“In my life in those past 50 years, any time I’ve run up against an obstacle in business or what have you, I said, ‘I survived Anniston,’” Thomas said.
Later that night, Thomas was welcomed back to Anniston with the open arms of the son of a man who tried to kill him a half century ago.
“I’m sorry for the hurt that was caused, but I praise God for the blessing that has come out of this, that Anniston is not the same town that you saw 50 years ago. Our hearts are not the same hearts,” said Richard Couch, whose father, Jerome Couch, received probation for his role in the bus burning.
Couch walked forward and hugged Thomas.
The scene of reconciliation, at the Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County, was witnessed by dozens of people — including 40 college students from across the nation and several other surviving Freedom Riders. They had all assembled to commemorate the event which helped mark a turning point in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Lining the walls of the library were the vivid images of Anniston Star photographer Joseph Postiglione who documented the burning bus, the passengers emerging from the bus choking and gasping for air, those same passengers knocked to the ground by the crowd that had chased them from the bus station. But the crowd in the library defied the images as they joined hands, black, white, Hispanic, Asian and Native American to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
The unity was one step in a long journey that Anniston has taken to overcome the hatred displayed five decades ago on that Mothers Day.
The bus burning brought to the surface a truth that had been buried and ignored — the repression of black residents.
“When I was growing up, you knew what was going on, but you accepted it because you had to accept it,” said Lula Palmore, whose husband serves as an Anniston councilman. “It was a way of life.”
Palmore described having to go to the back door of white people’s homes. She talked about the segregated bathrooms, the separate water fountains, one for whites and the other, set much lower, for blacks. She believes it was set low like an animal’s water bowl because the whites viewed her as an animal.
Palmore was 11 years old when the bus was burned in Anniston.
“I don’t remember very much about it, but I remember my mother and aunt and all sitting around talking about it, being angry about it,” Palmore said. “Just hearing them talk, it was not a very good feeling. It was eerie and scary.”
Maudine Holloway remembers marching the streets of Anniston, protesting because white business owners would not hire blacks.
Phil Noble Jr., whose father wrote Beyond the Burning Bus, about Anniston’s civil rights movement, said the bus burning made the movement very personal.
“It was a part of my family; it was a part of my city; it was a part of my life,” Noble said. “To most people you’d watch the news or you’d read the news, but it’s a very weird perspective to a nine- and ten-year-old kid (to) see those around you as the news.”
In 1961, the Freedom Riders were on a mission to test a Supreme Court decision that desegregated travel facilities.
“I was in pursuit of my American dream,” Thomas said.
What he found was a violent backlash from Southern white Americans. Thomas said he understands them better now — they were trying to protect their way of life. The students may not understand the depth of the Freedom Riders’ commitment or the fear and hatred of the white men who attacked them, but they are learning.
The students who attended the ceremony at the library were chosen from hundreds of students who applied for the opportunity to retrace the steps of the 1961 Freedom Rides, and come face to face with history.
They are examining how far America has come in its struggle for equality for all. But they also know how far it has to go.
Mary Mgboleo, who lives in Tucson and attends the University of Arizona, said she wanted to go on the trip because of the racial issues she has seen in her home state.
“I think everybody’s aware of what’s been going on in Arizona and the anti-immigration reform and the issues,” Mgboleo said. “It kind of reminds me a lot of the civil rights movement, you know. It used to be a black and white issue but I think today I see it as more of like it should be everyone’s issue.”
Collis Crews, a student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, said he was inspired to go on the trip by an ancestor’s experiences as a black sharecropper.
“My great grandfather was from Mississippi and I’ve just heard so many stories from my mother about him,” Crews said. “I just remember going to see him and even though he presented himself as a joyous, very lively person, he was a man of his community, you could still kind of see the pain and suffering in his face and in his eyes.”
Sarah Cheshire, a student from Oberlin College in Ohio, said she thinks racism, while not overt, is still ingrained in the American society. She wanted to find out where the country is today in relation to where it was 50 years ago.
“That’s why I got on this bus,” Cheshire said. “I definitely think that it still exists. I don’t know if it still exists in the same form as it did 50 years ago, but it definitely has an institutionalized value and it definitely is something we should be constantly working to deconstruct.”
Anniston’s path of healing started almost immediately after the bus burning.
“I think the leadership, black and white leadership of Anniston came together and said, ‘There must be a better way to handle this,’” Holloway said.
The city’s leaders came together and created the biracial Human Relations Council and set out to desegregate a city long divided by race and to try to do it peacefully. It led to a stunning change, Noble said.
“I think the fundamental difference that set Anniston apart from other places is that the indigenous leadership said ‘We are going to deal with our problems ourselves,’” Noble said. “They didn’t shirk that responsibility. They embraced that as difficult and as painful as it was.”
There was some violence, of course. A radio station was bombed. People were shot and beaten trying to exercise their rights. Someone planted a smoke bomb in Rose’s after it desegregated its lunch counter. But the city moved forward.
Then in 1965, Palmore and her friend Alberta McCrory had their first lunch at Rose’s lunch counter.
“We went to Rose’s and we sat down at the counter and we ate,” Palmore said, smiling as she remembered. “It still wasn’t accepted, but there wasn’t anything they could do about it. We got the ugly stares, but we stayed there and we finished our meal. It was something that made us proud.”
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.