For many across the globe, photographs of that Sunday afternoon told Anniston’s tale. It’s a mistake, however, to let one moment in time define a city.
This week, Anniston is embarking on a week-long remembrance of the fateful day. Historic photographs will be unveiled. A splendid PBS documentary will be screened. Freshly painted murals will be admired. Stories will be retold, the bravery of the Freedom Riders, black and white, will be honored.
It should be a grand time.
Yet, some may ask a simple question.
Fifty years ago, some of the worst elements of the civil rights moment tried to solidify the Jim Crow South in Anniston. They ultimately failed. The same Freedom Riders who weren’t attacked in other Southern states met the blunt, mean hand of racism in the Calhoun County seat. Here, on city streets in those towns, men found joy in beating and kicking and fire-bombing human beings because they dared shout no to segregation.
Other civil rights incidents wounded Anniston, of course. But through it all, through the courage of those wise souls, both black and white, who saw the value of equality in America, Anniston’s streets didn’t burn with the racial violence seen elsewhere. In that sense, Anniston persevered.
To ignore the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders would be to ignore part of Anniston’s soul, and to say the past didn’t matter. That would be a grievous error. Cities, like humans, can’t exist in a vacuum where precedent is packed away, never studied. Instead, cities must examine who they are, where they came from, and how their aged successes and failures led to their current path.
It is a learning process, a chance to be better tomorrow than we are today. Yes, we can thank the surviving Freedom Riders for their valor as we deplore the hatred of those who hurled insults and threw fists. But we can also say this: Anniston isn’t defined by a racial attack 50 years ago.
It takes but a few mouse clicks to find Mother’s Day 1961 on the Internet. Archived front pages in far-flung towns, in Ohio and California, in New York and across Europe, carried Anniston’s story that spring. Then, Mother’s Day mobs and burning buses were front-page news.
This week offers the opportunity to update that story. To remind that Anniston 2011 is not the Anniston of 1961.
That’s why it is wholly right to honor the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders’ Anniston saga. Ignoring a vital part of the city’s past leads to misinterpretations and a civic reputation soiled by the hatred of a few.
This anniversary can change that, and should.