Anniston’s place in civil rights historical past and reminiscence | Anniston

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ray Arsenault, author of the seminal work Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Our conversation ranged from small talk about our families, Ray’s recent resignation as John Hope Franklin Professor of History at the University of South Florida, to the 60th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, and the National Monument in the old Greyhound bus stop on Gurnee Avenue.

Ray and I met a decade ago as part of our 50th anniversary. He was part of Freedom Rider 2011, a remake of the original rides organized by PBS that coincided with the broadcast of the documentary “Freedom Riders”. True to the original ride, the group of college students, 1961 Freedom Riders, and participants stopped in Anniston. In contrast to 1961, the group was given a warm welcome and visited the two bus pictures on Noble Street and Gurnee Avenue.

I remember this event vividly, not only because it was a moving recognition of that pivotal moment in the civil rights movement and in Anniston’s history, but because it was so drastically different from what I discovered when I moved to Anniston in 2001 .

There were no murals in 2001. There wasn’t even a historical marker on Highway 202 where the bus was burned. There was literally nothing to publicly mention the infamous role our city had played in the history of the civil rights movement. It’s an observation Ray also made on his first visit to Anniston in 2006 when he first brought students to town chase

Fortunately, a lot has changed.

In 2007, a historical marker was placed on the spot where the bus burned. Shortly thereafter, several well-known personalities in the city, white and black, sought public recognition for Anniston’s role in the Freedom Rides, using some of the historical tourism money raised by other southern cities such as Birmingham and Montgomery, where the Movement and a violent reaction to it had taken place. These efforts led to the murals and culminated in 2017 in the designation of the locations of the bus station and the burning bus as a national monument. The bus station area was opened to the public in April 2021.

As a Civil War-era historian, I asked Ray what he thought of the national monument designation after all these years, particularly in the context of the nationwide effort to remove the Confederate monuments that have dominated public spaces across the south. Beginning in the post-war decades and accelerating during the Jim Crow era, white southerners spent ungodly sums of money on Confederate monuments, which they placed on courthouse lawns and town squares rather than in cemeteries near the Confederate dead.

These monuments tell a story.

It is not a story of the war heroism of the Confederate soldiers as many modern followers claim. It’s a story of white supremacy and efforts to maintain it after slavery was abolished. The prominent placement of the monuments in these public spaces was an attempt to get this message across to a section of the southern population, especially black Americans.

In recent years, an increasing number of southerners have encouraged the removal of these monuments to more convenient locations such as museums and cemeteries. This advance met with great opposition throughout the south.

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A historic civil rights marker during the Freedom Riders National Monument celebration on Saturday in downtown Anniston on Gurnee Avenue. (Trent Penny / The Anniston Star)

Four years ago, Alabama state lawmakers passed a US $ 25,000 fine on cities or counties that removed monuments over the age of 40. For the past few days, white and mostly Republican lawmakers have been working to bolster this legislation by imposing additional fines of $ 10,000 on anyone who facilitates the removal of such a monument. Despite this setback, the city of Anniston removed its Confederate Obelisk from the median of Quintard Avenue in 2020. Today only a concrete slab remains.

So why is it important that the Confederate Memorial is gone and the National Freedom Rides Memorial is in place? It is important because monuments tell us more about the people who build them than about the historical event or the person they are supposed to remember. The Southerners who erected the Confederate Obelisk hoped to tell and affirm the story of a white South where black Americans were second-class citizens. The southerners who began working for Freedom Riders National Monument in the early 21st century wanted to tell a different story, a story of courage in the face of racial hatred, a story of love for the democratic ideals of that nation, a story of Racial Healing and Equality. Ray pointed out that the history of the Freedom Riders shows that “we are not unhappy and hopeless…. Change can occur when people have enough courage and conviction. “

Jennifer Gross, PhD

We haven’t reached our beloved community yet, but the more we Americans celebrate, like the Freedom Riders, who fought for their values, the closer we get to that goal.

On this 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, as our nation continues to fight the forces of racism, inequality and injustice, we may all embrace the memory of the courage of these original 436 Americans – white and black, rich and poor, northern and North Americans, Southerners, men and women – willing to risk their lives to create what Martin Luther King Jr. famously referred to as the “beloved community.” We haven’t reached our beloved community yet, but the more we Americans celebrate, like the Freedom Riders, who fought for their values, the closer we get to that goal.

Jennifer Gross, PhD, is an adjunct professor of history at Jacksonville State University.

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