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An apology on the scene

Freedom Rider hears tearful contrition at commemorative event

Freedom Riders saturday

Park Ranger Kathryn Gardiner talks to Tommy Wilson from Talladega about the events during the Freedom Riders 60th anniversary event in Anniston. 

A family made amends for a 60-year-old crime at Saturday’s Freedom Riders anniversary event on Gurnee Avenue in Anniston. 

Charles Person, an original Freedom Rider and author of a new book, “Buses Are a Comin': Memoir of a Freedom Rider,” was approached by a local woman and her husband near the end of the three-hour event. The woman told Person her father had been one of the men who perpetrated violence against passengers on the bus 60 years ago, and with tears in her eyes she apologized to Person for what happened. Minutes later, she met Person’s daughter, Keisha Person, and spoke with her as well. 

The public event, where visitors were invited to tour the former bus station, was held downtown as part of the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Other recognition had taken place Friday in private ceremonies and via online video services to encourage social distancing. 

Event organizer Pete Conroy, a director of environmental policy at Jacksonville State University but also involved in the filming of a documentary about the Freedom Riders, said the moment Saturday between Person and the couple was immense. 

“There was not a dry eye to be found,” Conroy said. The woman pointed out her father in a photo of Person being attacked at the Trailways bus station in Birmingham, he later added by text message. 

The woman and her husband kindly asked not to be named or photographed in this story.

Such an event seemed to underline words that Keisha, 34, had spoken in an interview just a few minutes beforehand, standing beside the Greyhound Bus mural in an alley across from Downing’s. 

She had first started to truly understand her father’s civil rights contributions in 2011, during the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, when he was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and a reenactment of the Rides was held, and they attended the dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. 

Growing up the child of a Rider was a little odd, sometimes — not many other Atlanta schoolchildren would see their dad’s photo in history textbooks, and he was once her Black History Month project. 

Asked her feelings on racial progress in America, contrasting growth since her father’s day with present-day struggles after the murder of George Floyd and shooting death of Breonna Taylor, she urged people not to ignore the past, even if it is painful — advice someone would follow only minutes later in connecting with her father. 

“I think society has changed, though we don’t want to look back because it can be uncomfortable, but we still have a lot to learn from the past,” Keisha said. “As we see things repeating, we have to learn from people still living, who are still continuing the fight.” 

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.