Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Freedom Riders who were attacked in Montgomery 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, D-Georgia, said he teared up Friday when he walked through the old Greyhound station where he was beaten.
"It says something about the distance we've come and the progress we've made in this state and nation," Lewis said.
That change was evident in 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 governor welcomed them Friday and praised them for bringing needed changes.
"It took a lot of nerve and guts to do what they did," Patterson said after meeting 10 Freedom Riders for the first time.
The Freedom Riders were mostly college students, both 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 fire bombing near Anniston and threats from Klansmen in Birmingham, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy got a promise from 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.
Patterson kept his word, with state trooper cars and a helicopter guarding the bus. Lewis said they were so well protected that some slept on the bus.
But when they got to Montgomery's Greyhound station, the police were not there. Instead, an angry crowd fueled by Klansmen beat them and the news media covering the event.
A 71-year-old Freedom Rider from Birmingham, Catherine Burks-Brooks, said one image will stay with her forever.
"To see the expressions on white women's faces screaming, 'Kill the niggers. Kill the niggers.' That sticks with me," she said.
Freeedom Rider Jim Zwerg, 71, of Tucson, Ariz., was beaten unconscious and ended up in the hospital, unable to complete the ride.
He said when he left Fisk University 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, such as maintaining a policy of non-violence 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 new federal rules guaranteeing an end to segregation in all aspects of interstate travel.
Shortly after the museum opened Friday, a collection recognizing Johnson's landmarks 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 when U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson and Patterson advocated that it be spared because of its place in history. After many years of sitting empty, the Alabama Historical Commission developed the 3,000-square-foot museum with art work, photos and descriptions of what happened and the impact it had.
"The museum may be small, but its significance is monumental," Thompson said.
- LDS missionaries developing strategies to...
- Expelling Santa from school? Holiday...
- TV Review: Broadway wins in live 'Sound of...
- 50 things you might not know about 15 of your...
- 'Sound of Music' alive for 18.5 million viewers
- Utahns react to death of Nelson Mandela
- Obama administration will allow green energy...
- Are extended warranties on gadgets worth the...
- Obama: Income inequality a defining... 105
- Notre Dame sues over health care law's... 31
- Fast-food strikes return amid push for... 31
- Colorado court hears discrimination... 29
- Fast food outlets planning strike for... 25
- Research: Native American genes have... 23
- Utahns react to death of Nelson Mandela 23
- Obama declares health care law is... 21