ANNISTON, Ala. (AP) - Last weekend, thousands of people from across the country gathered to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, re-enacting the voting rights march that put the small Alabama city forever on the map of civil rights history.
When Anniston’s big civil rights anniversary rolls around in May, the crowds aren’t likely to be nearly so large. But Pete Conroy is working on that.
“What happened in Anniston is not of regional significance, and it’s not of national significance,” he said. “It’s of international significance.”
Conroy is the director of Anniston’s Freedom Riders Park Development Committee, a group dedicated to building a historical site to commemorate the protesters, both black and white, who rode Greyhound and Trailways buses through the city in 1961 to test new federal regulations banning segregation on interstate bus lines.
Those protesters, known as the Freedom Riders, were met with official obstruction and physical violence at almost every city they visited in the Deep South. Perhaps the most notorious of those cities was Anniston, where a white mob stopped a Greyhound bus, set fire to it and attacked the passengers. Photographs of the burning bus, shot by an Anniston Star freelancer, became an icon of civil rights history.
Years ago, the county dedicated a four-acre park to the Freedom Riders near the site of the bus burning on Alabama 202. Conroy and other committee members hope to develop a $10 million historical site, in phases, to help explain the event and its meaning.
Like the march in Selma, the site would be intended to celebrate long-unrecognized heroes of the civil rights movement and heal old wounds in the community. But supporters of the project also say that every day without a site is another day of wasted economic potential.
“People are already coming here, just to stop where the bus was burned and look at the ground,” state Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said in an interview last year. “We need to give them something to do.”
Every March, thousands descend on Selma to commemorate the beginning of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March, where state troopers beat nonviolent protesters in the event known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Movie stars and U.S. presidents have made the commemorative bridge crossing, bringing international attention to an Alabama town roughly the same size as Anniston.
Organizer Sam Walker said the event started as a local effort, and grew largely on Selma’s distinct reputation as a battleground of the civil rights movement.
“The name Selma is the biggest draw,” Walker said in an interview in December, before organizing for this year’s march hit full steam. “People who don’t know anything about the civil rights movement know about the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”
That name draws tourists to Selma year-round. A voting rights museum near the bridge regularly draws about 500 visitors per week, said Walker, the museum’s historian. Most are from out of state, he said, and come on buses as part of tour groups.
Many of those buses also stop at the Voting Rights Trail Interpretive Center in the tiny town of White Hall. Thirty minutes from Selma, it’s on the route of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, but off what many travelers would consider the beaten path.
Park guide Michael Smith said the site gets about 10,000 visitors a year. That’s about 10 times the population of White Hall itself.
“We’ve got international visitors,” he said. “People have come from as far as Australia.”
Conroy is working feverishly to make sure Anniston’s civil rights tourists also have something to visit. In December, he traveled to California for a special screening of “The Butler,” a 2013 film that depicts the bus burning in one of its scenes. Last week, Conroy traveled to Atlanta with Freedom Rider veteran Hank Thomas to make a pitch to the National Park Service on behalf of the park.
“All I can say now is that we’re discussing the possibility of some kind of designation for the park,” he said. He noted that the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma was designated a national historic landmark last year.
“A federal designation can bring a great deal of visibility,” he said.
Selma, at least, has a landmark. The bridge is visible in the background in many of the best-known photos of Bloody Sunday.
In Anniston, there are just images. A burning bus by the roadside, with a plume of smoke rising from it. The story of Janie Forsyth, a white seventh-grader who helped the injured Freedom Riders, giving them water to drink.
The Freedom Riders Park Committee is still working on a design for the park, which now has only a sign announcing its name. To start work on the first phase of construction the committee needs about $200,000, but right now, they only have about $100,000, Conroy said.
The committee isn’t waiting. Conroy said members of the group have agreed to commission a statue for the park, which could be ready as early as next year. It would depict a young Forsyth, the white Anniston resident, giving a glass of water to Thomas, the Freedom Rider.
The original plan was to erect a statue in the last phase of construction.
“Everybody wanted to act sooner, rather than later,” Conroy said.
Thomas has become one of the biggest advocates of the park, despite the fact that the city gave him a chilly reception more than once. First came the attack in 1961. When he returned 20 years later to talk to a TV news crew and meet members of the white mob that attacked the buses, one of the white men refused to shake his hand.
“When I went back to Vietnam, a soldier I met there embraced me,” said Thomas, a veteran of the war. “The fact that this man wouldn’t shake my hand was an unfortunate and cruel irony. For some people, race trumps everything.”
Thomas told that story when asked why Anniston took so long to build a park. He said things have changed since then.
“We’ve got to have people who will say, ‘We are moving forward.’ ” he said. “Anniston is doing that.”
Information from: The Anniston Star, https://www.annistonstar.com/
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