Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station
The Greyhound Bus Station in 2009
|Location||210 S. Court St., Montgomery, Alabama|
|NRHP Reference #||11000298|
|Added to NRHP||May 16, 2011|
The Greyhound Bus Station at 210 South Court Street in Montgomery, Alabama, was the site of a violent attack on participants in the 1961 Freedom Ride during the Civil Rights Movement. The May 1961 assaults, carried out by a mob of white protesters who confronted the civil rights activists, "shocked the nation and led the Kennedy Administration to side with civil rights protesters for the first time."
The property is no longer used as a bus station, but the building was saved from demolition and its facade has been restored. The site was leased by the Alabama Historical Commission and a historical marker was located in front of the building. In 2011, a museum was opened inside the building, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum won a national preservation award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012.
The first Freedom Ride left Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17. The black and white Freedom Riders were trying to compel the U.S. government to enforce U.S. Supreme Court decisions outlawing segregated transportation, and wanted to end the discriminatory practice of allocating seating on the buses and bus stations with a preference for whites. Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the plan was to have mixed pairs of riders sit side by side. The first ride consisted of two buses, one from Greyhound and one from Trailways, and the plans included a final leg starting in Atlanta, Georgia, and stopping in the state of Alabama in Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery before ending in New Orleans.
In Anniston, a mob of angry whites violently attacked the Greyhound bus and set it on fire; the riders were severely beaten. The Trailways bus arrived an hour later and was boarded in Anniston by Ku Klux Klan members who beat up the Freedom Riders. It was also attacked in Birmingham, and several riders (including James Peck) were beaten in front of the press. Reports of the violence reached US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who urged restraint on the part of Freedom Riders and sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Birmingham. CORE agreed to halt the Freedom Ride in Birmingham on May 14, with the remaining riders flying to New Orleans.
Diane Nash, of the Nashville Student Movement (and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and others were undeterred, and 21 young students, including John Lewis, took the place of the original riders for a leg of the Freedom Ride to Montgomery (the ultimate destination was Jackson, Mississippi). All but one (Ruby Doris Smith, from Atlanta) were from Nashville, Tennessee, and many from Fisk University. Greyhound had initially refused to allow any of their drivers to drive the bus; after an angry intervention by Robert Kennedy, and with an escort of state troopers provided by Floyd Mann, the Alabama Director of Public Safety, the bus left Birmingham for Montgomery on May 20.
The riders, who had been left unescorted by the highway police as they reached Montgomery city limits, arrived at the bus station at 10:23 AM and were met by a crowd of violent white protesters, including women and children. Several were injured in the racist attack, including Robert Kennedy's assistant John Seigenthaler, who had followed the bus in his car: attempting to rescue two white female riders, he was hit over the head with a metal pipe and "lay unconscious on the ground for half an hour." Floyd Mann, a "committed segregationist, tough on law and order," stepped in to protect William Barbee, who was to remain paralyzed and died an early death as a result of his beating. Floyd fired his gun in the air, yelling, "'There'll be no killing here today.' A white attacker raised his bat for a final blow. Mann put his gun to the man's head. 'One more swing,' he said, 'and you're dead.'"
On Sunday, May 21, Martin Luther King, Jr., C.K. Steele, and SCLC officers came to support the Freedom Riders. That evening, they and the riders joined the evening service in Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist Church on North Ripley Street while some 3000 angry protesters yelled outside, burning a car and threatening to burn the church. From inside the church, King telephoned Robert Kennedy, who urged the activists to "cool down," a proposal refused first by Diane Nash, and then by James Farmer (on behalf of CORE) and King. Kennedy had sent 500 U.S. Marshals, headed by United States Deputy Attorney General Byron White. Airborne troops were on standby at Fort Benning, just across the Georgia state line. The Kennedy Administration's decision that it would send US troops to restore order was protested by city and state officials. The marshals, with the help of Floyd Mann and his state troopers, managed to keep the mob at bay; it was finally dispersed with the help of the National Guard at midnight.
The Freedom Ride again went on the road, and travelled to Jackson, Mississippi, where the students, which by now included Nashville Student Movement activists Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and others, were arrested as they attempted to desegregate the "Black" and "White" waiting rooms in the bus terminal.
As a result of the unrest and the nationwide publicity generated by the Freedom Rides, in late May Robert Kennedy was able to successfully petition the Interstate Commerce Commission to adopt stronger regulations and desegregate interstate transportation.
The bus station is significant only in its relationship to the events of the single day of May 20, 1961. It is otherwise an unassuming example of Greyhound bus stations in that time, derived from a standard plan and built for $300,000 starting in 1950. It opened in August 1951. The building had a door labelled "Colored Entrance"; African Americans entered through it directly into the bus bay, accessing interior of the segregated terminal from the rear.
The Greyhound station was closed in 1995, and its history is indicated by a historic marker placed there in 1996. The building fell into disrepair, and plans to open a museum were delayed repeatedly, leading to accusations of racial prejudice against the Alabama Historical Commission. The internationally renowned architectural firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates produced a design plan for the building. The site was noted as one of Montgomery's tourist attractions though the building could not be entered. A series of fifteen panels added in 2008, across the front of the building, illustrates the events of May 1961. In 2009, the services of Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds, architects out of Birmingham, AL, were retained by the Alabama Historical Commission to rehabilitate and refurbish the interior of the bus station into The Freedom Rides Museum.
In May 2011, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the riot at the bus station, a 3,000-square-foot (280 m2) museum was opened in the presence of Jim Zwerg. The building was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 16, 2011.
The Freedom Rides Museum focuses on the history of the protest and riot, and is open on Fridays and Saturdays.