MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Arriving to a hero's welcome Saturday, Ed Blankenheim said he still recalls the hatred on the faces of the men and women who surrounded and burned his bus in Alabama 40 years ago.
Blankenheim, 67, one of the original Freedom Riders, rode in a bus caravan Saturday re-creating the event. He broke down in tears at a Birmingham museum when he saw a replica of the Greyhound bus that had been firebombed in Anniston.
"Everything came back to me--the ugliness, the hate," Blankenheim said. "There were women there with babies in their arms screaming, 'Roast those niggers.' People were coming from church on Mother's Day to participate in an honest-to-God lynching."
About 150 people, including eight original Freedom Riders, left Atlanta on Saturday morning to retrace part of the historic route where violent mobs of segregationists had awaited them in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery.
The reception was much different this time. About 200 people filled a Montgomery church to honor the Freedom Riders with hymns and speeches at the end of Saturday's journey. It was the same church in which the Freedom Riders sought refuge in 1961 from a furious white mob.
"I'm here in this church to welcome you and not out at the city limits with an angry mob," Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright said.
In Birmingham 40 years ago, police looked the other way while Freedom Riders were viciously beaten. On Saturday, the buses received a police escort.
"The times they are a-changing," said Hank Thomas, who was also on the bus that was burned in Anniston. "I just hope this means blacks and whites in Alabama will hate each other no more."
Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid, who is black, greeted the Freedom Riders when they arrived there and said he owes his political success to the blood they shed.
"We know the hate you faced 40 years ago," he said. "I realize full well that I stand squarely on your shoulders."
The Freedom Riders, mostly college students, set out in May 1961 to ride from Washington to New Orleans to test a Supreme Court ruling banning racial segregation on interstate public transportation. At segregated bus stations, black riders tried to use white waiting rooms and bathrooms, while whites tried to use facilities set aside for blacks.
As the riders were beaten and arrested along the way, hundreds more joined the campaign. Eventually more than 1,000 people took part.
The commemorative trip to Birmingham and Montgomery was bittersweet for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader of the original Freedom Riders. Standing in the Birmingham bus station, Lewis described what happened when they arrived in Montgomery four decades ago.
"We started off the bus and stepped down the steps. It was so quiet it was eerie. Then the mob came out of nowhere. First they turned on the press, then on us, and we were beaten," he said.
Riding along Interstate 65 between Birmingham and Montgomery, Charles Person looked at the passing Alabama countryside and remembered what he saw when he looked out the bus window in 1961.
"There were people out there along the road and they were shaking their fists at the bus," said Person, a retired Marine who was an 18-year-old college student when he decided to become a Freedom Rider.
Person said he was surrounded by Ku Klux Klansmen and beaten when he got off the bus in Birmingham. He said he was so shaken he jumped on a city bus, leaving his suitcase and coat at the station.
"I said, 'Just take me somewhere,' " he recalled.