Memphis – National Civil Rights Museum (Freedom Riders)

The first time I had heard of the Freedom Riders was at this museum, a group of very brave passengers who deliberately rode on inter-state buses to contest those states who enforced segregation on these services. Due a decision by the US court, it was decided that inter-state passengers did not have to segregate, but in reality, they were forced to in some states.

This is a very dramatic recreation of the Greyhound bus, one of two buses (the other was operated by Trailways) that were heading from Washington DC to New Orleans. They were heading to Birmingham, but the Greyhound bus which was about an hour ahead pulled into the city of Anniston in Alabama. The occupants were attacked with the police refusing to intervene, other than to eventually escort the damaged bus to the city limits.

When the bus reached the city limits, it was attacked by mobs, many attached to the KKK, who slashed its tires and set fire to it. The occupants were nearly burned alive, but managed to flee the bus and were then attacked again by the mob. They then managed to get to Anniston Memorial Hospital where the medical staff weren’t keen to treat the freedom riders. Fearing that their hospital would be attacked if they helped them, the freedom riders were asked to leave, which they did.

The attacks shocked the United States, or at least a portion of it. Robert F. Kennedy, the US Attorney General, intervened to allow the Freedom Riders to continue their journey. He then distanced himself from the aims of the civil rights activists, saying he wouldn’t intervene in constitutional matters. Robert F Kennedy wanted the rides to end because they were embarrassing the United States and he urged the riders to “cool down”. James Farmer, one of the most important civil rights figures, replied “we have been cooling off for 350 years, and if we cooled off any more, we’d be in a deep freeze.”

Looking down on the bus, another powerful and troubling exhibit presented by the museum clearly with plenty of background information. As for the city of Anniston, it has seen its population fall every decade over the last half century and one organisation branded it the most dangerous city in Alabama.