Tuesday, 18 October 2005

The Amazing Race 8 (Family Edition), Episode 4

Huntsville, AL (USA) - Anniston, AL (USA) - Talladeega, AL (USA) - Hattiesburg, MS (USA) - Richland, MS (USA) - Madisonville, LA (USA) - New Orleans, LA (USA)

Whether you’re a foreign visitor or a family of Americans, a road trip across the USA is a great way to learn about American history and culture.

The cult of the car, and the culture of daily and lifetime mobility that has us changing addresses more often than people almost anywhere else in the world except true nomads — even, in some cases, physically moving our “mobile homes” — are key aspects of the American way of life and worldview.

So it’s appropriate for the producers of “The Amazing Race” to send the families of racers to explore the imagery of NASCAR racing at the Talladeega, Alabama, Superspeedway and National Motor Sports Hall of Fame, and then to spend the night at the “Southern Colonel” trailer park and mobile home dealership in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

I’m troubled, though, that the only thing the producers of the TV show tell the racers (or viewers of the show) about Anniston, Alabama is that it is the site of … the world’s largest office chair.

The producers of the race may not have realized it, but Anniston is the site of an important event in modern American history — too important to pass through without acknowledging. It’s especially relevant to a travel show, since it is specifically related to transportation. And had it not happened, “The Amazing Race: Family Edition” wouldn’t have been able to send a racially integrated group of white and African-American families by bus through the South.

Because the Constitution of the USA gives the Federal government more power over interstate commerce and transportation than over local and “intrastate” activities, some of the first Federal court challenges to state “Jim Crow” laws requiring racial segregation were related to interstate transportation facilities.

But Federal court rulings weren’t self-implementing or self-enforcing. In 1947, a small integrated group of radical pacifists — mainly draft resisters recently released after being imprisoned for refusing to register for the World War 2 draft, and emboldened by their success in desegregating the Federal prison system through nonviolent direct action within its walls — carried out a Journey of Reconciliation through the upper part of the South to establish the right of whites and Blacks to sit together on interstate busses.

(For more on that story, see the biographies of Bayard Rustin by Jervis Anderson (“Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen”) and John D’Emilio (“Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin”). On the continuity provided by radical pacifists between World War 2 and the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the 1960’s, see James Tracy’s “Direct Action” and Maurice Isserman’s, “If I Had a Hammer”.)

In 1961, the idea of such a “Freedom Ride” was resurrected in the wake of another Supreme Court ruling against segregation of interstate busses and bus stations. This time, the Freedom Riders included students, Black and white, from the South and the North, as well as older pacifists, and the route was a more ambitious and dangerous one through the heart of the Deep South.

On Mothers Day (a day originally established as an antiwar holiday and to honor mothers of soldiers and civilians killed in war), Sunday, 14 May 1961, two small groups of Freedom Riders arrived in Anniston on separate Greyhound and Trailways busses.

What happened then is described in Chapter 11 (“Baptism on Wheels”) in Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years”:

The Greyhound bus arrived first, and was set upon at the station by…

…a large crowd of men armed with clubs, bricks, iron pipes, and knives…. The mob shouted for the Freedom Riders to come out. Some tried to force open the door. This brought the two Alabama state investigators out from under cover — they ran to the front of the bus and braced themselves against the pull lever, holding the door shut. Enraged, the mob began pounding on the bus with pipes and slashing the tires.

The driver got the bus out of the station and back on the highway before the lynch mob could get to the passengers, but not before the tires on one side were slashed.

The mob was in hot pursuit. About fifty cars, containing as many as two hundred men, soon were stretched out behind them as the Freedom Riders headed for Birmingham.

The bus made it only about six miles out of Anniston, listing more and more towards the side on which the tires were going flat, before it had to pull over, and the driver fled in terror.

This time the mob used bricks and a heavy axe to smash the bus windows one by one…. The attackers ripped open the luggage compartment and battered the exterior again with pipes, while a group of them tried to force open the door. Finally, someone threw a firebomb through the gaping hole in the back window. As flames ran along the floor, some of the seats caught fire and the bus began to fill with thick, acrid smoke. When the choking passengers realized that the fire could not be contained, they gave way to panic. In the front, state investigator E.L. Cowling saw that the mob was no longer trying to force entry, but now was barricading the door to seal them in the fire. Desperate and weak from the smoke, Cowling brandished his revolver and the attackers fell back. When he managed to get the door open, Albert Bigelow and others herded the passengers to the exit. The mob, frenzied by the sight of them but made panicky by Cowling’s gun, danced around the perimeter of the smoke billowing through the door, taking swings at those escaping. Henry Thomas, the SNCC student from Howard, staggered into the clear and was felled by a blow to the head. The others tumbled out behind him, and the attacks continued until arriving Alabama state troopers fired warning shots into the air….

