Yet, Anniston is unquestionably part of the state’s civil rights story. Its story needs to be told — accurately, of course. That’s why this week, with the city honoring the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, is no insignificant event.
It’s also why Anniston should pursue its heritage tourism opportunities with gusto.
This week is offering proof that interest in Anniston’s civil-rights sites isn’t a figment of historians’ fertile imaginations. The interest is genuine.
What’s more, Anniston’s story is so much more than the violence displayed on Mother’s Day 1961, when white supremacists beat a biracial group of Freedom Riders at one bus stop and firebombed another group on the town’s outskirts.
Anniston’s story is one that ultimately shows what a small, Southern town can do to derail racial hatred at a time when staunch segregation was the law of the land. It’s a story that Americans interested in learning from these pivotal moments should know.
And here, on these streets, is where they can learn it best.
Author Frye Gaillard, in Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail: An Illustrated Guide to the Cradle of Freedom, has written of Anniston’s slot in the state’s often-violent racial history. Sometimes, his words aren’t kind. But he’s remarkably adept at explaining the value of the state’s past.
It’s not crass exploitation of an asset. It’s a chance to educate and empower visitors to a city — if not an entire region — that can’t be defined by one singular, violent event.
“What makes the experience of traveling to Alabama so powerfully evocative is also comparing the past to the present,” Gaillard writes. “Alabama has made so much progress in race relations — to an extent beyond imagination just a generation ago — and yet Alabama and America is not finished fulfilling its promise.”
It’s encouraging that this community is slowly moving in the proper direction with its civil-rights trail. The bus-burning mural in an alley adjacent to the former Greyhound station on Gurnee Avenue will become an instant attraction. Trail stops on West 15th Street and the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County add detail.
So, too, would a civil-rights museum — if it rises from any of the proposals floating around downtown Anniston. Councilman Ben Little has long sought a museum at the old Chalk Line site. Last week, city planners unveiled a conceptual master plan that included using the former Anniston Land Co. building — which should be preserved — to house a museum. That idea seems sound, as long as preservationists’ concerns about downtown’s historic district are given just due.
If it needs a guide, Anniston can look at any number of Alabama towns that are using heritage tourism to their benefit, both economically and culturally. It’s an obvious market the city should tap. It also would help tell a valuable story that needs a larger audience.