By Samantha Williams
What is love? Is it toleration of things you don’t understand? Is it an attachment to someone or a display of affection? Maybe it’s all of these things or none at all. I’ve lived my life believing that I understood love — that I knew how to love. Today in Anniston, AL. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about it.
Over the past few days I’ve spoken with our resident celebrities (i.e., the Freedom Riders), strolled through museums and historic sites, and sang beautiful, inspiring songs of freedom. But after rolling into Anniston, the parade I had been marching in suddenly stopped and the rain started to pour. In my naivity, I believed that when we arrived in “The Heart of Dixie” the entire city would be ready to right the wrongs of 1961, when Anniston residents firebombed a bus filled with human beings.
I am very appreciative of the city providing us dinner and a place to stay for the night. I spoke with several members of the community whom I believe had pure hearts and truly wanted to overcome the town and the country’s dark past. After dinner Wednesday night, we attended a ceremony in which we joined hands in singing “We Shall Overcome” and wept as we witnessed reconciliation between Hank Thomas, a man that was on the bus that day, and a man whose father was in the mob.
As touched as I was to see these sincere moments, it is my responsibility as an American to give an authentic account of what I felt watching these events unfold before my eyes. Reconciliation was soon overshadowed by speeches about economic development and an agenda to prop up the local economy from what sounded like a used car salesman — and that salesman was the mayor.
The Freedom Riders were acknowledged sparingly, while community members who helped put on the events were treated as the true heroes. Hank was given his time to speak (although it was not scheduled in the program) and Charles Person, another Rider on the bus that day, was able to speak at the dedication of a mural but without a microphone where only a handful of people (mainly media) could hear him. Meanwhile, local politicians were heard loud and clear as they incessantly encouraged us to come back, start businesses, and tell all of our friends about the great initiatives going on in the city. While it may sound nonsensical to assume these decisions were intentional, a conversation I had with a local Anniston resident does not make it any easier to dismiss my initial reaction that some people still did not understand the gravity of the situation.
I met a black woman, most likely in her late 60s, who revealed to me that, “this is not a city for black people.” She said that schools are still mostly segregated, black people can only get a job if it’s “in the back scrubbing floors,” and poverty in the black community is not the exception, but the rule. I could hear the pain in her voice when she said she couldn’t wait to leave Anniston. All of this she said an arm’s length away from the mayor, who approached us and asked that she quiet down because the program was starting.
I must commend the Freedom Riders who had not one unkind word to say about the ceremonies and rejoiced in the progress the city has made. When Charles Person was asked how he feels 50 years later being in the place he nearly lost his life, all he could say was how happy he was to see progress, no matter how small. He said that nonviolence is more than just being nonviolent. It must be rooted in love, he said. And here I am, feeling angry and confused. Nope, I did not understand love.
Charles loves the men who punched him and threw him to the ground as he was struggling to breath. He loves the men dressed in white, hooded robes and the women cheering them on with babies on their hips. He knew at 18-years-old that without love, the movement would not succeed and he knows today that without it we cannot move forward. There’s a Bible verse that reads, “Love never fails.” Charles taught me that this isn’t just a cliché phrase — it’s a lifestyle. Standing in Anniston at the spot where Charles was beaten, I realized that he did not fail, the Freedom Riders did not fail, and most of all, love never failed.