- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2011

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Freedom Riders who were attacked in Alabama’s capital city on May 20, 1961, returned 50 years later to be hailed as heroes and have a museum dedicated at the old bus station where they were confronted by an angry white mob.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, said he teared up Friday when he walked through the old Greyhound station where 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 former Alabama Gov. John Patterson. In 1961, he called the Freedom Riders fools and agitators when they set out to integrate Southern bus stations. But the 89-year-old ex-governor welcomed the Freedom Riders on Friday and praised them for bringing needed changes.

“It took a lot of nerve and guts to do what they did,” Mr. Patterson said after meeting 10 Freedom Riders for the first time.

The Freedom Riders were mostly college students, blacks and whites, who set out on Greyhound and Trailways buses across the South to test a U.S. Supreme Court decision banning segregation in public transportation facilities. That meant no more separate waiting rooms or water fountains designated for white and colored.

After a firebombing near Anniston and threats and beatings from the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy got a promise from Mr. Patterson to have state troopers protect the group’s bus from Birmingham to Montgomery. City police were supposed to take up the job once they crossed the city line.

Mr. Patterson kept his word, with state trooper 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 them and the journalists covering the event.

Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg, 71, of Tucson, Ariz., was beaten unconscious and ended up in a hospital, unable to complete the ride.

When he left Fisk University to participate, he said, 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, such as maintaining a policy of nonviolence no matter how hostile the foes, and little issues, such as how to pay for their bus tickets and what to do about the final exams they were missing in college.

He said he had some idea what he faced when he went to see a Fisk official about trying to make up his finals. “He said, ‘If you live through it, you can come back and take finals.’ “

The attack in Montgomery prompted a court order against the Klan by U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson of Montgomery and led to federal rules guaranteeing an end to segregation in all aspects of interstate travel.

Shortly after the museum opened Friday, an exhibit recognizing Judge Johnson’s landmarks rulings in the civil rights era was dedicated in the federal courthouse next door.

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