Reginald Tiller

Reginald Tiller, superintendent of the Freedom Riders National Monument, speaks about how the burning of a bus in Anniston in 1961 is a story that encourages "tough conversations about history." (Kirsten Fiscus/The Anniston Star)

The “hard truths,” as Reginald Tiller calls them, bring more than uncomfortable discussions. They open doors into America’s soul, some of which we’d prefer to keep hidden. They tell us who we were, and perhaps who we still are.

Americans have so many from which to choose: the humanitarian evil of the Trail of Tears; the beloved Founding Fathers who owned human chattel; the evolving, and often disappointing, views on slavery of Abraham Lincoln, one of our greatest presidents; America’s reprehensible lack of action to take in Jewish refugees during the coming storm of the Holocaust, and the nation’s bloody, eternal struggle with civil rights.

That’s what Tiller, the superintendent of Anniston’s Freedom Riders National Monument and the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, was referencing during his Black History Month speech Tuesday at Jacksonville State University.

“It’s the hard truths that need to be told and retold,” he said. “Black history is American history. Civil rights is American history. We’re embracing cultural events and recognizing them as such with monuments like the one in Anniston and Birmingham.”

Americans too often seek an artificial peace that shuns discussions of the past and claims the modern United States should only look forward. The fallacy of that logic is stunning. It’s the same logic that says America’s desegregated schools prove equality exists between predominantly white school districts and predominantly black ones, which clearly, and sadly, isn’t the case.

Tiller is altogether right that America’s “hard truths” need to be told and retold, and not merely as teaching points or national monuments.

To fully understand Ferguson, Mo., the St. Louis-area city that erupted into months of racially charged violence in 2015, you have to understand how Selma happened. And how Montgomery happened. And how Birmingham happened. And how Greensboro happened. And how the race riots of Tulsa, Okla., and Coalfax, La., and Los Angeles and Orangeburg, S.C., happened. In their own ways, they all occurred when equalities, hatred and political cowardice caused emotions to boil and patience to melt. Violence became the byproduct.

During his speech Tuesday, Tiller offered this narrative about Anniston’s twin memorials to the Freedom Riders: “These two stories are priceless,” he said. “They see the bus mural on the wall, sometimes they leave in tears. They heard about the burning bus but they didn’t know about how emotional it was. People want knowledge about something different.”

Knowledge provides perspective, an ability to understand how our mistakes today can ultimately cause more unrest, more turmoil, even more violence. Man is never perfect, incapable of preventing future mistakes. That’s reason enough to study our errors so we don’t make them again.

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