As one of the 13 Freedom Riders who were beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan in the model city more than 50 years ago, Person said that for a long time he had no desire to return to the town that he rode through while fighting for civil rights in the 1960s.
“I didn’t understand it; I had never seen such hatred,” Person said Monday during a speech to a packed room at the Anniston City Meeting Center for the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. youth participation event. “But now, you can see this is a wonderful community here. I could live in a community like this, because people here care. You can see it.”
Person was the guest speaker for the event, which has been organized by the Anniston Parks and Recreation Department for the last 13 years. Anniston and Calhoun County leaders honored Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, while church groups and school organizations sang songs, performed dance routines and read King’s speeches.
Frazier Burroughs, the director of the Carver Community Center and one of the ceremony’s organizers, said the event started thanks to a group of Anniston students who wanted to commemorate King’s life. Brittany Easley, who was one of the original organizers of the first event as an Anniston Middle School student 14 years ago, said she just wanted a way to recognize the achievements of the black community in Anniston.
“I never dreamed it would get so big,” said Easley, who noted the event had to be moved from the Carver Community Center to the much bigger Meeting Center venue a few years ago. “You can’t plan for something like this.”
Person and city leaders said they were overwhelmed by Monday’s turnout, and the enthusiasm from the youth that participated.
“If you’re not excited by this, there’s something wrong with you,” said Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart during his opening remarks. “You must not be alive.”
Stewart asked for students to stand during the ceremony, and applauded them for attending the event on a day when they didn’t have school.
“I’m so proud of my community it brings tears to my eyes,” said Anniston Councilman David Reddick about the turnout. “You know these kids understand what the people who came before them did for them.”
Anniston High School 10th-grader Avaria Newton said she always attends the event, and was encouraged by her older sisters, who helped organize the first ceremony, to get involved.
“I don’t think without Dr. King and the civil rights movement I would have even been born,” Newton said. “This is really important to me.”
But Monday’s event wasn’t just a commemoration of Martin Luther King. Anniston Councilman Sayram Salase told the audience that King wasn’t just a dreamer, but a worker.
“That’s the only way you can achieve things,” Salase said. “You have to work hard.”
Anniston Parks and Recreation Director Steven Folks also implored the community to work together to bring positive changes for Anniston, using the City Council’s slogan as a rallying cry.
“We talk one city, one vision, well let’s walk one city, one vision,” Folks shouted over a standing applause toward the end of the ceremony.
After the ceremony, Person said the changes he’s seen in Anniston since his first trip to town have encouraged him, and his own dream is to see the proposed Freedom Riders Park come to fruition in his lifetime.
“I know Dr. King would have been proud of this community,” Person said. “The people here are perpetuating his dream.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.