On this date in America 50 years ago, two buses arrived in Anniston, Ala. It was Sunday, May 14, 1961. The Lord must have been in his Holy Temple. His presence wasn’t in evidence when those buses carrying Freedom Riders rolled into Anniston’s Greyhound and Trailways bus terminals.
Let’s board the Greyhound bus, which started in Washington, D.C., and experience what happened, as told by Arsenault.
In Atlanta, you watch your friend James L. Farmer Jr. leave for the airport to return home for his father’s funeral. He’s the principal founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and organizer of the Freedom Rides, which tested segregation on interstate buses. You wonder if you’ll ever see him again.
As the bus carrying you and your group of black and white colleagues approaches Anniston, you see the driver of a southbound Greyhound motion to the white driver of your bus to pull over. The driver runs across the road and yells to your driver through the window: “There’s an angry and unruly crowd gathered at Anniston. There’s a rumor that some people on this bus are going to stage a sit-in. The terminal has been closed. Be careful.” Your worst fears seem confirmed. But the leader of your group, hoping the warning was a bluff, urges your driver to keep going.
A minute or two later, your bus passes the city limits, and you notice Anniston’s sidewalks are lined with people, an unusual sight on a Sunday afternoon in a Deep South town.
Your bus eases into the station parking lot just after 1 p.m. The station is locked. Silence. Then, out of nowhere, there’s a screaming mob led by William Chappell, Anniston’s Ku Klux Klan leader. Someone hears your driver encourage the attackers with the greeting: “Well, boys, here they are. I brought you some niggers and nigger-lovers.”
The crowd of about 50, carrying metal pipes, clubs and chains, surrounds your bus. One of them screams “dirty communists” and “sieg heil.” You see no sign of any police.
Your driver opens the door, but two passengers, who turn out to be unarmed, undercover cops, lean on the door levers to prevent anyone from entering.
That doesn’t stop the mob from smashing windows, denting the sides of your bus and slashing tires. You duck down when someone cracks the window over your seat with a fist full of brass knuckles. This goes on for 20 minutes.
Finally, Anniston police arrive. They look at the tires and broken windows, banter with the crowd, and clear a path for your bus to exit the parking lot.
You’re relieved when the police escort your battered bus to Anniston’s city limits, but you shudder when you see the police car turn back. Thirty or 40 cars and pickup trucks have followed your police escort. They have you at their mercy on an isolated stretch of highway.
A car races around the front of your bus and slows down. The tires of your bus are flattened; the bus pulls to the side of the road. A white teenage boy smashes one of the side windows with a crowbar. A group of shrieking white men and boys rock your bus in an attempt to turn it on its side.
You hear the crowd yelling to come out and get what’s coming to you. You stay in your seat because the two highway patrol officers who just arrived aren’t making any effort to disperse the mob.
Someone runs toward the bus and tosses a flaming container of rags through a broken window. It explodes, sending dark gray smoke throughout the bus. Choking from the smoke and fumes, you and the other riders squeeze through the windows, drop to the ground and stagger across the road.
A white man rushes toward you, asks, “Are you okay?” and before you can answer, his concerned look turns in a sneer and he strikes you in the head with a baseball bat.
Other Freedom Riders spill out onto the grass, coughing and bleeding. A 12-year-old white girl, Janie Miller, supplies you and your friends with water, filling and refilling a five-gallon bucket while braving insults and taunts of the Klansmen. Later ostracized and threatened for this act of kindness, she and her family have to leave Anniston.
Finally the highway patrol officers fire warning shots in the air, and the mob realizes that its would-be lynching party is over.
Freedom Riders arriving at the Anniston Trailways station an hour later also encountered the KKK. From Arsenault’s Freedom Riders, we know they were a pile of bleeding and bruised humanity when the Klan was finished with them.
On this date in America, 50 years ago.