Sunrise, as it often does on late spring days, illuminated the beauty of the Cheaha Valley on Mother’s Day 1961. Like a newborn, the day carried expectations of church and family celebrations and the relaxation of the week’s grandest time.
Anniston awoke slowly, gently, its Sunday morning routine hard to disrupt.
It was cool, not quite 60 degrees, when dawn broke. Newspaper carriers finished their last routes with The Star’s Sunday edition, the heftiest of the week.
In slippers and robes, subscribers sat down with their morning coffee and were greeted by the day’s headlines. “Laos Peace Pact Signaled by Three Warring Groups,” The Star’s lead story proclaimed. Beneath it were others: “JFK Plans Message for Rally,” “Strife, Plots Tear State Legislature” and “Okay Given Plans Here on Museum.”
In Wellborn, family and friends of teenager Judy Chandler were still ecstatic from the night before, when Judy won the first Miss Wellborn beauty pageant.
On Christine Avenue, the family of prominent Anniston businessman Carter Poland, owner of Poland Soap Works on 10th Street, was in mourning after his sudden death on Saturday. Up the street at Anniston Memorial Hospital, nurses’ Sunday morning workloads were lessened because 29 patients had been released the previous afternoon.
WHMA AM-1390 — “Your Good Music Station” — signed on at 6 with an hour of gospel music. Fifteen minutes of world and national news would soon follow.
Across town, rich families and poor families, black families and white families, rose in seeming unison to ready their Sunday best. Fifteen denominations were represented in the town’s 100 churches, and elders and deacons and priests were preparing each of them for the day’s anticipated Mother’s Day services.
At Anniston Country Club on Highland Avenue, where the monied white residents lounged, nearly 50 golfers would soon arrive for another round of qualifying for the club’s spring invitational. Jim Martin’s 72, shot the day before, was the score to beat.
8:30 a.m.: Expecting a wonderful day
Just before 8:30, churchgoers began trickling in to The Church of St. Michael and All Angels, one of the city’s architectural and spiritual masterpieces. Invoking the mood of the day, St. Michael’s invited mothers and children to be guests of the rector at a Mother’s Day breakfast in the church’s assembly room.
An hour later, the city’s houses of worship resonated with the activity of Sunday School lessons and fellowship hours. Smiles were abundant. Ministers looked over their notes for their coming sermons. They expected big crowds, Easter-like, in a few hours. The day, warming nicely without a cloud in the sky, was evolving with storybook precision: stunning, comforting, inviting. The type of day when families would worship together, lunch together and spend the afternoon doing nothing more than enjoying each other’s company.
On television, Birmingham’s WBRC-6 signed on the air with The Gene Autry Show.
Anniston’s bus stations on Noble Street and Gurnee Avenue were quiet.
10 a.m.: A bus heads for Anniston
At 10 a.m., an aging Greyhound bus left Atlanta for its normal Sunday morning route to Birmingham. It was a holiday morning, so the passenger list was sparse. Of the 14 people on board, seven were Freedom Riders, black and white, who were testing the equality of America’s interstate transit system. Also on board were two journalists and two undercover agents of the Alabama Highway Patrol.
As the bus inched its way through western Georgia, Anniston’s sanctuaries opened their doors. At 10:50, several churches began their Mother’s Day services; others followed at the customary time of 11. The Bible Belt, in full display.
Dr. B. Locke Davis at Parker Memorial Baptist entitled his sermon, “A Christian Home.” At Central Church of Christ at 16th and Noble streets, Pastor Elbert M. Young preached “I Surrender All.” The Rev. J. Phillips Noble of First Presbyterian Church delivered his sermon, “God’s Exceeding Love.” At St. Michael’s, Dr. Earl Ray Hart’s sermon was entitled, “Happiness.”
As Anniston’s spiritual leaders were delivering their weekly messages, 90 miles to the east, another bus, a Trailways bus, was leaving Atlanta for Birmingham. On the bus were seven Freedom Riders. A few seats were occupied by Klansmen. Traveling along were a reporter and photographer from Jet magazine.