The Trailways bus pulled into Anniston an hour behind a Greyhound…. A small group of tough-looking men… jumped on the bus just ahead of the driver.

The white toughs attacked the unresisting Freedom Riders, beat them to the floor and stamped on them viciously, and then piled them bleeding and semi-conscious across the back seats (where, in their opinion, both “niggers” and “nigger-lovers” belonged).

The Trailways bus then continued from Anniston to Birmingham, where the police withdrew from the bus station while the Freedom Riders, and others, were even more brutally assaulted:

About a dozen Klansman surrounded the two men and pummeled them with kicks, pipes,and [other] objects…. FBI informant Rowe contributed lustily to the beatings. The Freedom Riders entering behind the lead pair tried to retreat from the mayhem, only to find their path blocked by Klansmen. When reporter Simeon Booker looked into the terminal a few seconds later, he saw a bloodied Walter Bergman on his hands and knees crawling desperately among the legs of the men beating him, groping for a door…. The violence at the terminal was contagious, furtive, and often blind…. Seven bystanders [were] hurt badly enough to be hospitalized…. as were several reporters.

Back at Anniston Hospital,

Freedom Riders from the burned Greyhound bus were besieged. A large contingent of the white mob had pursued them there, and hospital personnel, intimidated by the mob, ordered the Freedom Riders to leave, saying their presence endangered other patients.

The pacifists were rescued from Anniston Hospital and brought to a measure of temporary safety in hospitals in Birmingham by “eight cars of Negro churchmen, brimming with shotguns and rifles”.

As for those from the Trailways bus, who had been set upon both in Anniston and in Birmingham:

The ambulance bearing Jim Peck had been turned away from Carraway Methodist Hospital, and he now lay under the surgery lights in the Hillman Hospital emergency room. It took 53 stitches to catch his six head wounds, most prominently a four-inch horseshoe-shaped gash on his forehead. Photographers standing behind the doctors took pictures of the gore for the local newspapers, and a clutch of reporters tossed questions to the woozy and nauseated patient. Peck answered questions coherently, though weekly, sometimes pausing in the effort to distinguish the attack in Anniston from the one in Birmingham. To a final series of questions about his plans, and whether the ferocious attack had been worth it, he replied simply, “The going is getting rougher, but I’ll be on that bus tomorrow headed for Montgomery.” Reporters looked incredulously at Peck and then at one another.

Photos of the burning bus and the dazed and battered riders put the Freedom Ride in the national consciousness, and what happened to the Freedom Riders that day put Anniston on the map of history.

No doubt some local people are ashamed to have their city remembered for such events. I’ve seen similar discomfort elsewhere in the world at the idea of visitors wanting to see the sites of happenings of which some locals aren’t proud. But that doesn’t mean these things should be forgotten, or places like this left unmarked. The point of visiting them is not to blame (or praise) the perpetrators of violence and hatred, but to honor those who have struggled against those evils, and to learn how any why they happened so as to keep those evils from being repeated (and to ensure that, if those evils are repeated, so are the struggles against them).

My mother is a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), whose beliefs center on their faith that there is that of good (“God”) in everyone. My father (and his forefathers for ten generations) were raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, whose Old Testament theology centers on the Temptation and the Fall, the capacity for evil in each of us, and the need for constant vigilance against the devil(s) within and without. I don’t subscribe to either of those, or any other, religion. But I suppose I’m somewhere in between in believing that being human implies the personal capacity for both good and evil actions, and that being moral implies trying to make conscious choices between them.

I visit the scenes of those struggles and choices to honor the victims and the survivors, and to understand the perpetrators of violence and their motives. I would hope that local people would want to do the same thing, although I too might come to resent it if the first thing visitors wanted to see in my home town was something that brought up only unpleasant memories and feelings.

That’s not uncommon: “Ground Zero” is now one of the most-visited places in New York City, and the one thing that almost all visitors to Oklahoma City see is the memorial on the site of the Federal Courthouse destroyed by a bomb on Patriots Day, 19 April 1995 (the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord at the start of the Revolutionary War of Independence) by ultra-patriotic white Christian nationalist American terrorists. (Sadly, that memorial and museum deliberately, explicitly, and completely exclude any attempt to understand the terrorists, or their roots in American values.) “The Amazing Race” has visited the Gorée Island slave pens in Senegal, and Robben Island prison in South Africa.

