But, as 12-year-old Janie Forsyth, she became part of local civil rights lore by committing a simple act of kindness.
She took water to the victims of the 1961 Freedom Riders bus burning in Anniston.
“I wanted to know what was going on, and when I heard people suffering, I couldn’t stand it,” she said. “I’d been saved, and I believed in the idea of the Good Samaritan. You are your brother’s keeper.”
Ku Klux Klan members had attacked the bus at the station in downtown Anniston, but the driver pulled away on a slashed tire. When the bus couldn’t travel any further, the driver was forced to stop just outside of town — at the Forsyth and Son Grocery store owned by Janie’s father.
There, Klan members firebombed the bus; riders escaped from the bus to keep from being burned alive.
McKinney remembers being angry that her neighbors wouldn’t help her minister to the victims.
“They were crawling on my front yard, throwing up and begging for mercy,” she said. “Not helping them was more than I could take.”
McKinney said she was driven by the words of Jesus in what has long been her favorite Bible verse, “… Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
McKinney said Mother’s Day 1961 set a course for the rest of her life. “Going against my community at such a young age put me on an outward path. I didn’t feel like I belonged, like I fit in,” she said. “I believe I was headed on a course out of Anniston anyway, and that sealed it.”
While race relations have improved, McKinney said it’s not enough. “It’s still us and them. I think it’s arrogant of whites to think they can truly understand the depths of the pain blacks went through to get here. This country was built on their backs.”
McKinney is returning to Anniston for this week’s events. Asked what she’d say to residents on this 50th anniversary of the bus burning, she paused in thought before offering this:
“When you get the opportunity to do the right thing against great odds, you have to do it. If you don’t, it will diminish you as a person. On the other hand, if you do it, you can know that you passed at least one hard test, and it helps define you as a stronger person.”
Anthony Cook is managing editor of the Star. Contact him at 256-235-3558.