ANNISTON, Ala. -- The 2011 Student Freedom Riders have been on the road since Sunday, and they have become used to being feted. The big bus with the yellow Freedom Riders logo pulls up and local greeters and media line up to welcome them and treat them to a meal. That’s how it has gone in a succession of towns in Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas.
But none of that has prepared them for Anniston, Ala. There is a unique ferocity to the welcome here — city fathers, city mothers and civic boosters lined up on the sidewalk to receive them and welcome them to a sumptuous dinner at a downtown restaurant, each handshake firmer, each greeting more lavish than the one before. The eagerness to be liked is palpable.
And, perhaps, inevitable. As more than one person observes, Anniston wasn’t exactly hospitable to the Freedom Riders last time they were here.
That would have been May 14, 1961, the day two busloads of young people were attacked in this town in the first significant violence of the Freedom Rides. College students who had dared to travel interracially into Dixie were beaten and thrown in the back of one bus by Ku Klux Klansmen who, according to one eyewitness, stacked them “like pancakes.” Another bus was chased down by Klansmen and set afire just outside of town.
The town is still trying to decide how to be with all this. The historian Ray Arsenault, who is traveling on this commemorative bus, says it has been very difficult to get the city to erect the markers that memorialize the events of that day. Anniston is an economically distressed place, and this perhaps accounts for the odd moment when Mayor Gene Robinson, addressing the student riders, says little if anything about what happened in 1961, spending his time instead inviting the young people to return to his tiny Alabama town after graduation and open businesses here.
He is dismissive of the idea that his town is marked by what happened here when John Kennedy was president. “We’re maybe always going to have that tag,” he tells me. “But that tag is wrong. We’re not the same community as in 1961.”
But if some are dismissive of history’s onerous weight, there are others who seize it. So there comes this remarkable moment in a reception at the local library that begins when a tall, stocky black man arises from the audience. His name is Hank Thomas, and he was on the bus that burned.
“Two years after I left Anniston,” he says, “I was inducted into the Army. Imagine that. Couldn’t sit on the front seat of a bus, couldn’t walk into a restaurant here in Anniston, but my country wanted me to go and defend the rights of the Vietnamese from the dreaded Communists so that they can have freedom and liberty.”
His voice is deep and slow. He is a man with something to say, and he is going to take his time saying it. “Like my grandfather and my father before me,” he says, “I wore the uniform. And I went off to war with the hope that maybe this time, this time, when I return, somebody will see me as an American and give me respect. I won a Purple Heart in Vietnam, and I spent 51/2 months in Walter Reed.
“And I think you ought to know that there were times when I was in Vietnam that I kept asking myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ And when I was caught in that North Vietnamese ambush, not knowing if I would survive, obviously, I wondered, what was I doing here?”
There is an absolute hush, a stillness but for the sound of cameras clicking. He tells them how, in 1994, he participated in a program that returned him to Vietnam, where he was welcomed warmly by his former enemies. The next year, he and his wife hosted some of the Vietnamese in their home.
He gazes out over the crowd, still taking his time. “I have been back to Anniston two times before this,” he says. “I’ll never forget when I came back on the 30th anniversary and somebody arranged for me, not to meet with any of the men who were in that mob, but with one of their relatives. And they said to me, when I told them about the kind of welcome I received in North Vietnam, ‘Well, you got shot in Vietnam, didn’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘You got shot because you were the enemy.’ I said, ‘Yes.’
“Well, when you came down here, you were the enemy.’ ”
“I thought about that for a while,” says Thomas, a student rider turned great-grandfather. “I thought about that for a long time. I am very pleased that I am perhaps finally welcome back to Anniston as an American citizen. I thank you very much.”
The room erupts in a sustained standing ovation.
Then comes the coda that completes the moment. A white man in a dark suit stands. He is Richard Couch, a 47-year-old lawyer. His father, Jerome, was one of the Klansmen who attacked the bus that day. He does not, he says, want to steal the limelight from the Freedom Riders. But, he adds, and he is speaking directly to Thomas now, “I appreciate your forgiveness to my family name. And I’m sorry for the hurt that was caused. But I praise God for the blessing that has come out of this. And Anniston is not the same town that you saw 50 years ago. Our hearts are not the same hearts from that date 50 years ago. You talked about going to Vietnam? Let’s do this here in Anniston.”
With that, he opens his arms and all at once, the distance between the two men is bridged in a bear hug. The crowd goes wild.
“Welcome to my town,” says Couch. His voice is choked. The embrace lasts a very long time.