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The establishment of the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama was one of the last acts by President Barack Obama before he left office in January 2017. The landmark commemorated the courage and commitment of the Freedom Riders in their fight to end segregation on interstate transportation in the early days of the civil rights movement.
This month marks 56 years since the first Freedom Ride departed from Washington, DC on a journey to various destinations throughout the South. May 11 is the anniversary of the shocking attack on Freedom Riders in Anniston and just outside Birmingham, where the monument now stands.
Someone blasted a hole in the window behind Moses Newson’s seat on the Greyhound that had been destined for Birmingham. A Baltimore journalist, Newson was one of the Freedom Riders on a journey through the Deep South (“a shocking and unforgettable experience,” he later wrote), to challenge local laws and customs that enforced segregation on public buses – which the Supreme Court found unconstitutional.
Outside Birmingham, the bus’s tires were punctured by a mob vehemently against desegregation efforts in Alabama. With sticks and chains, the lynch-minded throng beat on the sides of the crippled bus, taunting passengers with name-calling and threats of violence.
In an interview on PBS’s American Experience, Newson recalled how on that day everything went dark. He felt the heat on the back of his neck, and suffered burns behind his ears.
Someone had thrown a bomb onto the bus.
Trouble had flared up in spots all along the route. Since the Freedom Ride kicked off in Washington, DC on May 4, 1961, some of the Riders were arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina, Winnsboro, South Carolina and Jackson, Mississippi. Now a distinguished senior member of Congress, Freedom Rider John Lewis endured a savage beating in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and would again in Montgomery, Alabama.
But the attack that took place May 14 – Mother’s Day – outside Birmingham is remembered as one of the most harrowing events in the U.S. civil rights movement.
In an account published by the Baltimore Afro-American, Newson wrote:
When I found myself trapped in that burning bus, set on fire by the mob, and the heat leaving me no choice but to go out the door and the smoke preventing my seeing where the mob stood, that cold, chilling realization that this might be it, came over me.
Genevieve Hughes, the field secretary for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), was also on the bus to Birmingham that day.
Hughes is described as “a beautiful young woman who worked on Wall Street…a capitalist with a social conscience,” in the editor’s note of Ray Arsenault’s Freedom Riders. In 1960, Hughes quit her job as a stockbroker in NYC, committing full-time to the fight against racism, and becoming the first woman on the CORE Field Staff, which organized the Freedom Ride.
According to the Cleveland Call and Post, Hughes escaped the bombed bus by crawling through a broken window. While many of Riders were refused medical treatment, the Cleveland Call and Post also reported that “Some of the bus passengers were rushed to the Anniston Memorial Hospital for treatment of numerous cuts, abrasions and burns. None seemed to be in critical condition.”
Hughes was among those who received care. In Arsenault’s book, she described the inequity she witnessed at the hospital: “They brought in the Negro man who had been in the back of the bus with me. I pointed to him and told them to take care of him. But they did not bring him into our emergency room.”
Later, Hughes was transferred to a hospital in Washington, DC where she wrote a conversational letter dated May 31 to CORE Field Director, Gordon Carey, apologizing for her “whopping hospital bill” and providing an update on her health:
I feel quite well but evidently that is not what counts. My doctor is trying to find out from the Justice Department what that bomb was made of so as to figure out what kind of dirt I have in my lungs. He told me very encouragingly that “nearly everybody seems to think you will be alright.” That left me wondering just who didn’t.
Despite concerns over a lingering cough and fatigue, Hughes maintained a sense of humor, describing how she entertained herself during the lengthy hospital stay: “At night I tell myself bedtime stories about the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama and plot horrible revenges on them. You can see that my mind is deteriorating,” she wrote. [Source: Congress of Racial Equality Papers, 1941-1967, Genevieve Hughes Correspondence, Folder: 252251-036-0826]
No arrests were made against the perpetrators of the attack on the Freedom Riders (or the other passengers who were on the bus) outside Birmingham. The Birmingham Police Commissioner, Bull Connor, famously employed brutal measures to enforce segregation in his jurisdiction and Police Sergeant Tom Cook was an avid KKK supporter.
There was little doubt which side they were on.
In his account of the bombing for the Baltimore Afro-American, Newsom wrote “at the Anniston Memorial Hospital, any doubts that the law bows to racial hates and tradition were wiped from my mind,” adding
“We’ll do the best we can in getting you to the city limits,” the Anniston officer kept saying, emphasizing “best we can.” I remembered the best they did earlier in the day.
And then came the word of the Governor of the State of Alabama. The highway patrol was not able to offer us protection.
After all, you realize, you’re just colored folks and n----r-loving Yankees. No matter what the United States law says, as one proud mobster explained, “This is Alabama and we’re gonna keep it white.”
The courage and the commitment of the Freedom Riders brought national – and international – attention to the rampant racism in the South. The violence and injustice suffered by these activists shocked people across the country and inspired wider participation the Rides (436 participants ultimately took part in 60+ Freedom Rides) and other civil rights activities such as voter registration and literacy campaigns.
The Freedom Riders National Monument established by Barack Obama includes two locations: The first, at the Greyhound station in Anniston where the mob first attacked the bus and slashed its tires; second, where the bus broke down outside of Birmingham and was set ablaze.
Academic Video Online: Premium
Interview with Moses Newson, 2 of 3 [Video file]. (n.d.). WGBH Educational Foundation. Retrieved May 10, 2017.
ProQuest Ebook Central
Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom Riders, edited by Raymond Arsenault, Oxford University Press, USA, 2011.
ProQuest Historical Black Newspapers
Editor has close brush with death. Newson, M. (1961, May 27). Afro-American (1893-1988). pp. 1.
Mob freedom riders in Ala. bus is set afire. (1961, may 20). Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962). Pp. 2
ProQuest History Vault
Congress of Racial Equality Papers [part of Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century, Organizational Records and Personal Papers, Part 2]
History Vault includes a large set of Congress of Racial Equality Papers sourced from the Wisconsin Historical Society. One of the important series in these papers covers the 1961 Freedom Rides. The material includes applications for Freedom Riders; lists of riders; itineraries of the rides; and riders trials, bonds, and appeals. In addition, the collection includes rare material on the Journey of Reconciliation, a 1947 CORE project testing interstate travel in the upper South. The material relates primarily to the arrest, trials, and jail terms of four members of the project who were arrested at Chapel Hill, North Carolina in April 1947.
Also check out these History Vault collections:
See this blog post for more about researching historic discrimination on public transportation.
Learn more, watch the webinar “How Does the Past Inform Today? Key Primary Source Collections for Research in Social Movements,” and request complimentary trials for your library.