Finding racial reconciliation in Alabama with Ray Arsenault and the freedom riders
ANNISTON, Ala. -- This is the face of racial conciliation in the 21st Century:
A black man stands to recount how, 50 years ago, he came to this Southern town in a fight to end segregation, only to be beaten and nearly burned to death. Twenty years ago, after valorous service in Vietnam and an exemplary life, he returned here only to be told, that to some in town "you were the enemy."
But tonight, that black man was met by the son of a man who stood in the mob 50 years ago.
His message: I'm sorry. And you will never be an enemy in this town again.
"It's a stain against my family name that I don't want anymore," said Richard Couch, 47, a local attorney. "I don't agree with what my dad did. I'm not my dad. And I think this needs to be brought out into the open."
Couch's words came minutes after he delivered his apology to Hank Thomas, one of the original "freedom riders" who formed teams of interracial groups to ride buses into the South in hopes of pushing the federal government into enforcing anti-segregation laws for interstate travel. Thomas rode a bus into Anniston in 1961 which was met by an angry mob and set on fire; as they jumped out of the bus to escape the thick smoke and flames, the freedom riders were beaten.
Couch, born three years after that attack, said his father Jerome Couch was in that mob, driving a blue pickup truck that rode in front of the bus, forcing it to slow down. Now estranged from his father, who was an electrician, the younger Couch said folks from his parents' generation -- even those who didn't agree with attacking anti-segregationists, like his mother -- still don't want to talk about this city's sad legacy.
But for younger people like him, the disclosure is important. "Escaping the trap of racism is a process....and this is part of it," he said Wednesday. "We need to be holding hands and eating together and singing together."
This moment came courtesy of University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault, who brought 40 college students to Anniston Wednesday, recreating the historic bus trip of the original freedom riders. Arsenault, whose book Freedom Riders has ignited interest in the history, worked with PBS affiliate WGBH to organize this trip, choosing a select list of students to take the ride, along with any living riders interested in tagging along.
Already, it had been an emotional day, starting with a trip to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and his Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta which left many young students in tears. But the Anniston stop -- where, five years ago, residents weren't even willing to talk about the history -- became an emotional jackpot.
Embarrassed by their lack of public commemoration, Anniston officials have created a park where the original Greyhound bus station stood. And while they obviously hope to create a tourist destination to help their downtown, they also seem eager to face down the city's troubled racial past and prove the 2011 version of their city has come a long way, indeed.
Couch made his admission at a program in the Calhoun County Library previewing an exhibition of photographs from the attack dubbed "Courage Under Fire." The images came from a law firm which once supported the local Ku Klux Klan; later convinced to donate the pictures to a civil rights museum.
Before an audience of students from Arsenault's program and former freedom riders, a biracial group of city and county leaders decried their troubled past and touted a new beginning for Anniston. Several original riders hugged and welcomed a woman, now 62, who dashed out to give the riders water and aid during the Anniston attack -- likely avoiding reprisals only because she was then 12 years old.
Reconciliation was in the air here Wednesday night, fueled by a community which had decided, finally, to stake its future on acknowledging its past. And for those of us lucky enough to witness it, the process felt a little like watching a new city, born before our eyes.
I'll be traveling with Arsenault and his students all day Thursday, as well. hope to get at least one more blog post up before returning to Florida.