Freedom riders remembered in Anniston

By Dixon Hayes

ANNISTON,AL (WBRC) - It's one of Anniston's darkest days ever, and area officials have big plans to remember it.
2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the May 14, 1961 bus burning, Anniston's part of the Freedom Rides. It was an effort by protesters to enforce a Supreme Court ruling desegregating public places like restaurants and waiting areas. The Washington to New Orleans movement was met by violence in Anniston--first, when a mob broke windows and slashed tires of their bus at the Anniston Greyhound station on Gurnee Avenue, then when the bus was firebombed on Highway 202.
The incident drew national and international attention and outrage, and found its way into a CBS News documentary anchored by newsman Howard K. Smith.
Tuesday, officials with Spirit of Anniston and Jacksonville State University, among others, announced a yearlong series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders bus burning incident with a civil rights trail and other activities.
*Plans are underway for a park at the spot of the bus burning. The five-acre "Freedom Riders Park" will be located near the dead end of the Old Birmingham Highway and will tell the story in plaques and even a statue.
*Historic Anniston Star photographs of the crime scene will be on display at both the Anniston Public Library and the Birmingham Civil Rights institute. The pictures were long lost until they turned up in a law office a few years ago, and were donated to the BCRI. The Anniston Star more recently found two more photographs in its own archive, including a devastating shot of the bus door.
*The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute will hold a youth leadership program. Selected high school students will go through the classes, be taught about the civil rights movement and even encouraged to share it with others.
*A plaque will mark the mob attack at the old Greyhound station, which is now the home of Howell Signs.
*Tours will take visitors to various points of interest, like the old bus station and West 15th Street. It will also alert visitors to a little-remembered incident where a Trailways bus was attacked that same day--Mother's Day, 1961--as the Greyhound incident. It happened at the Trailways station.
Mayor Gene Robinson vowed the city had no interest in "whitewashing" the 1961 incident, but instead using it as a teachable moment.
Ahmad Ward of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute called the Anniston bus burning--and the Birmingham beatings--a major turning point in the civil rights movement.
"This is a very important event, because you had businessmen in Alabama, very influential people, who saw what happened in Anniston and in Birmingham and decided that they needed to start moving to get some things done because it was going to be a black eye for the whole state," Ward says.

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