Tall Southern pines and summer wildflowers along Highway 202 outside Anniston – pleasant scenery for travelers – belie the tragic events that took place there on May 14, 1961.
A Greyhound bus was attacked and burned there, with seven Freedom Riders beaten. A roadside marker is the only evidence on the spot that became a nationwide rallying cry for the civil rights movement.
It’s hallowed ground to Bill Harbour and the other 267 Freedom Riders still living, from the original 468. Alabama Power and many groups and individuals are hoping to transform the site into a potential national park.
Eastern Division Vice President Julia Segars and Division Customer Service Manager Rod Nowlin recently provided State Rep. Barbara Boyd with Alabama Power’s $34,000 gift for a Freedom Riders memorial.
“We’re excited to be a part of this very worthy project and to create a Freedom Riders memorial for this area, which we hope to see become a national park in eastern Alabama,” said Segars, adding this is the company’s second contribution to the project. “Anniston residents and visitors from throughout the country and beyond will enjoy the memorial for years to come.”
Harbour said the memorial will include a large statue of Anniston’s Janie Forsyth as a 12-year-old giving a glass of water to Hank Thomas, one of the Freedom Riders who escaped the burning bus.
Plans for the 4.5-acre Freedom Riders National Park have been in the works for more than 15 years, Harbour said. In May, those efforts were solidified when U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby sent a letter to the National Park Service urging the agency to preserve Freedom Rider sites as part of the National Park system.
“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,” Shelby wrote.
Ben West, chief of Planning for the Southeast Regional Office of the National Park Service in Atlanta, said his organization will soon begin conducting the reconnaissance survey of the sites.
“The study process usually takes about a year or more,” West said. “After the study is complete it will be sent to Sen. Shelby’s office per his request. Establishment of any new national park requires an act of Congress or presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act.” There are currently 407 parks in the national system.
Pete Conroy is among those who expect the Anniston park to attract visitors from throughout the world. He is director of Jacksonville State University’s Environmental Policy and Information Center, and Harbour’s co-chairman on the project. Growing up in Pennsylvania, Conroy watched news reports of the attack on the Freedom Riders’ bus.
“I profoundly remember the images of the bus burning as a kid – it affected me growing up,” said Conroy, who calls himself an Alabamian after living in the state for many years. “It’s etched in my mind. I truly could not understand why someone would do that.”
Conroy said the park will boost east-central Alabama, increase tourism, benefit hotels and businesses, and provide many educational opportunities.
“This park will be part of Alabama’s legacy in progressive civil rights,” Conroy said.
Living through turbulent times
For Harbour, living through the tumultuous ‘60s and his involvement as a Freedom Rider was life-changing.
“It was real tough at that time,” said Harbour, who was 19 and a sophomore at Tennessee State University (TSU) when he joined the Freedom Riders. “Even until I went to college, everything was segregated.”
During his stint as a Freedom Rider, Harbour was arrested 10 different times and spent 49 days in the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary, the maximum security prison known as Parchman Farm. Harbour was expelled from TSU for taking part in the Freedom Rides and was forced to transfer to Central State University in Ohio. Later, he was allowed to return to TSU and graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
Considering that history, Harbour said, “It’s ironic that Tennessee State University awarded me an honorary doctoral degree five years ago.”
Harbour said there’s still much work to be done to make Freedom Riders National Park a reality. He hopes to see it established on the 55th anniversary of the Freedom Rider’s journey through Anniston.
“Out of all the time I spent as a Freedom Rider and the years that followed, the park in Anniston is one of the greatest things to happen,” Harbour said. “We’re looking at how good can come out of a bad situation.”