Historic marker issued to remember Freedom Riders in Anniston

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."

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