An Open Letter of Thanks to the Community
Now that the dust has settled after the commemoration in May of the first Freedom Ride and the launching of the Anniston Civil Rights & Heritage Trail, the Spirit of Anniston board and director would like to thank our partners, our sponsors, and above all, the community for its thoughtful support.
We know the 1961 bus burning was an awful and disturbing event that created painful memories and an image that has haunted the city for 50 years. In African American studies classes, numerous books, websites, documentaries, and museums across the country, that famous photograph has been emblazoned and used to symbolize everything about the South’s violent history.
In using the Freedom Rides 50th anniversary to focus on the positive changes in Anniston since those terrible times, the Spirit organization hoped the creation of The Anniston Civil Rights & Heritage Trail and the hosting of the Student Freedom Ride in May would help to educate local residents and visitors alike, be a springboard for economic development, and ultimately become a model for racial reconciliation.
In time, we hope our efforts will help to transform Anniston in the eyes of the nation and the world when the Trail is completed and marketed nationally and internationally. With the launching of just the first two Trail sites at this opportune time, Anniston has received positive coverage in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Triple AAA magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, a syndicated column in numerous papers, USA Today, and CBS Evening News. The PBS website also features the blogs by the Student Freedom Riders; one in particular about Anniston and the South is both positive and moving - read below.
We also hope the Trail will inspire the community to help us create other trails related to our industrial, religious, military, and commercial history. Combined with the Ladiga and Coldwater Mountain trails, perhaps we will become known as the “Trail City.”
In closing, we wouldn’t be this far along without the support of our partners and key individuals such as the Jacksonville State University art department headed by Jauneth Skinner who worked with JSU graduate student Jason Wright to develop the Trail logo; the JSU history department and professors Jennifer Gross and Gordon Harvey; the Anniston-Calhoun County Public Library, under the leadership of Teresa Kiser who coordinated and staged the “Courage Under Fire” photographic exhibit of the bus burning, with photos provided by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; Greg Morrow at Southern Custom Exhibits who is helping design the Trail and creating a strategic plan; Theresa Shadrix with Consolidated Publishing for her wonderful research abilities; Joseph Giri for working within our modest budget to provide such compelling murals; state representative Barbara Boyd for seed money in the early days; The Anniston City Council for hosting dinner for the Student Freedom Riders; and David Mashburn at the Classic on Noble for his always generous hospitality.
However, donated time and discounted pricing go only so far in a project this ambitious. We couldn’t have completed the first two sites before the national spotlight shone on us in May without the generous financial support of Alabama Power and Solutia.
The next phase of the Trail has already begun. We have commissioned local artist John Davis to work with Joseph Giri in developing a design for a mural on W. 15th St. Our goal is to use murals and the development of a small commemorative park in the former African American commercial district as an economic catalyst. Subcommittees are forming around each of the other Trail sites such as several significant churches, the library, the courthouse and others. If you would like to work with us on this project, we encourage you to call the Spirit office at 236-0996, and leave your contact information. There is much to be done but we’re off to a great start!
BLOG FROM STUDENT FREEDOM RIDER
Day 6: Anniston, Alabama
By Francisco Diaz
Anniston, Alabama. The name has developed a strong notoriety in my consciousness. It conjures up images of angry mobs and violent intolerance. It was the first escalation and first stark expression of raw hatred against the original Freedom Riders, the place that produced the image of a burning Greyhound that has been ubiquitous thru-ought our journey.
Before this trip I would say to my friends, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in the South.” What I had heard of the region conjured up a view of angry, hostile racists lurking around every corner, every southern accent concealing contempt for those they deemed different from them. It’s no surprise, I reasoned, that the current swath of anti-immigrant legislation states are trying to enact across the country are strongest in these former Confederate states.
While I am the first to reiterate that there is still much work to be done, I am now happy to say that my own views were flawed, prejudicial, and incomplete. I say that I’m happy because I have now begun to move past that view.
At dinner I sat next to an Anniston local named Richard Couch. I couldn’t help but think that he was the stereotype of the South that I had developed in my mind, a burly, blue-eyed man with a thick southern drawl, whose father had been a Klansman, one of the mob that had been there on that day of terror in 1961. Richard was also one of the funniest and most sincere men I have met, a public defender who advocates for the poor of Anniston, who was genuinely happy to meet me and an Oakland Raiders fan and general lover of the San Francisco Bay Area to boot.
When Richard Couch gave an impromptu and tearful welcome to Hank Thomas, who had been on that bus the day it was burned and when they embraced, I viewed the full power of nonviolence. The son of a Klansman hugging a man who his father hated and wanted dead was a greater victory than any violent counter-attack that could have been done at the time to the mob had surrounded that bus. If the Freedom Riders had not been nonviolent, and they fought back and perhaps killed Richard Couch’s father, this true moment would not have occurred.
The genuine power of the moment we saw was a brief, luminescent glimpse of the beloved community Mr. Thomas and the other Freedom Riders sought. Where I once saw hate, bigotry and violence, I now see love, understanding and hope. Later on, some of my fellow student riders told me that the comment page in the local newspaper’s website was full of comments about “stirring the race pot” and “unnecessarily bringing up old wounds.” This could have discouraged me, because we have not completely overcome, but I saw the true power of love, and as we continue, no amount of hate and continued ignorance will take that away.