Those two elements kept running around my brain last week as I sat in on the second day of a two-day planning session for a proposed Freedom Riders Park.
Allow me to explain.
The proposed park is just west of Anniston on four acres along Alabama 202. That site is where a bus carrying Freedom Riders seeking to integrate interstate bus travel was set ablaze on Mother’s Day 1961.
The effort to memorialize the spot gained momentum in 2011 during the 50th anniversary of the bus burning.
According to architect Steve Lewis, last week’s two-day design sessions (known as a “charrette”) were meant “to create a road map.”
“We want to have something that can be given to a professional developer as sort of a recipe of what they’d like to see,” said Lewis, who was invited into a discussion of the project by a committee of Freedom Riders Park proponents.
About 20 people sat around a big table in a second-floor room of the McClellan Center at Jacksonville State University on Tuesday when I joined the group, which was racially mixed and included state Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, longtime Anniston attorney Charlie Doster, Pete Conroy, director of Jacksonville State’s Environmental Policy and Information Center, advocate for historic preservation Georgia Calhoun, and many other community leaders.
Assembled before the architect Lewis, who is a New Yorker-turned-Los Angeles resident, were a group of Southerners. Lewis may have had plans for an orderly conversation, but things didn’t exactly work out that way. Hey, we’re Southerners; it didn’t matter if we were black or white, during lulls we huddled together and visited, told stories, asked after other friends and relations, and shared jokes.
And every so often someone would affirm to their neighbor that we’ve made progress in 50 years. It’s not perfect, but it’s a whole lot better.
The suggestions for a park and memorial focused on many of the topics already at play across Anniston and its surroundings.
How can a Freedom Riders Park attract tourists so that we build on the visitors who will soon be here to visit our cycling venues or impressive museum district and botanic gardens? (By the way, Toby Bennington, Anniston’s city planner, struck the right note when he spoke of “the tourism mecca that’s being created here.”)
How can we best tell our story?
What impression do we want to leave with visitors after they see the Freedom Riders Park?
To me, it all added up to fire and water.
The fire part is obvious, as the infamous photo of a burning bus can attest. Those flames, set by racists, burned a deep and unfair scar into the reputation of a whole city. The image joined perhaps a handful of others taken during the civil rights struggle that illustrated the raw ugliness of a society in the midst of revolution. The photo captured a moment in time — the violent act of a bunch of Klansmen, but once that moment was gone, it defined an entire town for too long.
The photos of racial reconciliation, of black and white leaders reaching out to lower the temperature in their town, of real racial progress had a tough time competing with that photo. The smoke billowing out from a disabled Greyhound sitting along the side of the Old Birmingham Highway clouded the world’s vision, and the perception of Anniston suffered.
Yet, there are other flames. A burning bush in the Old Testament delivered a message to Moses. It reminds us of a higher power that loves and calls for us all to love, regardless of race or station in life. An eternal flame brings warmth and light.
The geography of the proposed park brings to mind water. Very near the site is Coldwater Springs. It supplies our region with the vast majority of its fresh water, thanks to the springs, which bring forth about 32 million gallons of water each day.
Water has deep symbolism here.
A 12-year-old white girl witnessed the burning bus and was dismayed that neighbors would not lend a hand to gasping Freedom Riders who had escaped the smoke-filled bus. What did she do? Young Janie Forsyth responded by bringing water to the suffering.
The book of Amos calls out to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.”
Science tells us that the underground path the water follows can take up to 40 years to reach the springs on Coldwater Mountain. If true, that means the water that comes up today started its journey as the last strongholds of segregation were falling apart.
Of course, given enough time, water can reshape places that human hands and hearts can’t begin to budge.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Twitter: EditorBobDavis