H. Brandt Ayers: Redemption — How the shock of the bus burning became a spur to action
May 11, 2011 | 4419 views |  0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Yes, on Mothers Day 1961 a mob of white thugs burned a Freedom Riders bus and beat some of its occupants on the outskirts of Anniston, but that isn’t the whole story.

Within a year, a gathering consensus of civic leadership resulted in the election of a City Commission majority pledged to creating a pioneer bi-racial Human Relations Council, but that isn’t the whole story either.

These were early skirmishes in a longer war; the civil rights movement was in fact a civil war whose result was to bring down an historic civilization and replace it with a better one.

A war of civilizations is not settled in a year. There would be many battles, and casualties; no city or town in the South was spared, and no single conflict defined its people until the triumph of justice became clear 10 years later.

But that is another, longer story. We are focused now on how the forces of good and evil organized and revealed themselves before, during and soon after the bus burning.

A special advantage held by Anniston was a liberal spirit bequeathed by the two founding families, the Nobles and Tylers, who actually lived here with their families and wanted to raise their children in a model city.

By 1961, serious civic leaders had seen the gathering civil rights storms — 1954, Brown v Board of Education; 1955, Montgomery bus boycott; 1957, Little Rock Central High School; 1960, lunch counter sit-in movement — and were already talking about reaching out to the black community.

The same roll call of events gave black leaders reason to believe change was possible — and where there is hope, men are roused to action.

Anniston’s dominant civil rights leader, the Rev. N. Q. Reynolds of 17th Street Baptist Church, and the Rev. Bob McClain of New Haven Methodist Church, who had been rebuffed by white Methodist colleagues, sensed a wise and accepting heart in the pastor of First Presbyterian, the Rev. Dr. Phillip Noble.

Reynolds called Noble requesting an appointment, to which Noble readily agreed, and the two black ministers met with him in his office.

Within days, Reynolds suggested a meeting at his church for black and white ministers “to talk.” Noble and the Rev. Alvin Bullen of Grace Episcopal became spiritual astronauts, exploring a universe new to them: a culture that was sealed off from every normal opportunity in the white world.

As a result of those meetings, the separate religious bodies merged into an integrated Ministerial Association, which began to speak out, advocating racial calm and comity, views carried to the community by The Star.

The association’s statements had no more immediate effect than Christian Muzak. It was the shock of the bus burning that was a spur to action.

Miller Sproull, a respected businessman, announced his campaign for city commissioner, pledging to create a biracial Human Relations Council. This was a time when such a bland proposal was tantamount to defaming the sacraments. It was a step toward erasing the mutually understood social and legal line that had kept the two cultures apart.

Sproull was elected on April 10, 1962 — less than a year after the terrible events out on Highway 202. Elected with him was Mayor Claude Dear, who aligned himself with the forces of change. Jack Suggs, an avowed segregationist, was elected Police Commissioner. The majority favoring change in the racial status quo couldn’t take office until the fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 1962.

The following spring, May of 1963, Anniston civic leaders would feel the aftershocks of the troubles shaking their 19th century sibling, Birmingham.

Hundreds of black students had surged around Kelly Ingram Park, met by Bull Connor’s police dogs lunging at children and fire hoses sending them tumbling like fallen leaves — images of incalculable value to civil rights.

An elder of Anniston’s First Presbyterian Church, E.L. Turner Jr., had been in Birmingham on business. At a meeting of the church’s governing body, the session, he spoke about conditions in the Steel City and asked that the body be led in prayer that Anniston would avoid a similar tragedy.

After prayer led by Phil Noble, further discussion resulted in a motion that the session endorse a Human Relations Council for Anniston.

The immediate cause of action came on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1963 — an echo of the violent Mother’s Day of 1961 — when the tranquility of the holiday was interrupted in late afternoon by a phone call to Noble from Miller Sproull.

The commissioner’s news was about shotgun blasts, with no loss of life, fired into the homes of two black families and St. John’s Methodist Church in south Anniston. He went on to say the Commission wanted Noble to chair the biracial committee.

On May 14, the Commission met and Sproull announced that the Chamber of Commerce had voted to establish the Human Relations Council. Two letters were read endorsing its creation, one from the rector, wardens and vestry of Grace Episcopal Church, and another from the Ministerial Association.

On May 16, 1963, the Commission appointed a nine-man Human Relations Council of five whites and four blacks, with Phil Noble as chairman. It included such validating names as Marcus Howze of Commercial Bank, textile magnate Leonard Roberts and The Star’s executive editor, Wilfred Galbraith, who was also an attorney. Black members included prominent ministers Reynolds and McClain, and businessman Raleigh Byrd.

The city’s founding ideal was showing resilience.

Anniston’s decision was rare enough to merit a letter from President John F. Kennedy, which Miller Sproull read to the Commission. The president wrote, “It seems to me this is a most significant action by the city government and one that offers great hope for permitting legitimate racial problems to be identified and considered in a calm and orderly manner. I hope that the Council will provide the city of Anniston with a means of communication between the races and that its efforts will be fruitful. Your action is a sensible one, and one that should serve as a model for the United States.”

The Council set about its work, erasing racial signs at public drinking fountains, toilets and separate waiting rooms at doctors’ offices. But Birmingham and Anniston would be paired in racial tragedy again on Sunday, Sept. 16.

That morning, four little girls primping for Sunday School were eviscerated by a Klan dynamite blast that collapsed a corner of the 17th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

That afternoon, in Anniston, with agreement from members of the biracial Council, a majority of the Commission and the library board, Carnegie Library was to be quietly integrated by McClain and Reynolds.

The two ministers got halfway up the walk when they were set upon by a mob. Reynolds was knocked down and stabbed from behind. Somehow the two men broke free and fled on foot until a passing car picked them up.

Shocked but calm, white leaders huddled that evening with Mayor Dear at Sproull’s house and agreed that the library would be integrated the next day.

As Phil Noble put it and library board chairman Charlie Doster agreed, “We had to make crystal clear to the citizens of Anniston, and especially to the hoodlums, that the city was not going to be run by hoodlums!”

At 3:30 the next afternoon, Doster led a delegation of prominent citizens that accompanied McClain and the Rev. G.E. Smitherman, in place of the injured Reynolds, into the library, guarded by a substantial police presence.

Of course, the story did not end there. There would be dark days ahead, racist rallies, a Klan march, a nightrider murder, a police sit-down strike amidst a near Watts level riot …

But the main storyline is this: In the continuing struggle of reason against reaction, reason won, because of levelheaded white and black leadership. The story of Anniston in the civil rights movement is a success story.

Brandt Ayers is publisher of The Star. He credits many facts in this analysis to the book Beyond the Burning of the Bus by the Rev. Dr. Phillip Noble.
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