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Mon October 27, 2003
Beyond the Burning Bus
The mob, which had followed in a convoy, attacked, burned the bus, and beat, brutally, the riders who fled the flames.
By Don Noble
Various Deep South communities in the nineteen fifties and sixties earned their infamous places on the Civil Rights Trail in different ways. Money, Mississippi we know as the site of the Emmett Till murder. Philadelphia, Mississippi is famous for the murder of the civil rights workers Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman. Selma, Alabama has the most famous bridge of the era. Birmingham was immortalized by Bull Connor and his dogs and fire department.
On Mother?s Day, May 14, of 1961, Anniston starred on the national news when a Greyhound bus, filled with Freedom Riders?those who were testing the new anti-discrimination laws in interstate travel?was attacked in the Anniston terminal, where tires were slashed and many windows broken. The driver and riders then fled town and made it six miles west on Highway 202 before flat tires forced them to stop. The mob, which had followed in a convoy, attacked, burned the bus, and beat, brutally, the riders who fled the flames.
A photo of the burning bus was published nationally and may be, indeed surely is, the most famous photograph ever taken in Anniston, Alabama. A second bus pulled into the depot an hour later and the riders were beaten there, too, but the image of the day was the burning bus on 202.
Where were the police during all this, you may wonder? Many did at the time. It seems they were scrupulously elsewhere. Many in Anniston were horrified. The Presbyterian Reverend Phil Noble, no relation, tells us that members of the business community were concerned, thinking such an image would have a negative effect upon future businesses and industries that might otherwise have considered locating in Anniston.
That seems sensible. More idealistically, however, the Board of Commissioners in 1963 authorized the creation of a bi-racial Human Relations Council, of which Phil Noble was the first chairman. This council of nine men, five white and four black, would meet in unannounced, unpublicized locations. They opened up lines of communication and, putting themselves and their families in considerable real danger, moved Anniston toward integration and away from violence.
This committee, many of whom were preachers, knew that utterly peaceful change was unlikely, but they were determined to bring about integration as quickly and smoothly as possible. They began with the signs?whites only, colored only?above public water fountains and restrooms. They moved on to persuade the variety stores to quietly integrate the lunch counters, to avoid the frictions made famous in Greensboro, North Carolina. Later, the movie theaters, some restaurants, and the municipal golf course were integrated.
Progress was steady and mostly peaceful until September 16, 1963, coincidentally the same day as the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham. On this Sunday, two black ministers attempted to check out books from the Anniston Public Library. This was too much for the Klan?mysteriously, inexplicably, the library was very dear to the hearts of the KKK members?go figure?and having been tipped off, probably by a policeman, a mob beat the Reverends Nimrod Reynolds and Robert McClain.
Anniston was not a stress-free paradise, to be sure; there were some beatings and even some shootings. But as the Rev. Noble tells us with some pride, with steady support from the local paper, the Star , and the ongoing efforts of the Human Relations Council, there was less than there might have been, less than in many other places. The process was peaceful enough to draw congratulations from Robert Kennedy and a phone call of praise from President John F. Kennedy.
Now, more than thirty years later, J. Phillips Noble has written this short piece of memoir/history, given us yet another piece of the total picture of the Movement. His motive? Not to attract attention and praise for his bravery, although it was considerable, but rather to give readers a chance to see something of Anniston ?beyond the burning bus.?
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.