A diverse group of citizens is working to build a nationally significant park and on the morning of October 18, they plan to break ground.
The group’s members are from cities coast to coast but most are from Anniston, Alabama, where the iconic “bus burning” took place on May 14, 1961. Known as the Freedom Riders Park organization, they plan to memorialize the exact location where the bus was burned and the nation’s commitment to civil rights was fueled forever.
“This will be a place for education, contemplation and reflection that shows how a bad event triggered good things, unity and wonderful partnerships,” said Bill Harbour, Freedom Riders Park Committee Co-Chair and Freedom Rider who rode a bus before his own imprisonment and life-changing ordeal.
State Representative Barbara Boyd has envisioned this park for well over a decade. “So many partners have come together to help make this happen. For example, the Alabama Department of Transportation transferred the land to our Calhoun County and soon, their road department will scrape off some land and help us all see the future of this park,” she said.
Nearby Jacksonville State University has been helping to move the project forward through its Environmental Policy and Information Center and Director Pete Conroy, who also serves as a Freedom Riders Park Co-chair.
“It’s been terrific to have so many people join us to envision this park,” said Conroy. He continued, “From planners, businesses and students to movie stars, tourism advocates and architects, those who come in contact with the project want to help.”
Harvard University Loeb Scholar, California architect and Freedom Riders Park Advisory Committee member Steve Lewis has served as President of the National Organization of Minority Architects and envisions the park as a type of national monument. Lewis says, “Projects such as Freedom Riders Park are significant inasmuch as they preserve the story of our time for future generations to refer to in order to gain a better understanding of who we are as a society.” He continued, “Citizens of today deserve to understand and pay tribute to events, however difficult and painful, that helped move us forward to a better place.”
The October 18, two-part event will be free and open to the public. It will begin with a ceremony at the park’s future location on Alabama Hwy. 202. The location is near Anniston, a mid-point between Atlanta and Birmingham as the bus had planned to travel before it was met with misguided anger and violence.
The morning groundbreaking event begins at 9 a.m., with featured musical and guest presentations at 10 a.m. Speaking will be Bill Harbour, Freedom Riders Charles Person and Hank Thomas, as well as Janie Forsythe McKinney, who, as a young girl, brought water to Mr. Thomas after he fled the burning bus.
The evening event begins at 6 p.m. in the JSU McClellan Center, where the celebration will feature guest speakers and a special performance by basso profundo, opera sensation K.B. Solomon. Solomon will present his nationally acclaimed Paul Robeson tribute, “Speak of Me as I Am.” Pianist Dr. Andy Nevala will accompany him.
“I’m so pleased to have the opportunity to visit my Anniston home, experience the excitement of a new unity and perform to what is sure to be my favorite audience ever,” says Solomon.