Former Bus Station Honors Civil Rights Heroes
Honoring Freedom Riders at an Old Bus Station
Representative John Lewis, a Freedom Ride participant, and Charlotte Riley-Webb, an artist.
( >> large photo )
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Freedom Riders who were attacked in Alabama's capital on May 20, 1961, returned 50 years later to be hailed as heroes and to have a museum dedicated at the old bus station where they were confronted by an angry white mob.
Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who participated in the rides, said he teared up on Friday when he walked through the old Greyhound station where years ago he was beaten and knocked unconscious.
"It says something about the distance we've come and the progress we've made in this state and nation," Mr. Lewis said.
That change was evident in John Patterson, a former Alabama governor. In 1961, he called the Freedom Riders fools and agitators when they set out to integrate Southern bus stations. Now 89, Mr. Patterson welcomed them on Friday and praised them for bringing needed changes.
"It took a lot of nerve and guts to do what they did," he said after meeting 10 Freedom Riders for the first time.
The Freedom Riders were mostly college students, black and white, who set out on Greyhound and Trailways buses across the South to test a Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate transportation. That meant no more separate waiting rooms or water fountains designated for whites and blacks.
After one bus was firebombed near Anniston, Ala., and the Ku Klux Klan threatened and beat Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Ala., Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy secured a promise from Governor Patterson that state troopers would protect the group's bus from Birmingham to Montgomery. The city police were supposed to take up the job once they crossed the city line.
Mr. Patterson kept his word, with state troopers' cars and a helicopter guarding the bus. Mr. Lewis said they were so well protected that some slept on the bus.
But when they reached Montgomery's Greyhound station, the police were not there. Instead, an angry crowd fueled by Klansmen beat the riders as well as journalists and a Justice Department official — John Seigenthaler, later a well-known newspaper editor — after he came to the riders' aid.
One Freedom Rider, Jim Zwerg, was beaten unconscious and ended up in the hospital, unable to complete the ride.
Mr. Zwerg, now 71, said that when he decided to leave Fisk University in Nashville to participate, he had no idea of the many dangers they faced or that they would ride into history. He said the Freedom Riders were concerned about big issues, like maintaining a policy of nonviolence no matter how hostile the foes, and small ones, like how to pay for their bus tickets and what to do about the final exams they were missing in college.
But Mr. Zwerg said he got some idea of what he faced when he went to ask a Fisk official about making up his finals later. "He said, 'If you live through it, you can come back and take finals.' "
Montgomery was also the scene of another moment of high drama in the Freedom Riders' journey.
The night after the bus station attacks, federal marshals and the National Guard had to be called in when an angry white mob surrounded the First Baptist Church, where riders and 1,500 supporters, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had gathered. Dr. King pleaded with Mr. Kennedy to intervene, and the attorney general ultimately persuaded Mr. Patterson to send in the Guard.
The bus station attack prompted a court order against the Klan by Judge Frank Johnson of Federal District Court in Montgomery and led to new federal rules guaranteeing an end to segregation in all aspects of interstate travel.
Shortly after the museum opened on Friday, an exhibit recognizing Judge Johnson's landmark rulings in the civil rights era was dedicated in the federal courthouse next door.
The old bus station was slated for demolition in 1993 to make way for an expansion of the courthouse. A Federal District Court judge, Myron Thompson, and Mr. Patterson advocated that it be spared because of its place in history. After the station sat empty for many years, the Alabama Historical Commission developed the 3,000-square-foot museum with artwork, photographs and descriptions of what happened and the impact it had.
"The museum may be small, but its significance is monumental," Judge Thompson said.
The Historical Commission is uncertain what days the museum will be open because the commission, like most other state agencies, is facing a 45 percent budget cut over two years.
The museum is within walking distance of several of Montgomery's other civil rights attractions, including the Rosa Parks Library, the Civil Rights Memorial and Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. King was pastor when he led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
Judge Thompson, Montgomery's first black federal judge, praised the way the museum turned out, but he said, "There is no better way to forget something than to commemorate it."
He said the museum should not be taken to mean that everything the Freedom Riders sought had been accomplished. He said it should reinvigorate the Freedom Riders' principles "of liberty and justice for all."
He asked the crowd, "Would you today take a bus ride under the circumstances faced by the Freedom Riders back in 1961?"