By Francisco Diaz
Anniston, Alabama. The name has developed a strong notoriety in my consciousness. It conjures up images of angry mobs and violent intolerance. It was the first escalation and first stark expression of raw hatred against the original Freedom Riders, the place that produced the image of a burning Greyhound that has been ubiquitous thru-ought our journey.
Before this trip I would say to my friends, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in the South.” What I had heard of the region conjured up a view of angry, hostile racists lurking around every corner, every southern accent concealing contempt for those they deemed different from them. It’s no surprise, I reasoned, that the current swath of anti-immigrant legislation states are trying to enact across the country are strongest in these former Confederate states.
While I am the first to reiterate that there is still much work to be done, I am now happy to say that my own views were flawed, prejudicial, and incomplete. I say that I’m happy because I have now begun to move past that view.
At dinner I sat next to an Anniston local named Richard Couch. I couldn’t help but think that he was the stereotype of the South that I had developed in my mind, a burly, blue-eyed man with a thick southern drawl, whose father had been a Klansman, one of the mob that had been there on that day of terror in 1961. Richard was also one of the funniest and most sincere men I have met, a public defender who advocates for the poor of Anniston, who was genuinely happy to meet me and an Oakland Raiders fan and general lover of the San Francisco Bay Area to boot.
When Richard Couch gave an impromptu and tearful welcome to Hank Thomas, who had been on that bus the day it was burned and when they embraced, I viewed the full power of nonviolence. The son of a Klansman hugging a man who his father hated and wanted dead was a greater victory than any violent counter-attack that could have been done at the time to the mob had surrounded that bus. If the Freedom Riders had not been nonviolent, and they fought back and perhaps killed Richard Couch’s father, this true moment would not have occurred.
The genuine power of the moment we saw was a brief, luminescent glimpse of the beloved community Mr. Thomas and the other Freedom Riders sought. Where I once saw hate, bigotry and violence, I now see love, understanding and hope. Later on, some of my fellow student riders told me that the comment page in the local newspaper’s website was full of comments about “stirring the race pot” and “unnecessarily bringing up old wounds.” This could have discouraged me, because we have not completely overcome, but I saw the true power of love, and as we continue, no amount of hate and continued ignorance will take that away.