In the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Riders’ challenge to segregation of bus and train stations, three veterans of the Civil Rights struggle converged at Talladega College to describe their experiences for the new generation of students.
Talladega native and former TC professor Harold A. Franklin, who gave a moving invocation and benediction, was the first African American student at Auburn University. He enrolled as a graduate student in 1964 after taking the university to court twice. When he arrived at his assigned dorm room, he found that he had the entire wing to himself. In 2001, Auburn awarded him an honorary doctorate.
TC’s own Dr. Art Bacon, a former college administrator and teacher and well-known as an artist and poet, put listeners in a place none of them ever wanted to be as he read his 1982 poem, “The Anniston Incident,” recounting the beating he took for integrating the train station in Anniston.
Keynote speaker Hank Thomas was a Freedom Rider who survived the Anniston bus burning in May 1961. As the bus filled with smoke, Thomas recalled, he knew he was going to die that day, either from fire inside the bus or at the hands of the angry mob surrounding it if he stepped outside. He decided he’d rather go of his own accord and inhaled deeply of the thick, blue smoke, thinking lack of oxygen would make him unconscious. Instead, his body’s will to survive took over, and coughing, he rushed to the front of the bus just ahead of the fuel tank explosion at the rear. The explosion that likely would have killed him had he remained where he was drove the mob back far enough that Thomas could get off the bus.
In 1961, he said, just 19 years old, he boarded the bus “in search of my American dream.” A front seat on a bus was a symbol of his pursuit of “the simple rights that had been guaranteed to us” in the Declaration of Independence.
Fifty years later, he said, “my dreams of old have not been tarnished.” Earlier this year, he returned to Anniston and was “very, very surprised,” happily surprised, to find that whites and blacks could come together “not to conjure up old recriminations, but were free to be friends.”
In Birmingham and in Jackson, Miss., as in Anniston, city officials welcomed Thomas back and extended their hands in apology. In Montgomery, former Gov. John Patterson apologized and asked for forgiveness. In Jackson, Gov. Haley Barbour did the same.
Thomas said he had enjoyed his life as a freedom fighter, but that the 50th anniversary was all about reconciliation. Despite all that happened to him and his colleagues in the fight for civil rights, he still proclaims his love for the United States. “This is a great country,” he said, “I am proud to be an American.”
Sometimes the struggles of the 1960s seem long ago and far away. It was reassuring to hear Thomas assert that much has changed, for the three living legends who spoke at Talladega College Thursday morning were tangible reminders that the struggle was not that long ago and not at all far away.