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60 Years Later, Freedom Riders Roll into Birmingham

Freedom Rider Rev. Clyde Carter poses with vistor Debra Love in Birmingham on the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Freedom Rides. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)
Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times

 Dozens of patrons visited the parking lot of the Birmingham Public Library’s Central Branch last week to tour a traveling artifact and to hear from two people who had a front-seat view of history.

The Freedom Riders Museum rolled a 1957 vintage Greyhound bus into the parking lot to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides.

The event featured Center Point’s Catherine Burks Brooks and the Rev. Clyde Carter of Hoover, a pair of Freedom Riders who risked their lives to be part of the fight for racial equality.

Brooks said the bus brought back memories.

“Is that the bus that we came in here on? No. It’s similar to that,” she said. “That bus reminds me of that Ole Bull, Bull Connor (the Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner). We called him, ‘That Ole Bull.’”

May 19 was the anniversary of the bus of Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham. The replica bus left for Montgomery after the stop in the Magic City and arrived the following day at 10:23 a.m., the same time it arrived in the state capital six decades ago.

Brooks recounted that arrival.

“We had helicopters flying above the bus,” she said. “When we got to Montgomery, all the help just went away, all the protection. It was a strange feeling. I don’t know what I felt like then. I felt like something was gonna happen.

“When we got to the bus station, everything was quiet,” Brooks continued. “All of a sudden, it looked like people just came out of nowhere. I heard, ‘Kill them (N-words).’ I heard white women screaming, ‘Kill them (N-words) [and they even had] babies in their arms.’”

Carter said he doesn’t think too much about the Freedom Rides these days, but was happy to reflect on what happened.

“Sixty years, six decades, seven hundred-twenty months ago this month, the Freedom Riders began to change the course of history,” the former pastor of Birmingham’s Westminster Presbyterian Church said. “I’m very proud to have been one of the persons who looked injustice in the face, and saw that something had to be done.”

The replica Greyhound bus that rolled into Birmingham last week had a “fresh off the showroom floor” look. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

Carter recalled another bus ride in the late 50’s that came before his Freedom Ride. Wearing his U.S. Navy uniform, he was returning to Birmingham when the bus he rode stopped at a restaurant. He went in to eat but was told, “I’m sorry. I can’t serve you.”

“I had to get up and walk out of the restaurant and get back on the bus,” he said. “The memory of that incident never left me so when the opportunity came … to get on a Freedom Riders bus, I and a classmate named Charles Jones knew that we had to go.”

The replica bus that rolled into Birmingham had a “fresh off the showroom floor” look with linoleum tile floors. There was a suitcase on the front seat that displayed what Freedom Riders brought with them on their journey.

What wasn’t shown was the courage the riders had in large supply, knowing that they could lose their lives during the venture.

Some in attendance, like Donna McTear Riggins, recalled the Civil Rights movement and events that were part of it.

“I remember all of this,” the 63-year-old retired nurse from Hueytown said. “I just wanted to come and see it. I have cousins that were in the Freedom Rides. I knew people that had done it also. They’re deceased now but I remember them telling us the story. I just really admire the people that gave their lives to give us the right.”

Most in attendance, like 44-year-old Denise Newcomb of eastern Birmingham, weren’t born when the Freedom Rides happened. But she was there with her 5-year-old son Mattheieu Ryan Newcomb.

“I thought it was important to be able to see a part of history,” she said. “To be able to just to sit in (a replica of the) seat as the people who fought, it’s empowering.”

The late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth led the charge for change in Birmingham. Last week, the Rev. Thomas Wilder, pastor of historic Bethel Baptist Church that Shuttlesworth shepherded, said there can never be too many reminders of what happened.

“I think we need to remember,” he said. “I know there’s some people who say, ‘Let’s forget’ and ‘Let’s move on.’ But there are too many people who don’t know. I think we have to make sure that everyone knows. We’re not trying to criticize people who happened to be on the wrong side of history . . .  but I think it needs to be known.”

The restored bus is owned by the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery. Having it is the realization of a dream to help bring history to life.

The Freedom Rights Museum is a historic property of the Alabama Historical Commission. It is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

“Having the bus allows us to expand the mission of the Freedom Rides Museum,” said Wendi L. Lewis, public relations and marketing manager of the Alabama Historical Commission. “Its mission is to preserve, protect, and interpret history, particularly the history of the Freedom Rides and the Freedom Rides’ importance in the whole Civil Rights journey.

“This will let us literally take the message to other communities like we’re doing in Birmingham here today,” Lewis added. “We hope to make it part of a regular program to travel to different communities for people to see for school groups for people to be able to request the bus and learn more about the Freedom Rides and what their struggle meant to the civil rights movement.

Candice Hardy, the programming and outreach librarian of the Birmingham Public Library, said last week’s event gave people in Birmingham an opportunity to authentically partake in history.

“I think that this is most important because individuals need to not only share oral history,” Hardy said, “but to also be able to take part in activities like this so that they gain a better appreciation of culture, of diversity, and to get a gumption, to give them that backbone to fight for the injustices that we’re witnessing today.”