FRESH CONFLICT ON THE FREEDOM RIDERS TRAIL IN ANNISTON
Fresh from following my great-grandfather’s Civil War battles of the 1860s in Tennessee, I entered Alabama for the first time, determined to follow the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. I dropped George off at the Atlanta airport and picked up our project co-author, journalist Kristen Hannum. We were bound for Anniston, just beyond the Georgia state line.
The small city intrigued us as the site of KKK terrorism against the1961 Freedom Riders, mostly students who attempted to integrate bus lines and stations throughout the deep South by traveling from station to station as mixed racial groups. We wanted to know what the town was like today and how it commemorated its notorious, violent chapter in American history more than fifty years later.
We had no idea we would arrive in Anniston just when vandals would try to burn that history away.
Nearing the border, Kristen and I left the mind-numbing Interstate—which makes all American landscapes the same coast-to-coast, one bulldozed corridor—and escaped onto the old highway. This was the Freedom Riders’ route on the pre-Interstate two-lane blacktop. At first, aiming the rental car along the old highway felt creepy, considering the Freedom Riders’ horrible fate ahead. The landscape changed from flat cropland to dark, dense forest as soon as we entered Alabama.
But the countryside’s beauty transformed us from creeped-out to awestruck. Rolling countryside wove through tiny railroad towns, the main streets lined with century-old store fronts with elaborate facades. Mostly, though, the route traced gentle forest and meadow throughout the Talladega National Forest, cut through here and there by handsome rural holdings. We even got happily lost, taking far-flung side roads because the scenery was so pleasurable, the brisk sky so fine and clear.
Enfolded by the national forest, a wildlife refuge, and the undulating hills of northeast Alabama, Anniston beckoned ahead, looking much more promising than we expected.
Would its physical setting inspire a unique community—similar to scenic Western towns where surrounding nature nestled harmoniously, as in Ashland, Oregon; Sedona, Arizona; or Boulder, Colorado? Driving down Anniston’s main drag, Noble Street, we quickly learned the answer: no.
Anniston’s business district starred only a long-abandoned movie house, so dilapidated its last feature really might have been The Last Picture Show. Quick-loan shops and the inevitable beauty suppliers held out between empty storefronts, all pocked by parking lots. Grand facades and stone construction belied bygone glory. A few mid-rise buildings amid the emptiness suggested a depopulated place trying to audition as a much larger town. Planter boxes suggested languishing efforts at beautification and renewal. Little-town sprawl snaked into hillside strip malls.
Kristen’s writing on Anniston captures our move from first impressions to quick escape, all featuring her unreliable and unpleasant fellow traveler, “Lee” (you know, me), who…
….also seemed just slightly road ragged, still moving even when we’d stopped, still fascinated but a touch overwhelmed. “I keep thinking I forgot my passport,” he confessed. “It really does feel like another country.”
Lee sat at our motel room’s miniature table, reading an article about the 1961 Freedom Rider bus firebombing in Anniston that had run in the Anniston Star on the fiftieth anniversary of that violence.
“Oh my God,” he kept muttering.
The Supreme Court had found segregation to be unconstitutional in its 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision, but it was still the law of the land in Alabama. In May 1961, the Freedom Riders, blacks and whites together, boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses to challenge the South’s enforced segregation—specifically illegal by 1961 because it violated federal laws governing interstate travel. The Freedom Riders were traveling from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. They would sit next to one another, amidst other travelers, and at least one of the black riders would sit up front, in the part of the bus reserved—illegally—for whites. At stations and rest stops they would eat at the same counters and use the same restrooms.
In 1961 you could get killed for doing those things.
America’s Christian terrorists, the KKK, with logistical assistance from state troopers and local police forces, planned to first attack the Freedom Riders in Anniston and then, should a bus make it that far, in Birmingham. The KKK would teach the Freedom Riders a bloody lesson and send them home, dead, injured, or just scared.
Lee leaned back from his computer. “The mob had come from church,” he said. “It was Mother’s Day. Some of them were still dressed for church.”
The Anniston thugs, armed with bricks, chains, iron pipes, and knives, slashed the bus’s tires at the station in Anniston, and then, a few miles down the road, surrounded the limping bus. They broke its windows and threw a homemade bomb inside. Smoke choked the passengers and flames spread as those on the bus desperately tried to get out.
The mob held the door shut.