I’d be interested to hear how readers deal with visits to reminders of bad things, unpleasant events, or aspects of the past that locals don’t want to remember.

Earlier this year in South Africa I visited the site of the Bhisho Massacre, where Black troops of the Ciskei puppet-state army fired on a march demanding the reintegration of the “homelands” into South Africa, killing 29 people.

Black pedestrians nearby were hesitant to direct us to the location, and questioned us about the motives for our visit before doing so. But the Bhisho Massacre site is marked by a memorial monument, and there’s a page about it, including directions for visitors , on the municipal government’s Web site. As there should be: it was an important historical event, and it’s a source of pride for those who identify with participants in the march.

Elsewhere in South Africa, we saw the plaque marking the spot where Mohandas Gandhi, first-class ticket in hand , boarded the first-class (and thus whites-only) compartment of a train in Durban, and the statue of Gandhi that stands where he was thrown off the train in Pietermaritzburg, only a quarter of the way to his destination, when he refused to move to a second class compartment designated for “Asians”. (The statue in Pietermaritzburg shows Gandhi in a dhoti. But on the train that day, he was almost certainly wearing one of the bespoke suits he’d brought back from his recently-completed legal studies in London.)

Times have changed in Anniston , and one recent book argues that race relations in Anniston have moved Beyond The Burning Bus . During a reunion of the Freedom Riders in 2001, which included a reenactment of the ride on a bus provided by the Greyhound bus company as a sponsor of the reunion, the riders were given the key to the city of Anniston.

The National Park Service and a coalition of state government history offices have mapped out a register of historic places of the civil rights movement , but Anniston isn’t on it. So far as I can tell, there’s nothing to mark the spot where the Freedom Riders’ bus was sacked. Today, younger people who grew up in Alabama may never have heard of what happened there on Mother’s Day, 1961.

But many, perhaps most, white Southerners honor those who fought on either side in the Civil War, and preserve the battlefields of that war as sacred ground. Earlier this season in Virginia, the participants of “The Amazing Race” were sent into the midst of a Civil War battle re-enactment to carry “wounded” soldiers on stretchers through the “blank cartridge” gunfire. Why should either the producers of “The Amazing Race” or the people of the South deal differently with the historical sites and events of the Civil War of the 1860’s and the civil rights struggle of the 1960’s?

It’s hard not to interpret the continued shame at this piece of history, on the part of many white Southerners, as a sign that at some level they may still identify more with the segregationists than with the Freedom Riders.

For those who identify with the riders, what happened in Anniston is cause for pride, not shame. It’s hard to imagine anyone, even the most fervent racist, reading the accounts of what the riders did without being in awe of their courage, their ability to remain nonviolent in the face of such provocation, their commitment to carry on with the Freedom Rides (as a succession of others did after the original riders moved on), and perhaps above all their continued faith in the possibility of change in the hearts and minds of those who were trying to kill them.

I’m glad that these days civil disobedience rarely entails the likelihood of death or great bodily harm. But it’s important to remember, and to honor, the extent to which people like the Freedom Riders, other civil rights workers like my mentor and former housemate Eric Weinberger (also profiled in Tom Cohen’s out-of-print “Three Who Dared”), and ordinary Southerners — especially poor folks with few resources with which to start over if they were kicked off the land they sharecropped, or driven out of town, on account of their activism — really were risking their lives and livelihoods, every day, in the struggle for a better America and a better world. That’s not something I want to see forgotten, in Anniston or anywhere.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

This was a column that really touched me. I think the producers lost an opportunity to make a connection with history and many of the rights we take for granted today.

I say "we" even though I am not American, because I lived there for more than 10 years until this summer and I have absorbed many of the expectations of most Americans.

It was especially sad that this opportunity was lost while there were children taking part -- who might have learned an unforgettable lesson about prejudice and the bravery it took to overcome it.



Posted by: Lisa McShine, 21 October 2005, 10:49 (10:49 AM)

Wow-- I used to live with Eric too!

I volunteered with Food not Bombs daily for almost 2 years.

Unfortunately, the last I heard Eric was very sick with Alzheimers.

Posted by: Patrick, 27 October 2005, 10:30 (10:30 AM)
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