By Rachael DeMarce
Standing next to Bob Singleton at the site where a Freedom Rider bus was firebombed in 1961, I listened to a photographer from Anniston explaining the struggle that “we went through” to an original Freedom Rider. I found it difficult to interpret exactly what he intended by the word “we.” With one word he was able to easily insert himself into a monumental event in Anniston’s history. Not far from our conversation, the press asked questions regarding the economic development of the location where the Freedom Riders bus was fire bombed.
Leaning on a distressed white wooden fence a white woman observed our conversation. She appeared out of place in an area that was her home. I wondered if we had unexpectedly interrupted her day. I walked over to stand in the grass with her. Reaching out my hand she hesitantly accepted my greeting. She began to explain that her parents were the only remaining family in one of three homes directly across from where the bus burned fifty years ago. It was in this moment, I realized this was part of her history, and that I couldn’t label who the “we” was in this painful attack. Our brief discussion symbolized dialogue that may not have happened without the creation of the Freedom Riders book and eventual documentary. Certain members in the town seemed to care about this anniversary in a way that they had never done before, and encourage us as students to continue the work of original Freedom Riders saying “it’s now up to you”.
I welcome this responsibility but believe that it is not only up to us as students. The older generation still has an important role to play. During our breakfast in Anniston we listened attentively to the mayor who spoke only of economic development and did not acknowledge the actual attack. Later on, I was disappointed to hear him talking in the back of the crowd with three other white men as an original Freedom Rider spoke. The visible divide was made more apparent when the mayor said “this is not fake.” There were genuine and honest moments of reconciliation in Anniston. I have hope that current leadership in the town of Anniston will take responsibility and not wait to pass current injustices on to students.