supreme Court had already ruled the laws unconstitutional.
Freedom Riders buses were attacked first at the Anniston Greyhound
station on Gurnee Avenue. Then, several miles outside the city, the
bus itself was firebombed. Those who were there say the mob actually
tried to keep the riders on the burning bus.
Plans call for a park built on five acres that were donated to the
county, in the area where the bus was burned. It would include
plaques and even a statue telling the story of the burning bus.
"Because the spot is still there, the memories are still there," says
Jacksonville State University's Pete Conroy, one of the proponents of
the park project, "and its significance is still there, and that's
why we want to do something of great permanence."
The May 14, 1961 incident was just part of the Freedom Riders'
drama. In its 50th anniversary year, the Freedom Riders will be
remembered in a number of ways in Anniston and elsewhere, including a
documentary film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The
documentary includes the only known footage of the burning bus, shot
on color home movie film and found in FBI files nearly 50 years later.
Freedom Rider Hank Thomas is among those who want to see the Freedom
Riders' work remembered. During a 2006 visit to Anniston, Thomas
recalled making it safely off the bus, his eyes still burning with
smoke, when a white man walked up to him and asked if he was
okay. When Thomas nodded yes, the man beat him with a club.
Thomas also recalled making it to a Birmingham hospital, only to have
to be smuggled out when another racist mob threatened to blow it up.
"We need to remember what happened in Anniston on that particular
day," Thomas recalled. "We need to remember what Anniston was like
during that particular time."