Touching history with the Freedom Riders: How I met the son of a slave in Anniston Alabama
Yesterday, I met the son of a slave in Alabama.
Standing on a streetcorner in Anniston, Ala., Edward Wood walked up to a newly-installed tribute to the Freedom Riders, an interracial group of bus riders challenging segregation laws who were beaten and firebombed in this town 50 years ago. Beaming like a proud father, Wood -- a tall, unassuming guy with an energetic charm that belies his 84 years of struggle -- recalled his own work challenging the town segregated lunch counters and buses in the 1950s.
For him, seeing a mural painted on a downtown building commemorating the Trailways bus which brought the riders to town was more than a moral victory. It was a personal one, earned with the sweat and tears shed through a score of humiliations and protests.
"I never thought I'd live to see this, I'll be honest," said Wood, the subject of a film biography, My Anniston: Edward Wood, which debuted at the Suncreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg last month. "We fought for a long time in this town to have a day like this -- now it's hard to believe its here." (photos courtesy of the film)
We met Thursday by chance. I was trailing along with 40 students retracing the 1961 path of the freedom riders with University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault. In a tour organized by Arsenault and PBS affiliate WGBH -- part of an array of events promoting the Monday debt of an American Experience documentary film based on the professor's work -- we were observing the unveiling of two displays downtown commemorating where the riders stopped on their harrowing trip.
Later that day, we would stop at a plaque marking the spot along Route 202 where a white mob caught up with the Greyhound bus, firebombing it and beating up all the riders who spilled out of the vehicle as it burned to a husk. On Thursday, I met the 62-year-old woman who ran to bring water to the riders as a 12-year-old girl; now living in Los Angeles, Janie Forsyth McKinney told me she felt like riders had become her new family.
This was the real virtue of Arsenault's tour; meeting men and women like Wood and McKinney, the living embodiments of America's painful racial past. Some like to speak of slavery as if it was a long-gone institution, hundreds of years in America's past.
Before me stood a man who gave the lie to much of that thinking. The son of a slave whose grandfather was a white slave master, he was a living sliver of history you could reach out and touch -- and more importantly, speak to -- to learn just how close we really are to the days when black men were sold like chattel and black women were taken as a benefit of ownership.
This is a past that Anniston officials would like the world to believe they have outgrown. The town's mayor, Gene Robinson, opened the day with a passionate speech on the virtues of Anniston and the new memorials, begging the college students on the professor's trip to consider bringing their brilliance, energy and ideas to his town. The truth here, is that officials now hope to turn the city into a spot of civil rights tourism, countering tough economic times with those who hope to see shards of their shameful history up close.
To that, however, officials also have to proclaim that those ideas are long past. "Everyone should be equal under our constitution," said Robinson after his speech. "I think we've come a long way here fro those times."
Still, there were whispers of discontent on the edges of the bright, Chamber of commerce-sponsored dream. Even as a slick-looking representative from a local power company pledged $100,000 toward efforts to help build a park commemorating Anniston's place in the civil rights struggle, locals in the crowd groused that key county officials have long supported a nearby Confederate museum and Civil War re-enactments where the Confederacy sometimes wins.
Indeed, an ad promoting Calhoun County in the local newspaper's 24-page special section devoted to the history of the freedom riders featured the picture of a cannon at Janney Furnace, a Confederate museum. Located at the spot where locals made pig iron for the Southern army, the facility features a park and range of artifacts from the men who fought to retain slavery as the law of the land in the South.
As Thursday morning's dedication ended and Arsenault's group piled into their custom bus to head for the spot where the bus was bombed, a 60something man rode up to me on his bike to have word. Sure, these civil rights memorials were okay, he said, but there's some great biking trails at the foot of the Appalachian mountains nearby that we should also write about.
"All this talk really hurts a lot of people feelings," he said. "Some of us around here just think its something we don't need to be going on about."
Scratch the surface of Anniston's racial progress and a disquieting truth emerges. Not everyone shares the enthusiasm for moving on that Anniston's new civil rights memorials might imply.