Try as it might, Anniston has never escaped the burning bus. We’ve moved on, pushed it aside, acted as if it were nothing more than a minor blip in our past. It was terrible, awful, but so long ago.
But Anniston and its burning bus have never been solely about hate, whites against blacks, the powerful against the often powerless. It’s been about a community in America’s South that exemplified the arc of U.S. civil rights, good eventually triumphing over evil.
That photo, a metal carcass engulfed in flames, is tattooed on this city. Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961. And now, thanks to the signature of President Barack Obama, Anniston has received a gift, a national monument designation for the former Greyhound bus station downtown and the bus-burning site just outside the city limits.
Only three days in Anniston history can compete: Feb. 4, 1879, when the state Legislature issued the city charter; July 18, 1917, when the Army opened then-Camp McClellan; and Sept. 22, 2011, when the city’s final Cold War-era chemical munition was destroyed.
Enjoy this. Remember this. Embrace this.
As darkness fell Thursday evening, former Mayor Vaughn Stewart and I chatted outside City Hall. Stewart was in full VS mode: Smiling like a proud father, championing the city, praising the work of the many whose fingerprints are smeared on this project. I reminded him that a smattering of Annistonians have long wished the Freedom Riders’ trip through this city would be left in the past, a faint remnant for historians. The bus burning, the feeling goes, is bad for business. Why pick the scab? I’ve heard that sentiment for years.
Stewart didn’t shy away. “There may be some of us who don’t want to put it on the front door, but it’s on the front door,” he said, and then he compared it to Anniston’s “elephant in the room,” seen but not discussed. Hogwash. Instead, “You go ahead and address it and turn it into something positive.”
Today, Anniston’s narrative reads this way:
A military and industrial city spurned by the Army and its founding industries, a city once marked by racial divisions and violence and inequality, a city reduced in population but now bolstered by competent leadership and residents of all races who care. More important, a city that can serve as a national model for the inhumanity of racial hate and the repentant grace that comes afterward.
What a responsibility. What an opportunity.
The national monument designation, Stewart explained, “ensures that the legacy of that awful day of Mother’s Day 1961 is turned into something positive, an educational tool for future generations.”
Unsaid in Thursday’s euphoria is this message for those who may wish the city didn’t own these constant reminders of its past: the commemoration of America’s civil rights story doesn’t hide Anniston. It shouts it. Entire galleries at Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute are devoted not only to the Freedom Riders, but also to Anniston and its bus. It’s a marriage that can’t be dissolved.
The coward’s way would have been to cede the story of May 14, 1961, to Memphis and Birmingham and the historians but whitewash it from our streets. Be grateful that such ignorance didn’t take root. Thank goodness, too, that hundreds of Calhoun Countians turned out in October for a community meeting to show their support for Anniston’s Freedom Riders sites.
Instead of hiding from our past, a roster of people — Stewart, Pete Conroy, state Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, and others — saw an opportunity and wouldn’t let it perish. Thank them profusely. They saw a better Anniston, a mature Anniston, and wanted this city to be a small part of America’s education about race and reconciliation. Their persistence and a favorable opinion from Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, have allowed Anniston to do what Stewart said, to turn an awful day into something positive.
In this city, where post-Fort McClellan recovery remains incomplete, that can’t be oversold.