Mother's Day Sunday, May 14, 1961, was the day Anniston exploded into national Civil Rights headlines. CBS, NBC, and ABC television networks showed a Greyhound bus burning just outside of Anniston. The sign for our local Mello Dairy was visible to one side. Major newspapers across the nation showed the picture of the bus and related the story.
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had organized a bus trip from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to test the Supreme Court's ruling on desegregation of interstate travel. Calling themselves Freedom Riders, the CORE activists wanted to compel the federal government to enforce the law. Interestingly, this was not the first such experiment conducted by this organization, which consisted of both black and white members, many with religious and/or peace activist backgrounds. In 1947, CORE had attempted a similar Freedom Ride to test an earlier desegregation order. In the earlier ride, the group had traveled without incident until they reached North Carolina, where they were arrested and jailed. Some CORE members served several months in jail at that time, and their efforts had attracted little attention and had little effect.
Things would be very different this time.
On May 4, about a dozen white and black men and women boarded two buses, a Greyhound and a Trailways bus that would make their way through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and into Alabama, before proceeding to Mississippi and Louisiana. The plan was to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, the anniversary of the 1954 Supreme Court's Brown ruling on education.
CORE leader James Farmer wrote later, "We were told that the racists, the segregationists would go to any extent to hold the line on segregation in interstate travel. So when we began the ride I think all of us were prepared for as much violence as could be thrown at us. We were prepared for the possibility of death." Knowing the danger they faced, several of the Freedom Riders left behind letters to their families in case the worst happened.
Though the Ride was well-publicized and it was known all along the route when the Freedom Riders were coming, there were only occasional scuffles as the integrated group used bus terminal restrooms and lunchrooms in Virginia and the Carolinas. They reached Georgia without serious incident. On Sunday, May 14, the thirteen riders divided into two groups to travel west from Atlanta to Birmingham. The only scheduled stop along the way was at Anniston, Alabama.
A Greyhound bus carrying one group of the Freedom Riders rolled into the Anniston bus station in mid-afternoon when many citizens were finishing a Mother's Day dinner and taking family pictures. But a crowd of Anniston hoodlums, led by local KKK leader Kenneth Adams, met the bus. Of course not only did the Klan know when the Freedom Riders would arrive in Anniston, so did the local police and FBI. In fact, there was a plainclothes law enforcement officer on the bus. Adams and a mob of some two hundred angry people surrounded and attacked the arriving bus, throwing stones and slashing its tires.
The bus raced away, but had to stop six miles west of town on Highway 202 because of the now-flat tires. The driver quickly fled. A large convoy of cars and pick-up trucks had been pursuing the bus and the mob, armed with chains, clubs and iron pipes, again surrounded the vehicle and began smashing its windows. Someone tossed in a firebomb. The passengers scrambled out through the door and windows to face the merciless mob, and seconds later the bus burst into flames. The next day its burning image covered the front pages of America's newspapers.
A Trailways bus carrying the second group of Freedom Riders arrived in Anniston about an hour after the Greyhound bus. Its passengers met an even worse fate. At the station a number of young white men boarded the bus and began beating the Freedom Riders with clubs and Coke bottles. One of the victims was Walter Bergman, a retired professor from Michigan. His beating resulted in permanent brain damage. No attempt was made by police officers to stop the violence.
The booklet Free at Last gives a graphic description of the day's violence:
Ten days into their journey, on Mother's Day, the first bus of Freedom Riders pulled into the terminal at Anniston, Alabama. Waiting for it was a mob of white men carrying pipes, clubs, bricks, and knives. The bus driver quickly drove off, but the mob caught up with the bus again outside the city. They smashed the windows and tossed a firebomb into the bus. As the bus went up in flames, the riders rushed out into the hands of the mob and were brutally beaten. When the second busload of Freedom Riders pulled into Anniston, eight white men boarded the bus and beat the occupants from the front to the rear. The most seriously injured was Walter Bergman, who was thrown to the floor and kicked unconscious. He suffered a stroke as a result of the beating and was confined to a wheelchair for life.