“They were trying to kill them all—the Freedom Riders and regular passengers alike,” Lee said.
Finally a state patrolman shot his pistol over the heads of the rioters. The passengers escaped from the burning bus moments before its fuel tank exploded. The pack then savagely beat the sickened, injured bus passengers, many already on their knees. They were preparing to lynch the riders when a state patrolman finally stopped the assault by firing his gun into the air.
The Freedom Riders—and presumably the regular travelers caught up in the violence—were refused care at the hospital in Anniston. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights leader in Birmingham, organized more than a dozen cars to rescue the riders, driving them to safety.
A gang of armed men also met the second Freedom Riders’ bus in Anniston, an hour after the first. This time the brutes boarded the bus to beat the Freedom Riders. That bus then went on to Birmingham, where an even worse Mother’s Day mob would meet them.
People around the world heard what had happened. Anniston’s goons hadn’t just beaten the brave Freedom Riders; they’d also delivered a blow to America’s reputation, giving fodder to Soviet Cold War propagandists.
We’d walked along Noble Street where the buses had pulled in at the old bus depot. Unexceptional buildings stood unchanged on the empty street as we read the mural in the glassy autumn sunlight. We could imagine being on the bus, looking out the window at pretty little downtown Anniston, thinking maybe Alabama won’t be so bad, our optimism cut short by the nightmarish sight and sounds of the gathering mob. Fifty-one years ago the storefront windows had reflected the KKK-led factory workers and shop clerks turned criminals as they slashed tires, shouted epithets, threw rocks, and beat people for sitting together on a bus, for riding towards a New South…
That night, in our motel room, Lee seemed as though he was witnessing that satanic mob, not just intellectually understanding injustice but feeling it. It seemed to hit him like a fist.
It didn’t feel as immediate to me. I was wondering how those men could come from church and do such terrible things. Had they told their mothers where they were going? Did they say they’d be back by dinnertime? Were they drinking, drunk? Did any of them wake up one morning, days or years afterwards, and moan “Oh my God,” as Lee had done as he’d been reading about that afternoon? Had any of those men later come to terms with what evil had possessed them?
I remembered theories of mob psychology, one being that influential leaders contaminate mobs, inducing people together to act in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise. Another posits that people who choose to be part of a mob have pre-selected themselves and are primed for violence. They’re simmering with similar fears and hatreds, coming together as a band of bullies, igniting one another, and egging each other on towards evil acts that each would hesitate to commit individually.
The theory of de-individuation, as ancient as the Dionysian cults (outlawed wherever they took root), posits that a cult member—usually under the influence—could lose his or her individual consciousness and become one with the mob, an unthinking force of nature, as murderously powerful and amoral as a tsunami, tearing apart any random victim in its path. It’s the death of self-awareness, conscience, and self-awareness without dying.
Charles Manson knew about de-individuation.
“It’s like pack behavior in dogs,” I said, the motel room’s walls close around us, Lee looking thunderous. “Nice family dogs, once they start running in packs, kill people. Children, but really anything they see as prey. Humans can be pack animals. Look at Rwanda, neighbors killing neighbors, people who had been friends, just swept up in craziness.”
“No,” Lee said. “The people who did this terrible thing were each individually responsible for their actions. No excuses. No Dionysian bullshit. And there’s no comparison to Rwanda, where the Hutu leaders used the radio to bring in their followers and kill people.”
He was passionate enough that I shut up—it was hard me to argue since I was feeling perplexed rather than ardent. I wasn’t excusing the mob. I was just trying to figure it out. This was just the latest of many disconnects between us. Over little things that didn’t seem worth clarifying and over big things like excusing or not excusing mob violence.
Lee was so fervent that he included a defense of dogs. “The dogs in my neighborhood would never act that way,” he said. “They’re nice dogs.”
So was I excusing the human mob? Distressingly I felt guilty. Maybe, I thought, this is how white liberal Southerners feel, before they’ve worked it though. God help us, maybe it’s how they feel after they’ve worked it through.
* * * *
Despite its toxic reputation, its lack of restaurants, and its sprawl, tourists have begun coming to Anniston. That’s because that pitiless 1961 Mothers Day put the town on the Civil Rights Trail.
Local whites struggled to celebrate this part of Anniston’s history. It was like being known because your father was Lee Harvey Oswald. You’d rather forget it than help people remember. And yet the Civil Rights Trail brought Anniston good national press for a change.
