Freedom Riders

The flame of the gas light burns bright as the sun sets on the Freedom Riders Monument on Gurnee Ave. in downtown AnnistonPhoto by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Jacqueline Paddio had passed the site of the Freedom Riders bus burning on Alabama 202 countless times while heading to Word Alive International Outreach in Oxford, where she is an elder.

But not being from Alabama, she wasn’t aware of the stretch of highway’s history. Once she did learn, she said, she felt God was compelling her and her congregation to create an event — a march that would take a symbol of racial hatred and turn it into a call for unity.

“I just felt there was a need for us, as a body of believers, to step in and begin to look at ways to reconcile and restore and heal the community,” Paddio said.

On Mother’s Day in 1961 a bus carrying carrying black and white activists rolled into the bus station on Gurnee Avenue in Anniston, where a mob awaited them. The Freedom Riders, as they were known, were testing a U.S. Supreme Court decision forbidding racial segregation in interstate travel facilities.

The mob of locals slashed the bus’ tires and followed to where it broke down on Alabama 202, 6 miles west of the city. A firebomb was tossed into a window, but the riders managed to escape before flames destroyed the bus. President Barack Obama in January 2017 declared both the former bus station and the bus burning site as Freedom Riders National Monument.

Over the last few months, members of Word Alive have met with politicians, pastors and community members to plan the event Paddio is helping to organize. They call it the Freedom March Celebration. It will start at the monument’s downtown site and end at the site on Alabama 202. There, according to Word Alive pastor Kent Mattox, organizers will pray and present proclamations from lawmakers recognizing the event.

Both Paddio and Mattox said Freedom Rider Hank Thomas and Janie Forsyth McKinney plan to attend the event. McKinney became a part of local civil rights lore at the age of 12 when she offered water to Freedom Riders escaping the burning bus. Her family owned a grocery store near the site of the firebombing.

Efforts to reach Thomas and McKinney were unsuccessful Wednesday.

The Freedom March, planned for May 5, also will include a 5K run. Paddio said organizers have more meetings to conduct before they complete planning, and they could add more aspects to the event.

Whatever the march looks like, Mattox said, organizers hope it serves as something that will help break walls of division based on creed, race and politics that still exist more than 50 years after the bus burning.

“We felt like we were supposed to reconnect with that courage and spirit that the Freedom Riders had — to be willing to sacrifice on many levels to stand for justice and righteousness,” Mattox said. 

Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @DGaddy_Star.

I'm the assistant metro editor for The Anniston Star. I edit, post online stories and write the occasional story.