Freedom Riders Monument

The U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell walks with Freedom Rider Charles Person toward the location of where a Greyhound bus was burned in 1961. Kirsten Fiscus/ The Anniston Star

President Barack Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Washington, D.C. 20500

Mr. President,

Fifty-five years ago, something awful happened here in Anniston, Ala., acts of race-fueled hate and intimidation. But that’s not why we’re writing you today. Instead, it’s to tell you how this small city has started to reconcile its past mistakes and is again committed to becoming a beacon within today’s New South.

Mother’s Day 1961 is one of our city’s darkest moments, perhaps even its worse. A white mob attacked two Freedom Riders’ buses that came our way. The mob firebombed one of the buses. Thank the Lord no one died. But fiery images from that Sunday morning were seen by people all across the globe. Anniston became the city of the burning bus.

That isn’t who we are now. Time, maturity and soul-searching have saved us. In October, when one of your Cabinet members, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, visited our city, she saw first-hand the transformation. She learned what we are and what we have to offer our nation.

“This is a very, very important part of our nation’s painful journey,” Jewell said during her Anniston visit, “so I think it’s important that it be told.”

We wholeheartedly agree with Secretary Jewell’s statement. It is important that this story be told. Two vital Freedom Riders sites remain in the Anniston area. With funding and proper oversight, their potential to inform, teach and promote diversity would be reached. That’s why we’re asking you in these final days of your administration to designate Anniston’s former Greyhound bus station and the bus burning site outside the city limits as official national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Please understand, this request isn’t from a handful of Southern activists. It’s from a community that has emphatically displayed its belief in these sites and their message. The highlight of Jewell and National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis’ recent visit was a public meeting where your representatives saw who we are today. That afternoon will be remembered as one of this city’s most hopeful moments.

One by one, residents told Jewell and Jarvis why they supported this cause. White people and black people, teenagers and the elderly, even small children barely tall enough to reach the microphone. Your representatives heard of this community’s difficult past, its struggle with race and division and segregation, and how it’s overcome much, though not all, of it.

Five years ago, on the bus burning’s 50th anniversary, Anniston’s recovery from that terrible 1961 day began in earnest. We welcomed surviving Freedom Riders, embraced their return and extended a humble hand of apology and love. It is an American story of reconciliation and rebirth, and it is ours.

Your signature calling for national monuments here would allow this generational saga to become an instrument of peace and instruction, which is what it deserves.