When student groups followed the Freedom Riders’ route on its fiftieth anniversary in 2011, Francisco Diaz, one of the anniversary riders, kept a journal. He wrote that Richard Couch, the Annistonian seated next to him at dinner was stereotypically white Southern: blue-eyed, burly, and with a thick drawl. Couch’s father had been part of the mob that attacked the bus.
Diaz wrote that Couch was also funny and sincere, and that he gave an emotional welcome to Hank Thomas, one of the original Freedom Riders. “When they embraced,” Diaz wrote, “I viewed the full power of nonviolence. The son of a Klansman hugging a man who his father hated and wanted dead was a greater victory than any violent counter-attack that could have been done at the time to the mob had surrounded that bus. If the Freedom Riders had not been nonviolent, and they fought back and perhaps killed Richard Couch’s father, this true moment would not have occurred.”
Betsy Bean with the Anniston Development Association was eyeing this new Civil Rights Trail tourist market as she got Anniston’s murals up that commemorated the Freedom Riders. Lee was determined to meet her, to ask her about her dream of creating a park and memorial at the actual site of the bus burning, a long empty verge of land between the old and new highway. The site was hard for us to find; people in Anniston gave us a variety of opinions on where it might be. When we found it, we discovered a makeshift car lot there, sedans and trucks parked with signs in their windows advertising their mileage and the number for buyers to call.
The park did have a sturdy sign announcing that the land was the site of a future park. Kids from Cobb Elementary had unveiled the sign just a week earlier during a groundbreaking ceremony.
We tromped through the high grass, past the trucks for sale. Lee took photos: “The site of the future Freedom Riders Park!” the sign read, with some history, photos, and plans. His photos may have been the last ever taken of the sign.
The next day vandals burned it down. Police never found the culprits.
The arson followed on the heels of the Anniston development organization firing Betsy Bean. The city council had already cut the organization’s funding in half in 2010. Bean told the Star that the city council had notified her board of directors that the organization wouldn’t be funded at all if she remained at the helm. As she understood it, they didn’t like her focus on the Civil Rights Trail and saving historic buildings.
Lee was transfixed by the realization that history was still happening as we were walking through its pages. “It’s sparking right now!” he said. “It’s not past!”
Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” The great Southern writer gave those words to Gavin Stevens, a character in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. How brilliant of Lee to have been feeling those emotions so purely here in the South, especially since Faulkner was writing about exactly what we were experiencing: how the past haunts Southerners, and how elusive a New South truly is.
—Kristen Hannum, excerpted from her chapter in The South Within Us, “Ghost Moon over Alabama”
Kristen had another reason to visit Anniston; it was the home of the Anniston Star’s star editor and publisher, Brandt Ayers, whom she wanted to interview for an article. Kristen also planned to review Ayers’ just-completed memoir, In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal. His newspaper had a national reputation for excellence, gaining fame for its coverage of civil rights events.
I joined in on the extensive conversation, charmed by Ayers’ patrician manners mixed with a newspaperman’s bluntness and BS detection. Yet he was often conflicted about the South and surprisingly sympathetic, from his beautiful modernist home tucked into the hills of east Anniston, to the plight of those he called the Redneck, “meant to be a contemptous term” which “needs more sympathy and understanding. Bearing defeat with dignity—even respect—his Redneck liturgy is forbidden in the Church of the United States…” This was one small sample of Ayers’ unique perspective and phrasing that knocked me out. When I told him that we had plenty of rednecks out west, Ayers corrected me. “No, redneck is a regional term, it belongs to the South.”
But Ayers was by no means blindly loyal to any single narrative about Anniston. He was contemptuous of local politicos, “Keystone Kops with no oversupply of leadership and enlighenment,” and their inability to transform Anniston for the better. He had even harsher words for as the outside, corporate forces that had stripped the city of its potential. He saw Wells Fargo “as a destroyer, buying out locals, running things from a distance. In our second Gilded age, there’s too much money sloshing around. Anniston lost its wealth when manufacturing stopped, and the city didn’t adapt.”
Brandt Ayers extolled Anniston’s past as a utopian Model City full of community spirit, and contrasted nearby Birmingham as a “money town.” Both Kristen and I had apprehension and plenty of advance disdain for “Bombingham,” our next destination.
Of course, we were completely unprepared for the shock that awaited us.