Freedom Rides: 50 years later
sfgate.com | May 22nd 2011
As the bus departs Atlanta, Dennis Climpson is eager for conversation. He wants to discuss college football this Sunday morning, but first I have a question for him.
"Have you," I ask, "ever heard of the Freedom Rides?"
Fifty years ago this May, a group of 15 passengers traveled the same route. Like us, they were black and white sitting together on a bus - at the time unheard of in the segregated South. Climpson, 48, says he hasn't heard of the protest but is intrigued. He turns to his smart phone to check Wikipedia.
In 1961, the Freedom Riders were traveling on two buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to test compliance with federal integration laws.
Charles Person, a Georgia native who at 18 was the youngest rider, still remembers entering Alabama that Mother's Day.
"There was tension. It was kind of eerie," Person says from his home. He expected to be roughed up, but didn't imagine much worse. "This was broad daylight." Later that day, the Ku Klux Klan would set one bus on fire and beat riders on the other.
The racial violence shocked - and changed - America.
Today, you can retrace the Freedom Rides easily by car or bus. The Alabama cities on the route are marking the anniversary with murals, exhibits and a new museum. It's a leisurely three-day tour of the Deep South, easily driven, but also possible to visit by bus, which may take an extra day. Along the way, you'll find gracious hosts, good food and stark reminders of a not-so-distant past.
Climpson, who is bound for Jackson, Miss., can't believe what he's reading on his phone. "Anniston, Alabama?" he asks, pointing to the screen. "I thought that was a quiet town."
A half century ago, when a Greyhound pulled into the foothills of the Appalachians, a crowd awaited. Ku Klux Klan members pummeled the vehicle and slashed its tires. Six miles down the road, the bus stopped with a flat.
Anniston resident Bernard Emerson, who after 50 years still lives on a hill overlooking the spot that now bears a historic marker, says that someone that night had tossed burning rags through a smashed window on the bus.
"The smoke was getting pretty thick," he recalls. "One lady was coming out of the window. She got her foot caught and was kind of hanging there."
Anniston, a town of 23,000, has only recently acknowledged the incident, commissioning murals and exhibit signs at its former bus stations, two blocks away from the current stop.
I layover for a few hours and eventually find my way to a restaurant called Classic on Noble. Its Sunday brunch has more than 100 offerings, including fried green tomatoes, grits, shrimp salad, beef tenderloin and a dessert counter with 26 pies, cobblers and cakes. The after-church crowd is predominately white, but a few black guests feast, too.
"We're a nice town," the hostess tells me. "We have a dark past, but we've overcome it."
When the second bus reached Anniston in 1961, a pair of Klansmen boarded to beat the riders, warning that worse awaited 60 miles down the road in Birmingham. "They taunted us all the way," Person says.
When the bus arrived at the Trailways station, the wounded protesters headed to the white waiting room.
"The walls were surrounded by a group of men," Person recalls. "As we got toward the center, they started coming." Person's head was bashed with a pipe. Attackers had grabbed onto his jacket, but a news photographer snapped a picture, distracting the crowd. "I just walked out of my jacket," he recalls. "I did not run. I was still under control."
The first Freedom Rides had ended, and Person had escaped with his life.
The Trailways station is gone, replaced by a Wells Fargo bank and a historic marker. It's one of many civil rights sites in the state's largest city.
Visitors also come for the music scene, which has produced a handful of "American Idol" finalists, and the restaurants, which regularly win James Beard Award nominations.
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