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The Burning Bus

by Charles Person

Captivating, yellow flame sought escape through broken windows of the Greyhound bus five miles outside of Anniston, Alabama. Billowing columns of bulbous black smoke heaved heavenward. My friends were on that bus. A segregationist mob trapped my Freedom Ride colleagues inside while holding the door closed so they would burn alive. 

Freedom Riders National Monument located in Anniston, Alabama, where the Greyhound bus was set on fire.
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We Freedom Riders were riding interracially, side by side in any seats of our choosing from Washington D.C. to New Orleans to see if America would accept side by side. To see if America would accept interracial. On day eleven—Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961—America gave her reply. With a mob slashing tires. With epithets threatening death. With windows shattered. With an incendiary device thrown inside. With flame seeking to teach my friends the last lessons of their lives: “No, we do not accept side by side. No, we do not accept interracial.” 

All my friends escaped. Barely. 

But I did not know that. All I knew at the time the flames rose came through my ears, not my eyes. On my Freedom Ride Trailways bus in Anniston, Alabama, my fellow African American and front-row seatmate Herman Harris and I settled in for the trip to Birmingham.

Our ears took over. As we awaited departure, ambulance sirens made us aware that someone, somewhere needed help. Our bus driver hopped aboard to get underway. Before taking his seat, the sounds in his voice both informed and threatened. First, information. A bus, he told us, had been burned to a shell. Passengers on that bus were being taken to the hospital by carloads. Then came threats. Our bus was not going anywhere until the Blacks got to the back where we belonged. He did not use the word “Blacks.” Herman and I stayed put.

We heard the sound of heavy footsteps. Thugs rushed aboard. The next sound was that of fist on face. A thug’s fist. My face. 

What followed was the sound of my white Freedom Ride companions rushing forward. The sounds of fists punching and feet kicking all of us—my white colleagues, Herman, other Black Freedom Riders, and me. The sound of threat intimidated and warned. Voices of cursing sought to dehumanize us all the way to Birmingham.

Birmingham mobs beat and battered us close to death. Though half of us had no business moving on after the Birmingham bludgeoning, we voted to continue. No bus driver would risk his life for our fight for equality, so our original group of Freedom Riders flew to New Orleans, our planned destination.

But the photograph of the burning bus on front pages of newspapers across the country and the world moved Americans to action. The photograph imprinted. It seared. It branded. In consciousness. And in conscience.

From Nashville, Tennessee, twenty-one replacement Riders rushed to Birmingham to take our place and dedicate themselves to offering their lives to the continuation of the Ride. Forces of segregation were intent on stopping forces of equality as the replacement Riders, too, were beaten and bludgeoned, jailed and imprisoned. But Diane Nash and her fellow students in the Nashville movement would not be thwarted. She put out the call for more Riders.

From California and Massachusetts, from Florida and Washington, from those four corners of the country and in between, Riders came to say “Segregation must end.”

From New Orleans and Washington, D.C., from Montgomery and Jackson, from Atlanta and Houston and more, Freedom Riders rode. Together. Side by side. Black next to white. To make the country abide by what the Supreme Court of the land had ruled six months earlier: discrimination in interstate transportation is unconstitutional.

The burning bus forced change. We Freedom Riders won. In November 1961, the segregation signs began to come down. No more “White only.” No more “Colored only.” 

Like Emmett Till’s face, the image of the burning bus from our Freedom Ride moved a nation toward seeing itself in a mirror, confronting blemishes their eyeballs could not help but see. Clearly. Starkly. Indelibly. 

Photo Credit: Jo Etta Person

Charles Person is the only living Freedom Rider who remained with the original Ride from its start in Washington, D.C. to its end in New Orleans. This historic event helped defeat Jim Crow laws in the U.S. A sought-after public speaker, Charles maintains active contacts with schools, museums and the activist community.