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Remembering the Freedom Rides 50 years later

In 1961, riders black and white headed South to test the region's segregation laws. Things turned violent in Alabama. Fifty years later, cities along the route are marking the rides with exhibit, murals and a new museum.

April 24, 2011|By Larry Bleiberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A Greyhound bus that carried Freedom Riders burns after being set ablaze by Ku Klux Klan members in 1961.
A Greyhound bus that carried Freedom Riders burns after being set ablaze… (Joseph Postiglione / Birmingham )

Reporting from Montgomery, Ala. — As the bus leaves Atlanta, Dennis Climpson is eager for conversation. He wants to talk about college football this Sunday morning, but I have a question for him. "Have you ever heard of the Freedom Rides?" I ask.

Fifty years ago next month, a group of 15 passengers travels the same route. Like us, they were blacks and whites sitting together on buses, then a violation of segregation laws. Climpson, 48, says he hasn't heard of the protests, but he's intrigued. As Interstate 20 passes by, he turns to his smartphone to check Wikipedia.

In 1961, Charles Person was 18 and the youngest of the Freedom Riders, who were traveling on two buses to New Orleans from Washington, D.C. The Georgia native still remembers crossing into Alabama that Mother's Day. "There was tension. It was kind of eerie."

Person expected to be harassed and roughed up as the group tested compliance with federal integration laws, but he didn't imagine much worse. "This was broad daylight," he says.

Later that day, members of the Ku Klux Klan would set fire to one bus and beat riders on the other with pipes, chains and bats. Over the next week, the world would watch as the Kennedy administration struggled to protect the protesters.

The racial violence shocked — and changed — America.

Today you can retrace the Freedom Rides easily by car or bus. The Alabama cities on the route are marking the anniversary with murals, exhibits and a new museum. It's a leisurely tour of the Deep South, where you'll find gracious hosts, good food and stark reminders of a not-so-distant past.

Climpson, who is bound for Jackson, Miss., to start a new truck-driving job, can't believe what he's reading on his phone.

"Anniston, Ala.?" he asks, pointing to the screen. "I thought that was a quiet town."

Half a century ago, when the Greyhound bus carrying some of the Freedom Riders pulled into Anniston, in the foothills of the Appalachians, a crowd awaited. Klan members pummeled the vehicle and slashed its tires. It limped away 20 minutes later, and a convoy of cars followed. Six miles later, the bus stopped with a flat.

Bernard Emerson still lives on a hill overlooking the spot, which now bears a historic marker. Someone had tossed burning rags through a smashed bus window. "The smoke was getting pretty thick," he recalls. "One lady was coming out of the window. She got her foot caught, and she was kind of hanging there."

Anniston, a town of 23,000, has only recently acknowledged the incident, commissioning murals and detailed exhibit signs at its former bus stations, two blocks from the current stop. I took a layover for a few hours to look around and eventually found my way to a converted Woolworth's, now a restaurant called Classic on Noble. Its Sunday brunch recalls a Southern country club buffet: more than 100 offerings, including fried green tomatoes, grits, shrimp salad, beef tenderloin and a dessert counter with 26 pies, cobblers and cakes. The after-church crowd is predominately white, but a few black guests feast too.

"We're a nice town," the hostess tells me. "We have a dark past, but we've overcome it."

When the second bus reached Anniston in 1961, a pair of Klansmen boarded and beat the riders, causing permanent brain damage to one. The Klansmen warned them that worse awaited 60 miles down the road in Birmingham.

"They taunted us all the way," Person says. Still, the wounded protesters stuck to their plan; when they arrived, they headed to the white waiting room in the Trailways bus station.

"The walls were surrounded by a group of men," Person recalls. "As we got toward the center, they started coming toward us."

Person, who had been trained to practice Gandhian nonviolence, was immediately set upon. "Everyone had a chance to punch me," he says. His head was bashed with a pipe. Then a news photographer snapped a picture, distracting Person's attackers. "I just walked out of my jacket," he recalls. "I did not run. I was still under control."

He stepped outside and boarded a city bus. The first Freedom Rides had ended, and Person had escaped with his life.

Birmingham's Trailways station is gone, replaced by a Wells Fargo bank branch and a historic marker. It's one of many civil rights sites in the state's largest city. Visitors also come for the city's music scene, which has produced a handful of "American Idol" finalists, and its restaurants, which regularly garner James Beard Foundation Award nominations.

Buses today arrive a few blocks from the city's designated Civil Rights District. In Kelly Ingram Park, statues of snarling police dogs and water cannons recall the city's violent struggles. The routes of protest marches are now walking tours, marked by signs throughout downtown.

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