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Freedom Riders get place in history 50 years later

Associated Press | 5/25/2011, 12:12 p.m.
(Photo courtesy of Corbis) Phillip Rawls ...

Montgomery was also the scene of another moment of high drama in the Freedom Riders’ journey.

The night after the bus station attacks, federal marshals and the National Guard had to be called in when an angry white mob surrounded the First Baptist Church, where riders and 1500 supporters including Martin Luther King Jr. had gathered. King pleaded with then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to intervene, and he ultimately persuaded Patterson to send in the Guard.

The bus station attack prompted a court order against the Klan by U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson of Montgomery and led to new federal rules guaranteeing an end to segregation in all aspects of interstate travel.

Shortly after the museum opened Friday, an exhibit recognizing Johnson’s landmark rulings in the civil rights era was dedicated in the federal courthouse next door.

The old bus station was slated for demolition in 1993 to make way for an expansion of the courthouse. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson and Patterson advocated that it be spared because of its place in history. After it sat empty for many years, the Alabama Historical Commission developed the 3,000-square-foot museum with art work, photos and descriptions of what happened and the impact it had.

“The museum may be small, but its significance is monumental,” Thompson said.

The Historical Commission is uncertain what days it will be open because the commission, like most other state agencies, is facing a 45 percent budget cut over two years.

The museum is within walking distance of several of Montgomery’s other civil rights attractions, including the Rosa Parks Library, the Civil Rights Memorial and Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King served as pastor when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.

Thompson, Montgomery’s first black federal judge, praised the way the museum turned out, but he said, “There is no better way to forget something than to commemorate it.”

He said the museum should not be a symbol that everything the Freedom Riders sought has been accomplished. He said it should reinvigorate the Freedom Riders’ principles “of liberty and justice for all.”

He asked the crowd: “Would you today take a bus ride under the circumstances faced by the Freedom Riders back in 1961?”

Associated Press