Calhoun County Civil Rights Experience

February 20, 2012

In looking for the ultimate Civil Rights experience, one can travel to Washington D.C. and stand at the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, or one could travel to Memphis’ Civil Rights Museum and absorb all of the rich history the city has from the prominent era. Thankfully, Calhoun County has its own Civil Rights gem of historical significance, located in our own backyard.

At 1031 Gurnee in Anniston, on May 14th, 1961, the first bus of Civil Rights activists, known as the Freedom Riders, was met by a hostile crowd at Anniston’s Greyhound bus station. The Freedom Riders, who were testing out the south’s segregation laws that were still being enforced despite the outlawing of it nationally, had left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961 and were scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, 1961.

Their stop in Anniston, Alabama on May 14th on Gurnee Avenue would forever embed the city in Civil Rights history.

Today, Gurnee Avenue mirrors that of the 1960s, with the building that served as the Greyhound station and other local businesses still intact. Through the Spirit of Anniston’s Civil Rights Trail, everyone has a chance to experience a piece of history.

As you stand there looking at the bus mural, informative panels recap the infamous day’s events as they unraveled.

When the bus pulled into the alley, the stations doors were closed and locked. The crowd, awaiting their arrival, surrounded the bus, and the undercover agents onboard the bus prevented the unruly group from getting on the bus. However, the smashing of windows and slashing of tires could not be prevented. When the police finally arrived, a path for the bus was cleared, and the bus was motioned to exit.
The gathered mob rushed to their cars to follow the bus as it made its way down Highway 202, but the bus was eventually forced to stop due to flat tires.
The riders, trained not to acknowledge attackers, remained in their seats until a fire bomb was thrown on the bus, exploding, and setting fire to the bus.
The explosions scattered the crowd, but as the passengers exited the bus, some were beaten by the remaining crowd or had severe smoke inhalation and were in need of medical treatment. After they were taken to Anniston Hospital, the hospital began to receive threats, so fearing the worst, hospital administrators asked the riders to leave. With the help of Civil Rights leaders, they were able to depart for Birmingham.

Today, 901 Noble Street, the site of the 1960’s Trailways station, also has a bus mural and informative panels recapping events that also occurred May 14th, 1961.
The second Freedom Rider bus arrived in Anniston about an hour after the first. Upon their arrival, Klu Klux Klansmen came onboard the Trailways bus, beat the passengers, moved the black passengers to the back and white passengers to the front, and made themselves comfortable in between the segregated passengers for a long ride to Birmingham, where another unruly mob awaited their arrival. There, the passengers were beaten again.

Events like this and others of historical significance have occurred in and around Calhoun County, and thanks to organizations like the Spirit of Anniston, these historical sites and details are preserved, and the stories live on today. With the incorporation of the Civil Rights Trail in the Alabama Tourism’s Civil Rights Museum Trail brochures, Calhoun County’s place in civil rights history is being highlighted.

Self-guided tours of the Civil Rights Trail are available!

For more information about Anniston’s Civil Rights history and the Civil Rights Heritage Trail, contact Betsy Bean at the Spirit of Anniston by calling 256-236-0996.

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