On McClellan Boulevard, cooks at Lee’s Drive-In Restaurant hurried to prepare for an expected overflow Mother’s Day crowd. All week, Lee’s owners had advertised 99-cent ½ fried-chicken lunches. Families who took mom out to eat would also receive a free Mother’s Day gift.
Around 11:30, as Anniston’s churches were in full bloom, the Greyhound bus stopped in Tallapoosa, Ga., on the Alabama-Georgia border. Thirty minutes later, it would make its final stop in Heflin, before arriving in Anniston.
The day was getting warmer, as May days tend to do in Calhoun County. Clouds began to form overhead, though no one was expecting any rain.
At noon, Anniston’s churchgoers flowed from the sanctuaries, where they’d heard moving messages by the city’s best pastors and priests. Glen Addie Baptist heard the words of the Rev. Billy Kitchens. At West Side Baptist, the Rev. Durro E. Wood delivered the sermon. The Rev. L.J. Chambliss did the same at West Anniston Baptist Church.
In the early afternoon, workers at the city’s movie theaters readied for the day’s matinees. Golfers at ACC traipsed about the course. Families went to lunch, either at home or at the few open restaurants. Baseball fans who used to follow the Anniston Rams, the city’s minor-league team that disbanded in 1950, went home to listen to the Birmingham Barons on WHMA or watch the Major Leagues’ game of the week: Detroit at the New York Yankees, on WBRC. At Anniston’s churches, pastors regrouped to prepare for night services and the expected large crowds.
On Gurnee Avenue, there was activity at the Greyhound station.
The blinds were lowered. The door was locked. A white sign was taped to the right-hand door’s glass window.
12:50 p.m.: Calm gives way to storm
The lunch hour was ending when the first Freedom Riders bus pulled onto Gurnee Avenue just shy of 1 o’clock. A few people standing on the side of the road watched the bus as it drove through town. Arriving via U.S. 78, it headed north, circled the station and entered the loading area from a back alleyway. No one was around; no ruckus, no police, no commotion. Roy Robinson, the Greyhound Bus Co.’s regional manager, was the first of two people to get off the bus. The Freedom Riders stayed put.
Nearby on Noble Street, people began to arrive at the Calhoun Theater and The Ritz to buy tickets for the afternoon’s matinees. Some of them were soldiers from Fort McClellan, a pleasant and familiar downtown sight on Sunday afternoons. A military-themed double-feature — Korea Patrol and Drums in the Deep South — would begin at 1:40. Return to Peyton Place, starring Carol Lynley and Jeff Chandler, was scheduled at 1:50.
A few blocks away, a crowd of about 50 men emerged as Robinson opened the bus door. Mother’s Day civility disappeared. An 18-year-old Klansman sat down in front of the bus to keep it from escaping. Toughs yelled racial insults at the Freedom Riders. Windows were broken, and someone slashed the bus’ left-front tire. Police arrived, but made no arrests.
Later, Anniston Police Chief J.L. Peek told a Star reporter that he “saw no violation of the law. In all the mob, I did not see a soul I knew, and I know a lot of people.”
Just after 1:30, Peek’s officers moved the mob from the front of the bus and allowed it to continue its trek westward. Patrol cars escorted the bus to the city limits. Cars carrying Klansmen and others followed behind.
Around town, Annistonians went on with their day. Some traveled south to Oxford Lake. Some joined the McClellan soldiers at the movies. Others enjoyed the traditional day of rest: at home, no work, just family and friends. Many looked forward to returning to church later that evening.
Six miles outside town, near Forsyth and Son Grocery on Alabama 202, the driver of the Greyhound bus pulled over to the side of the road, his slashed tire flat. Police officers hadn’t followed that far, but the mob had.
Soon, the second Freedom Riders bus would pull into Anniston.
1:45 p.m.: Violence on our streets
For 45 minutes, the disabled bus starred in a scene of violence and destruction on the city’s western boundary, near Bynum. Undercover agent Ell Cowling, now armed, bravely kept the mob from entering the bus. More windows were broken. Through one of those windows someone tossed burning rags into the bus, which the Riders couldn’t put out.
In less than five minutes, the Riders and the other passengers had all escaped the smoking, burning bus, some through broken windows, others through the main door.
