The sun beamed down on Gurnee Avenue Wednesday as around 100 people gathered to mark the 57th anniversary of the freedom rides that trekked through Anniston.
The event was another reunion — at least by phone — for Janie Forsyth McKinney and Hank Thomas, who first met on Mother’s Day 1961.
That day, Thomas and six other Freedom Riders came through Anniston as part of their journey from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans to test enforcement of a 1960 Supreme Court case that ruled segregation in public interstate travel unconstitutional.
When they arrived at Anniston’s Greyhound station on Gurnee, the riders were confronted by an angry mob of whites. The bus managed to get just west of the city before a slashed tire forced it to stop, according to accounts by Thomas and other riders.
There, just in front of Forsyth and Son Grocery, the mob firebombed the bus.
Forsyth McKinney, then only 12, watched the scene unfold and felt she had to act. She grabbed a bucket from inside her house and brought water and cups to the riders, all of whom had inhaled smoke and many of whom were burned.
Now, nearly six decades later, May 14 has been declared “Freedom Riders’ Day,” in the city, and, at Thomas’ request, Forsyth McKinney has been proclaimed “the Angel of Anniston.”
“We thank you so much for what you’ve done,” Anniston City Councilman David Reddick said after reading the proclamation, dated May 16, which calls the city “an early symbol of the civil rights movement.”
“Life is about moments,” Reddick said. “And when the time comes, you have to seize the moment, and that’s what both Hank and Janie did.”
Forsyth McKinney told the crowd by phone that as a proclaimed “Angel of Anniston,” she feels like she’s moved up a rung.
“I think I just got a promotion,” she said. “I really appreciate this honor. I never thought I would be recognized so widely. I was just a little tomboy who felt like I had to do the right thing.”
Thomas, who also spoke to the crowd by phone, said on Mother’s Day all those years ago, Janie Forsyth earned that promotion, and brought out the best of Anniston.
“She will forever, of course, be an angel in my heart and the angel to all of us Freedom Riders,” he said. “She did what the Lord has commanded all Christians to do. When you see one of his children suffering, when you see someone in need of water, give it to them. God bless you, Janie, and may the City of Anniston be forever grateful for you because you brought out what was the best of this city.”
The Freedom Riders National Monument was established in January 2017 by President Barack Obama during his final days in office. The site includes both the old Greyhound Station and the roadside location of the firebombing.
Pete Conroy, director of Jacksonville State University's Environmental Policy and Information Center and an advocate for the national monument, said that organizers are hoping to staff the site with volunteers on Saturdays as soon as possible. Conroy also said that the site has acquired the building next door to the old Greyhound station. That building, he said, will eventually be used as a welcome center, freeing up the old station to be renovated back to its 1961 condition, including its segregated entrances.
“This will really allow us to expand and let people know that Anniston is a place where history was changed,” Conroy said.
For Hank Thomas and Janie Forsyth McKinney, that’s certainly a truth that everyone should know.
“This monument to me is akin to the cemetery at Normandy,” Thomas said as the sun set over Gurnee. “The French people decided immediately it was the right thing to do to pay tribute to the soldiers that had fallen. It may have taken a while, but the State of Alabama has done the same thing. You have to pay homage. You have to pay tribute.”