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Day 7: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the bus of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

Day 7–May 14: Birmingham, AL, to Montgomery, AL

On the fiftieth anniversary of the May 14, 1961, Mother’s Day assaults on the Freedom Riders in Anniston and Birmingham, we began our day on the bus from Birmingham to Montgomery, replicating the ride of the Nashville Riders on May 20. The Nashville Riders did not stop on their journey from Birmingham to Montgomery, but we did. Thirty-five miles north of Montgomery, the back of the bus began to fill with smoke, thanks to an overstressed air conditioner hose. We had to abandon the bus temporarily, to allow the smoke to clear, as one of the logistics staff members patched up the hose with duct tape. We will stop at nothing to give the students an authentic experience reminiscent of the burning bus of 1961. Eeerily, our roadside experience occurred almost exactly 50 years to the minute after the bus was firebombed in Anniston. But the students took all of this in stride, breaking into song once we got back on the bus. As one student put it, in the words of a freedom song,”Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us ’round.”

Once we arrived in Montgomery, we toured the Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin and we all put our hands in the ceremonial water that rolls over the inscribed names of movement martyrs. Then we entered the Southern Poverty Law Center to visit the exhibits and put our names on the Wall of Tolerance–and to listen to Mark Potok’s lecture on the Center’s efforts to monitor and combat contemporary hate groups. Following an outdoor lunch at the Civil Rights Memorial, I led the students on a walk down Dexter Avenue, retracing in reverse the last stage of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. We passed by the old slave market site at Court Square on our way to the Rosa Parks Museum, which I helped to design in the 1990s. In the museum, the students visited the holographic bus exhibit that re-creates Rosa Parks’s 1955 arrest. We then walked past the historic Frank Johnson Courthouse, site of several of the most historic civil rights trials of the 1950s and 1960s, on our way to the old Greyhound station, site of the May 20, 1961 Freedom Rider riot. The station now houses a Freedom Rides art exhibit that will open offically next Thursday. The students got a sneak preview of the exhibit before listening to Jim Zwerg’s lecture on nonviolence. Jim was nearly beaten to death during the 1961 riot at the station, so his words had special authority. Hearing him speak in this context–with all the students gathered around, some sitting on the floor–was quite an experience.

Our next stop was the First Baptist Church–Ralph Abernathy’s church and the site of the May 21, 1961, siege, during which a white supremacist mob threatened to burn the church (with the Freedom Riders and more than a thousand supporters inside) to the ground. In 1961 the church’s basement was the scene of the famous phone calls between Dr. King and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and that is where we had dinner before moving upstairs to the sanctuary for a screening of the American Experience film. The film has been shown in a wide variety of venues all over the world, but showing it at First Baptist had special meaning. The Q&A with Jim Zwerg and 5 other Freedom Riders following the screening was quite something, and Jim and Rip Patton closed the evening by leading us in a rendition of “Oh, Freedom.” Amen to an emotion filled day. On to Selma and Jackson on Sunday.


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