Some lay on the ground, wheezing, gasping for air. Others fretted about the mob, and wondered why patrolmen who’d finally arrived weren’t doing more than they were.
Around 2 p.m., with the Noble Street movie houses doing brisk business, the second Freedom Riders bus pulled into town. It stopped briefly at the Trailways station on Noble. There, Riders nervously got off the bus, bought a few sandwiches at the station’s lunch counter and returned to their seats.
For the next 20 minutes, Klansmen intent on moving the Riders to the back of the bus beat them, hit them in the face, kicked them in the head, and pulled them toward the back rows. Blood flowed. On Mother’s Day, violence was erupting at two separate spots, on two different buses.
By half-past 2, the Greyhound bus on 202 was no longer a bus; it was a scorched, metal shell that wouldn’t make it to Birmingham intact. Black smoke billowed skyward. An ambulance arrived from town and, after tense moments between the ambulance driver and Agent Cowling, took a few of the Riders to Anniston Memorial’s emergency room.
As the Greyhound Riders were at the emergency room, seeking help from reluctant hospital staff and trying to arrange rides out of town, the Trailways Freedom Riders bus began moving toward Birmingham, its Riders beaten but alive.
Golfers at ACC, like movie-goers on Noble Street, were unaware. Though the club’s course was only a mile or two east of downtown, the commotion on Noble Street and out on 202 wasn’t heard on Highland Avenue. The day was gorgeous, the temperature nearing 87. The golfing was good.
At 3 p.m., the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses began its afternoon service. “Maintaining an Honorable Marriage” was the message of presiding minister E.J. Painter.
At 4:15, the Trailways bus with its battered Freedom Riders pulled into the station in Birmingham.
The beatings commenced, again.
5:15 p.m.: A day’s meaning
Their sunny Mother’s Day hardly complete, Annistonians sprang back to life in the evening. The calendar was full. Out at Fort McClellan, the heralded Women’s Army Corps band held its weekly concert at 5:15; all county residents were invited to attend. Workers at the Calhoun Theater cleaned the aisles in preparation for the 6:35 showing. Out at the Midway Drive-In Theater, owner Thomas Coleman hoped for a big crowd for the 7 p.m. showing of All in a Night’s Work, starring Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine. Likewise, the Bama Drive-In was about to open its gates for that night’s Peter Ustinov feature, The Sundowners.
As the sun set on May 14, 1961, there were two Annistons: one in the churches, where spoken words touched the souls of those sitting in the pews. The other was at Anniston Memorial, where the emergency room was filled with Freedom Riders and nurses and FBI agents and police officers. Klansmen and bullies were outside, waiting.
At 7:15, South Side Baptist Church on Constantine Avenue began the first of its week-long revival services. At 7:30, at First Christian Church’s revival, evangelist Faust A. Matthews spoke on “Bringing Truth for Open Hearts.” The Rev. Noble delivered the message “How to Keep Life in Focus” at First Presbyterian. Dr. Davis’ sermon at Parker Memorial was entitled, “Unto a Full-Grown Christian.”
Anniston’s services lasted until after sundown, the flocks twice-churched for the coming week. Residents returned home, where some turned on their televisions for the Sunday night entertainment of Ed Sullivan and Jack Benny on WBRC and Walt Disney and Shirley Temple on WAPI.
Most Freedom Riders, meanwhile, didn’t depart Anniston Memorial until nearly midnight, when rescuers arrived from Birmingham to whisk them to safety. Of the thirteen passengers treated at the hospital, three were admitted. Two of the Freedom Riders remained overnight.
At daybreak the next morning, Star editors were preparing the Monday afternoon edition. Adrenaline flowed in the West 10th Street newsroom. When the press rolled, the front page headline told the story of Mother’s Day 1961: “Mob Rocks, Burns Big Bus In County Racial Incident.” Rightly, The Star heralded Cowling’s bravery: “Investigator Hero In Attack On Bus.”
That afternoon, nine time zones away in Russia, Radio Moscow commented on the Anniston bus burning. Mother’s Day in the city, equally beautiful and horribly violent, had become a global event.
Phillip Tutor is The Star’s commentary editor. This narrative was created using information from Federal Bureau of Investigation files, archives of The Anniston Star and Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Ray Arsenault.