The 2011 Student Freedom Riders have been on the road since Sunday, and they have become used to being feted. The big bus with the yellow Freedom Riders logo pulls up and local greeters and media line up to welcome them and treat them to a meal. That’s how it has gone in a succession of towns in Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas.
But none of that has prepared them for Anniston, Ala. There is a unique ferocity to the welcome here — city fathers, city mothers and civic boosters lined up on the sidewalk to receive them and welcome them to a sumptuous dinner at a downtown restaurant, each handshake firmer, each greeting more lavish than the one before. The eagerness to be liked is palpable.
And, perhaps, inevitable. As more than one person observes, Anniston wasn’t exactly hospitable to the Freedom Riders last time they were here.
That would have been May 14, 1961, the day two busloads of young people were attacked in this town in the first significant violence of the Freedom Rides. College students who had dared to travel interracially into Dixie were beaten and thrown in the back of one bus by Ku Klux Klansmen who, according to one eyewitness, stacked them “like pancakes.” Another bus was chased down by Klansmen and set afire just outside of town.
The town is still trying to decide how to be with all this. The historian Ray Arsenault, who is traveling on this commemorative bus, says it has been very difficult to get the city to erect the markers that memorialize the events of that day. Anniston is an economically distressed place, and this perhaps accounts for the odd moment when Mayor Gene Robinson, addressing the student riders, says little if anything about what happened in 1961, spending his time instead inviting the young people to return to his tiny Alabama town after graduation and open businesses here.
He is dismissive of the idea that his town is marked by what happened here when John Kennedy was president. “We’re maybe always going to have that tag,” he tells me. “But that tag is wrong. We’re not the same community as in 1961.”
But if some are dismissive of history’s onerous weight, there are others who seize it. So there comes this remarkable moment in a reception at the local library that begins when a tall, stocky black man arises from the audience. His name is Hank Thomas, and he was on the bus that burned.
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