Friday, December 14, 2012

Get On the Bus: The Freedom Riders of 1961


As I am looking for the best photos to go in my revision of Dr. Daniel Boorstin's The Landmark History of the American People, I came across an article that riveted me: Get On the Bus: The Freedom Riders of 1961 from NPR. Truly astonishing the things various brave people have done for the sake of justice.

I put myself, in my mind's eye, on that bus as it entered Anniston, Alabama, on Sunday, May 14, 1961:
Hank Thomas did not recall seeing anyone on the streets. He did remember the strange feeling that he and the other Riders experienced as the bus eased into the station parking lot just after 1:00 P.M.

The station was locked shut, and there was silence — and then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a screaming mob led by Anniston Klan leader William Chappell rushed the bus. Thomas thought he heard Jones encourage the attackers with a sly greeting. "Well, boys, here they are," the driver reportedly said with a smirk. "I brought you some niggers and nigger-lovers." But it all happened so fast that no one was quite sure who was saying what to whom.

As the crowd of about fifty surrounded the bus, an eighteen-year-old Klansman and ex-convict named Roger Couch stretched out on the pavement in front of the bus to block any attempt to leave, while the rest — carrying metal pipes, clubs, and chains — milled around menacingly, some screaming, "Dirty Communists" and "Sieg heil!"

There was no sign of any police, even though Herman Glass, the manager of the Anniston Greyhound station, had warned local officials earlier in the day that a potentially violent mob had gathered around the station. After the driver opened the door, [two plain-clothes Alabama State Troopers (whose identities were unknown to the Freedom Riders] hurried to the front to prevent anyone from entering. Leaning on the door lever, the two unarmed investigators managed to close the door and seal the bus, but they could not stop several of the most frenzied attackers from smashing windows, denting the sides of the bus, and slashing tires.

"One man stood on the steps, yelling, and calling us cowards," [one of the Riders] noticed, but her attention soon turned to a second man who "walked by the side of the bus, slipped a pistol from his pocket and stared at me for some minutes." When she heard a loud noise and shattering glass, she yelled, "Duck, down everyone," thinking that a bullet had hit one of the windows. The projectile turned out to be a rock, but another assailant soon cracked the window above her seat with a fist full of brass knuckles. Joe Perkins's window later suffered a similar fate, as the siege continued for almost twenty minutes.

By the time the Anniston police arrived on the scene, the bus looked like it had been in a serious collision. Swaggering through the crowd with billy clubs in hand, the police officers examined the broken windows and slashed tires but showed no interest in arresting anyone. After a few minutes of friendly banter with members of the crowd, the officers suddenly cleared a path and motioned for the bus to exit the parking lot.

A police car escorted the battered Greyhound to the city limits but then turned back, once again leaving the bus to the mercy of the mob. A long line of cars and pickup trucks, plus one car carrying a news reporter and a photographer, had followed the police escort from the station and was ready to resume the assault.

Once the entourage reached an isolated stretch of Highway 202 east of Bynum, two of the cars (one of which was driven by Roger Couch's older brother Jerome) raced around the front of the bus and then slowed to a crawl, forcing the bus driver to slow down. Trailing behind were thirty or forty cars and trucks jammed with shrieking whites. Many, like Chappell and the Couches, were Klansmen, though none wore hoods or robes. Some, having just come from church, were dressed in their Sunday best — coats and ties and polished shoes — and a few even had children with them.

The whole scene was darkly surreal and became even more so when a pair of flat tires forced the bus driver to pull over to the side of the road in front of the Forsyth and Son grocery store six miles southwest of town, only a few hundred yards from the Anniston Army Depot. Flinging open the door, the driver, with Robinson trailing close behind, ran into the grocery store and began calling local garages in what turned out to be a futile effort to find replacement tires for the bus.

In the meantime, the passengers were left vulnerable to a swarm of onrushing vigilantes. Cowling[, one of the Alabama State Highway Patrolmen,] had just enough time to retrieve his revolver from the baggage compartment before the mob surrounded the bus. The first to reach the Greyhound was a teenage boy who smashed a crowbar through one of the side windows. While one group of men and boys rocked the bus in a vain attempt to turn the vehicle on its side, a second tried to enter through the front door.

With gun in hand, Cowling stood in the doorway to block the intruders, but he soon retreated, locking the door behind him. For the next twenty minutes Chappell and other Klansmen pounded on the bus demanding that the Freedom Riders come out to take what was coming to them, but they stayed in their seats, even after the arrival of two highway patrolmen. When neither patrolman made any effort to disperse the crowd, Cowling, Sims [the other Highway Patrolman onboard], and the Riders decided to stay put.

Eventually, however, two members of the mob, Roger Couch and Cecil "Goober" Lewallyn, decided that they had waited long enough. After returning to his car, which was parked a few yards behind the disabled Greyhound, Lewallyn suddenly ran toward the bus and tossed a flaming bundle of rags through a broken window. Within seconds the bundle exploded, sending dark gray smoke throughout the bus. . . .
The story continues. Not only about the Greyhound bus in Anniston, but about the fate of the Riders on a Trailways bus that wound up in Birmingham. (Horrifying.)

But I began this post with a comment about brave people seeking justice.

How's this for a 12-year-old girl in Anniston as she reached out with basic human kindness to the victims of the bus bombing? I haven't quoted the discussion of the choking smoke that filled the bus as the menacing mob seethed outside.

When one of the bus's gas tanks exploded, the people on board finally tumbled out.

I'm skipping more of the story, more gory details. But then there was this:
One little girl, twelve-year-old Janie Miller, supplied the choking victims with water, filling and refilling a five-gallon bucket while braving the insults and taunts of Klansmen. Later ostracized and threatened for this act of kindness, she and her family found it impossible to remain in Anniston in the aftermath of the bus bombing.
I am humbled. Would I exhibit that kind of bravery?

I urge you to read the rest of the article for yourself. Very powerful.
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