On Mother’s Day in 1961, the Klan attacked 13 Freedom Riders by firebombing their Greyhound bus outside of Anniston, Alabama. We close our first season by talking with Anniston Mayor, Vaughn Stewart, and Vice Mayor, Seyram Selase, about the Anniston Freedom Rider’s Memorial currently up for National Monument status. Stewart and Selase retell the story of the Freedom Riders and the bus burning and describe why recognizing this important landmark is significant for Anniston, the state of Alabama, and the nation.
The current request for National Monument status includes two sites: a former Greyhound bus station built in 1952, and the bus-burning site, which is located four miles outside of the Anniston, on what used to be US Highway 78. The bus station advertised separate facilities—waiting rooms, restrooms, and lunch counters—for black and white customers. It ceased to operate in 1967, when a more modern station was built at another location. Currently, it's home to a vintage sign company, but the city has a sales contract to buy the building back from its current owners.
While the bus depot is remarkably unchanged, the second location where the bus was bombed has been reconfigured. Some of the houses remain, but the Forsyth Grocery store where the bus pulled over is no longer there, and that portion of Highway 78 has been closed. Anniston officials are hoping to create a five-acre permanent memorial at the site.
Selase describes their project as an important way to preserve the overall story of the Anniston Civil Rights Trails, and to protect a sense of place. On the day before our interview, officials from the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior toured the two sites, listened to the stories of those who remembered the event: Hank Thomas, one of the Freedom Riders on the bus in Anniston; Mr. Emerson, a local resident who was on his porch that day and saw the attack, and Janie Forsyth McKinney, a young child who brought water to the wounded Riders. Stewart emphasizes that as the Freedom Rider generation is passing away, no one is going to have a memory of what happened unless we create a space to educate future generations. He argues that these places are important reminders of the dark path we once took, and provide a cautionary tale because bullies and hate-mongers still exist. Our guests note that Anniston’s nickname is the “Model City,” and after the attack, the community came together to create COUL, the Council on Unified Leadership, a biracial council to address violence and racial issues. They hope that gaining National Monument status will provide a model for how other communities might come together after horrific acts of violence to have real conversations and develop real solutions.
We would like to thank our special guests today, Anniston Mayor, Vaughn Stewart, and Vice Mayor, Seyram Selase. We wish them the best of luck in their endeavor to recognize these important landmarks. We encourage our listeners to visit the current Anniston Civil Rights & Heritage Trail. We'd also like to thank Jaye Price for the music.