This month marks the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in Alabama.
More than 400 civil rights activists boarded buses, trains, and planes to oppose racial segregation in the Deep South. Their efforts were met with violence in Alabama.
Charles Person was one of the original Freedom Riders who was scheduled to travel from Washington D.C. to New Orleans. He was aboard a Trailways bus. Another group boarded a Greyhound bus leaving at the same time.
“Dr. King says I understand that danger awaits you in Alabama, in fact the word is, you won’t make it out of Alabama,” Person said. “When we arrived in Anniston, the bus station was closed.”
Person noted that it was strange that there weren’t people at the bus station being it was Mother’s Day. The bus driver was acting strange, too and seemed nervous when he was off the bus.
“He gets back on our bus and he says, ‘I understand that the Greyhound bus has been set afire. And they are taking the occupants to the hospital by the carloads,” Person said.
A white mob made up of Ku Klux Klan members met the Greyhound bus with pipes, bats, chains, and knives. The windows were smashed and tires slashed. The bus would make it to the city limits where another mob met the bus and hurl fire bombs into the bus, causing the fuel tanker to explode.
“Now, we knew our friends were on that bus, but we had no way of knowing how bad they were injured or if they were injured at all,” Person said.
The goal of each busload of freedom riders was the same. Each trip followed the U.S. Supreme Court decision called The Boynton v. Virginia. The nation’s highest court reinforced the law that passengers on public transportation could not be racially segregated. The ruling went so far as to say the practice was unconstitutional. Even though it was law, many public transportation systems in the south still separated passengers by race.
Jessica Epperson is the park ranger for the National Freedom Riders Monument and says education is the goal of the monument.
“We want people to really want to learn about the Freedom Rides,” she said. “These topics are covered in schools, but can often be glossed over due to lack of resources and lack of knowledge of the subject. And so what we really want to do is help educate the public and help provide educational resources so that kids and parents and everyone really walks away of a understanding of really what took place here.”
Today, Anniston has a national monument dedicated to the event that has an exhibit and historical markers. The National Monument held a virtual Luminary Lighting event in Anniston Alabama on May 14. The Lighting event featured the cast from the Freedom Riders the Civil Rights musical and the Anniston High School Choir who all sang songs to honor the Riders.
The Freedom Rides would continue throughout May of 1961. On May 20, another busload of activists at the Montgomery bus station was met by large white mob of hundreds. Media members were attacked and then the mob moved onto the Riders. Several would be injured before the violence ended.
“Had it not been for the Freedom Rides, you certainly wouldn’t had this major Civil Rights campaign in terms of the boycott and its influence on the movement, kind of jumpstarting and getting it more energized,” Dorothy Walker, who is the site director of the Freedom Rider Museum, said. “But you would have still had interstate travel still segregated.”
Walker said very few individuals were held accountable for this violence or the property damage. Even so, these actions played a pivotal role in changing customs in the Deep South.
Despite the gains over the last six decades, many would argue that many inequalities still exists when it comes to racial equality.
Bernard Simelton is the President of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP. He said there is still a lot of work to be done in Alabama when it comes to issues around race equality. The Criminal Justice system is among the highest of priorities.
“We must have a criminal justice system that looks at everyone that looks at everyone as equal that commits a crime or is involved with the criminal justice system. That they are treated the same,” Simelton said.
Simelton wants the entire system to be fair from the engagement with a police officer to when someone is incarcerated in an Alabama prison system. Besides the criminal justice system, Simelton also said there’s ongoing need for Medicaid expansion and education access for Black and rural communities. There’s also the removal of confederate monuments, which often remind Black individuals of a depressive state in the south.
Person survived an attack and harassment during his rides in Alabama 60 years ago and said there’s still hope when it comes to changing racial disparities.
“I am encouraged by the young people. I think they are doing a wonderful job in highlighting the issues of the day. I am impressed by the numbers, we never got the kind of numbers they got," he said. "I love the diversity. You know we had a few dedicated whites who helped us. But when you look at the young people today their diversity is superb.”