Interior Secretary tours sites of proposed Freedom Riders monument in Calhoun County

Interior Secretary tours sites of proposed Freedom Riders monument in Calhoun County
Source: Dixon Hayes/WBRC
Source: Dixon Hayes/WBRC
Source: Dixon Hayes/WBRC
Source: Dixon Hayes/WBRC
Source: Dixon Hayes/WBRC
Source: Dixon Hayes/WBRC
Source: City of Anniston
Source: City of Anniston

ANNISTON, AL (WBRC) - Two high-ranking Obama administration officials are taking two earfuls of community support back to Washington, on the idea of a national monument to a civil rights era incident in the Anniston area.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and National Parks director Jonathan Jarvis, visiting Calhoun County Thursday to study two sites that would serve as a memorial to the 1961 Freedom Riders bus burning incident.

Joining them were Freedom Riders Hank Thomas, Bill Harbour and Charles Persons. Thomas was actually aboard the Greyhound bus that was set on fire on Highway 202 in what is now considered the Wellborn community. He was savagely beaten when he fled for his life from the burning bus.

Jewell and Jarvis toured the former Greyhound station, now a sign shop. Supporters want to turn the sign shop back into the way the 1952 era Greyhound bus station would've looked in May 1961, right down to the already-illegal segregated waiting areas.

The two also visited the site of a proposed park where the bus was set on fire by a racist mob, many of them members of the Klan. The grocery store where the bus was set on fire no longer exists, but a historical marker now shows the spot.

It was at that spot where Thomas spoke to the group, who traveled site to site in a modern day, made-in-Anniston New Flyer bus lent for this historic occasion.

"Those 'wonderful' people who lived in this close-knit community, wanted to murder me and the Freedom Riders on that particular day," Thomas told the crowd. "That was what was going to happen. They wanted to kill us."

For that reason, Thomas called for what he referred to as the "consecration this particular spot, as holy ground," where the incident happened, and where the bus was attacked as it left the station in Anniston.

Jewell later said that was a very reasonable request.

"The idea was to stop people from getting off the bus so that they would be burned alive," Jewell said. "That is not part of our history that should be sanitized. That's a part of our history that we must embrace in order to move beyond it."

After the caravan took Jewell, Jarvis, the Freedom Riders and a number of school children to a luncheon, they all ended up at the First United Methodist Church/The Bridge on Noble Street in Anniston, for a community meeting to hear the thoughts of Anniston area residents.

Jewell said the National Parks Service is "America's Storyteller," and says the service is trying to do a more inclusive job of telling stories that also affected the African-American community and its history. She pointed to a number of sites dedicated to icons such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Alabama's own Tuskegee Airmen.

Jarvis explained the two sites could be dedicated two different ways: either Congress could pass a law and the president would sign it, or the president himself could issue an executive order, through authority vested in him by the Antiquities Act.

The overwhelming number of people who spoke at the hearing--Thomas again being the first--overwhelming supported the idea of a Freedom Riders national park or monument and heavily favored Obama issuing an executive order.

Those who spoke ranged from elementary school children and high school students to members of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce and the state historical society, to Anniston council member Seyram Selase and state representative Barbara Boyd (D-Anniston).

The one naysayer was Ralph Bradford, a losing candidate for mayor in 2016, who said the Freedom Riders incident actually hurt the black community in Anniston in the 1960s. Bradford also claimed the only reason anyone cared about the idea was for tourism dollars.

After the Anniston visit, Jewell and Jarvis went to Birmingham to study a similar idea about turning the A.G. Gaston Hotel into a national monument.

The Freedom Riders were a group of college students who tested whether bus depots in the South were following a Supreme Court ruling barring them from having segregated waiting areas. The Greyhound Bus Station on Gurnee Avenue in Anniston was one such place that did still have the segregated areas.

A racist mob attacked the Greyhound bus as it tried to pull out of the bus station, and someone punctured some of its tires. The mob then followed along in cars waiting for the bus to pull over due to flat tires.

When it did--in front of the now-gone Forsythe Grocery on Highway 202--the mob set the bus on fire. Thomas has recalled how the mob kept the doors closed so the riders would die on the bus, but a state SBI agent fired shots into the air to disperse the hostile crowd.

They even followed some of the victims to Anniston Memorial Hospital in an unsuccessful effort to attack them in their hospital beds.

After the public hearing, Thomas--who said repeatedly he was treated better by the North Vietnamese on return visits, than by the country that sent him to Vietnam in a soldier's uniform earlier--says he was overwhelmed by the response.

"I'm still amazed at Anniston," said Thomas, who now lives in Georgia. "When I say Anniston has come a long ways, it has, indeed, come a long ways."

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