Thus, Anniston had shown its potential for violence, long before its potential for non-violent settlement of its problems became apparent.
Anniston reacted. Some felt the horror of the tragedy. The attitude of many was, "It's too bad, but they got what they deserved. They asked for it." Others said, "I am not sorry it happened, but I am sorry it happened here." As the city business community became aware of the national publicity that Anniston received as a result of the burning of the bus and the mauling of the Freedom Riders, they became concerned. Such an image would have a negative effect upon future businesses and industries that might have considered locating in Anniston.
But to some, one realization came clearly into focus: Anniston had the capacity for racial violence that was equal to any other community in the South. That is why Mayor Claude Dear later said to me as he asked me to become chairman of a bi-racial Human Relations Council, "Phil, if the racial situation can be solved without violence in Anniston it can be solved anywhere in the nation. I know Anniston and I know its capacity for violence." What follows is the story of what happened after the burning of the bus on a Mother's Day Sunday afternoon in the beautiful Southern town of Anniston, Alabama.
About the Book:
A Civil Rights Lesson for Today's Generation
Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town is an account of civil rights history that deserves a retelling. Accounts shared by author Phil Noble bring a timely message on where we've been in the civil rights journey and how blacks and white have and could work together for the better of their communities.
Anniston, Alabama, is a small industrial city between Birmingham and Atlanta. In 1961, the city's potential for race-related violence was graphically revealed when the Ku Klux Klan firebombed a Freedom Riders bus.
In response to that incident, a few black and white leaders in Anniston took a progressive view that desegregation was inevitable and that it was better to unite the community than to divide it. To that end, the city created a biracial Human Relations Council which set about to quietly dismantle Jim Crow segregation laws and customs.
This was such a novel notion in George Wallace's Alabama that President Kennedy phoned with congratulations. The Council did not prevent all disorder in Anniston-there was one death and the usual threats, cross burnings, and a widely publicized beating of two black ministers-yet Anniston was spared much of the civil rights bitterness that raged in other places in the turbulent mid-sixties.
"What began with a burning bus, symbol of raw hatred and violence, ended with the city's leaders-black and white-working together peacefully. This is their remarkable story." -The Rev. Andrew Young, former U.N. Ambassador and Congressman
"Phil Noble, Presbyterian minister extra-ordinaire, belongs to that odd company of folk-all the way back to Moses-who found their life taken up in a struggle for the things of God. Like Moses and his ilk, Noble was going about his business (in his case, ministry) when his immediate context, infused with God's purpose, put him front and center in the struggle for racial justice, a struggle he pursued with grace, wisdom, and passion." -Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary
Author Phil Noble's account is carefully researched but told from a personal viewpoint. It shows once again that the civil rights movement was not monolithic either for those who were in it or those who were opposed to it.
"....Today, race relations are again at the forefront of our lives. Only now we are not dealing with black and white relationships. The rapid growth of Hispanic and other immigrant groups have brought an entirely new set of multi-cultural challenges. We are moving into a period in which there is no majority race in some urban areas, a trend that during the next few decades will impact most of us in the United States. What role should churches and people of faith play in these multi-cultural tensions? Phil Noble provides us with insights and reminders that are as relevant in the today's multi-cultural world as they were forty years ago. I thank God for Phil's impact in Anniston of the 1960's and on us today." -John Detterick, Executive Director, General Council of the Presbyterian Church, USA
James Phillips Noble is a Presbyterian minister who served as pastor of four churches, the last being the historic First (Scots) Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He served the Presbyterian denomination as Co-President of its Board of Pensions. He is the author of Words and Images That Seep Into the Soul (2013) and Getting Beyond Tragedy (2005). He is now retired and lives in Decatur, Georgia.
Beyond the Burning Bus:
The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town
James Phillips Noble
Beyond the Burning Bus is available at NewSouthBooks.Com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and through other online booksellers .