According to the Reverend Phil Noble Sr., author of Beyond the Burning Bus, "…it may be the most famous photograph ever taken..." Many others agree, and sadly the May 14, 1961 black and white image of a burning Greyhound bus remains as a well-known symbol of our nation's ongoing struggle for civil rights. It was a horrific event, but Anniston's response to this incident is the larger symbol and a shining model for unity and racial healing. According to Morris Dees, co-founder of the Sothern Poverty Law Center, the incident and Noble's story "…show(s) how black and white leaders in one small Southern city determined to work together for peaceful desegregation… rich and uplifting."
While much of the world had been made aware of the historic burning bus, time has forgotten the event's many ramifications and the extraordinarily positive details.
Freedom Riders National Monument is intended for students, scholars, tourists, families, international visitors and unintended travelers. Through the development of this park, a small city's inspirational story will be told and made more available as a part of the entire nation's civil rights history.
Thanks to the determination of the Omega Psi Phi Theta Tau Chapter, a first step in developing a Freedom Riders Park was successfully completed on May 14, 2007. On that day a permanent, cast iron historic marker was unveiled by the fraternity in a ceremony at the site on Alabama Highway 202. The ceremony included presentations by many citizens including City of Anniston officials, Calhoun County Commissioners, legislators, judges, media from around the State of Alabama, and even neighbors who remembered the incident. Despite the success of the day and the importance of the marker, it was just a beginning.
NEW: A few months later, State Representative Barbara Boyd, ALADOT Engineer Dejarvis Leonard, JSU's Pete Conroy and local County Commissioners all arranged to have the land transferred from the State to County. At the time, this decision allowed for the greatest level of flexibility for the park's development.
An artist's preliminary rendering of a park on the site of the 1961 bus burning was rendered. It depicted a walkway landscaped by multiple layers of native plant designed around a central, iconic sculpture that would be easily visible by traffic on Highway 202. Envisioned has been a double-sized bronze sculpture of Hank Thomas sitting as young Janie Forsythe gave him water moments after he had survived the bus burning.
Now with National Park Service leadership, designs for both the Hwy 202 site and the Greyhound Bus Station will be reconsidered and developed to the high standards of the NPS.
Community support grew and grew as a symbolic "ground breaking" was held on October 13, 2012. Nearly a thousand people gathered throughout the day all dedicated to the creation of the park. Elected officials spoke, leaders gathered, children sang, Hank Thomas reflected, school groups assembled, and at the day’s end, opera star K.B. Solomon paired his Paul Robeson theatrical presentation with the Freedom Riders story. It was a beautiful feeling that lasted only a few weeks when sadly, the "Future Home of Freedom Riders Park" sign was burned by vandals. Headlines read "Act of Vandalism unites Community." Indeed, now more than ever, most agree that Freedom Riders Park must be built!
In March of 2015 NPS Director Jon Jarvis and JSU’s Pete Conroy discussed procedures that might determine the suitability and feasibility of National Park Service involvement and within a few months, US Senator Richard Shelby had started the process by requesting a Reconnaissance Survey.
After discussions with Conroy, Senator Shelby wrote: “Designating the Freedom Riders Park as a National Park would provide a valuable educational resource for years to come and will help continue the narrative of the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights movement. A new National park would promote tourism and complement the Tuskegee Institute and Tuskegee Airman national Historic Sites, the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, as well as other National Park service units in Alabama. Therefore, I ask that, in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations, the NPS give every consideration to conducting a Reconnaissance Survey for the proposed Freedom Riders Park.”
The Survey, authorized by Director Jarvis, involved detailed analysis, research and it included NPS staff site visits as well as public roundtables. The Freedom Riders Park Committee hosted these visits to include both two sites: where the bus had been burned and also the old Greyhound Bus Station in Anniston, where the attack had first occurred.
In July of 2016, Congressman Mike Rogers filed HR 5882, the Freedom Riders National Historical Park Act, indicating even more Congressional support for the concept of NPS involvement.
Finally on October 27th, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Director Jarvis came to Anniston to a day of touring and public engagement. Described as having been one of the most uplifting and unified days in the history of the region, it highlighted as nearly 600 people attended the public meeting with near unanimous support. Many, including Secretary Jewell, were brought to tears in hearing emotional, heartfelt, and thoughtful testimony from the lines of people who stood to speak.
Both Jewell and Jarvis recommended to President Obama National Monument status for the Freedom Riders sites.
Historic Marker erected by Omega Psi Phi Thetta Tau Chapter