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“Oh, my God, they’re going to burn us up!”

An excerpt from Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault. Arsenault will soon be on tour, roughly following the route of the original Freedom Rides. Click here for a map of the Rides/his tour.

On May 14, 1961, the two groups of Freedom Riders left Atlanta an hour apart. The Greyhound group, with Joe Perkins in charge, was the first to leave, at 11:00 A.M. Fourteen passengers were on board: five regular passengers, seven Freedom Riders—Genevieve Hughes, Bert Bigelow, Hank Thomas, Jimmy McDonald, Mae Frances Moultrie, Joe Perkins, Ed Blankenheim—and two journalists, Charlotte Devree and Moses Newson. Among the “regular” passengers were Roy Robinson, the manager of the Atlanta Greyhound station, and two undercover plainclothes agents of the Alabama Highway Patrol, Corporals Ell Cowling and Harry Sims. Both Cowling and Sims sat in the back of the bus, several rows behind the scattered Freedom Riders, who had no inkling of who these two seemingly innocuous white men actually were. Following the orders of Floyd Mann, the director of the Alabama Highway Patrol, Cowling carried a hidden microphone designed to eavesdrop on the Riders. Unsure of the Freedom Ride’s itinerary, Mann—and Governor John Patterson—wanted Cowling to gather information on the Riders and their plans.

Just south of Anniston, the driver of a southbound Greyhound motioned to the driver of the Freedom Riders’ bus, O. T. Jones, to pull over to the side of the road. A white man then ran across the road and yelled to Jones through the window: “There’s an angry and unruly crowd gathered at Anniston. There’s a rumor that some people on this bus are going to stage a sit-in. The terminal has been closed. Be careful.” With this message the Riders’ worst fears seemed to be confirmed, but Joe Perkins—hoping that the warning was a bluff, or at least an exaggeration— urged the driver to keep going. A minute or two later, as the bus passed the city limits, several of the Riders couldn’t help but notice that Anniston’s sidewalks were lined with people, an unusual sight on a Sunday afternoon in a Deep South town. “It seemed that everyone in the town was out to greet us,” Genevieve Hughes later commented.

As the bus eased into the station parking lot just after 1:00 P.M. the station was locked shut, and there was silence. Then, suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a screaming mob led by Anniston Klan leader William Chappell rushed the bus. Thomas thought he heard Jones encourage the attackers with a sly greeting. “Well, boys, here they are,” the driver reportedly said with a smirk. “I brought you some niggers and nigger-lovers.” But it all happened so fast that no one was quite sure who was saying what to whom.

As the crowd of about fifty surrounded the bus, an eighteen-year-old Klansman and ex-convict named Roger Couch stretched out on the pavement in front of the bus to block any attempt to leave, while the rest—carrying metal pipes, clubs, and chains—milled around menacingly, some screaming, “Dirty Communists” and “Sieg heil!” There was no sign of any police, even though Herman Glass, the manager of the Anniston Greyhound station, had warned local officials earlier in the day that a potentially violent mob had gathered around the station. After the driver opened the door, Cowling and Sims hurried to the front to prevent anyone from entering. “One man stood on the steps, yelling, and calling us cowards,” Hughes noticed, but her attention soon turned to a second man who “walked by the side of the bus, slipped a pistol from his pocket and stared at me for some minutes.” When she heard a loud noise and shattering glass, she yelled, “Duck, down everyone,” thinking that a bullet had hit one of the windows. The projectile turned out to be a rock, but another assailant soon cracked the window above her seat with a fist full of brass knuckles. Joe Perkins’s window later suffered a similar fate, as the siege continued for almost twenty minutes. By the time the Anniston police arrived on the scene, the bus looked like it had been in a serious collision. Swaggering through the crowd with billy clubs in hand, the police officers examined the broken windows and slashed tires but showed no interest in arresting anyone. After a few minutes of friendly banter with members of the crowd, the officers suddenly cleared a path and motioned for the bus to exit the parking lot.

A police car escorted the battered Greyhound to the city limits but then turned back, once again leaving the bus to the mercy of the mob. A long line of cars and pickup trucks, plus one car carrying a news reporter and a photographer, had followed the police escort from the station and was ready to resume the assault. Once the entourage reached an isolated stretch of Highway
202 east of Bynum, two of the cars (one of which was driven by Roger Couch’s older brother Jerome) raced around the front of the bus and then slowed to a crawl, forcing the bus driver to slow down. Trailing behind were thirty or forty cars and trucks jammed with shrieking whites. Many, like Chappell and the Couches, were Klansmen, though none wore hoods or robes. Some, having just come from church, were dressed in their Sunday best—coats and ties and polished shoes—and a few even had children with them.

A pair of flat tires forced the bus driver to pull over to the side of the road in front of the Forsyth and Son grocery store six miles southwest of town, only a few hundred yards from the Anniston Army Depot. Flinging open the door, the driver, with Robinson trailing close behind, ran into the grocery store and began calling local garages in what turned out to be a futile effort to find replacement tires for the bus. In the meantime, the passengers were left vulnerable to a swarm of onrushing vigilantes. Cowling had just enough time to retrieve his revolver from the baggage compartment before the mob surrounded the bus. The first to reach the Greyhound was a teenage boy who smashed a crowbar through one of the side windows. While one group of men and boys rocked the bus in a vain attempt to turn the vehicle on its side, a second tried to enter through the front door. With gun in hand, Cowling stood in the doorway to block the intruders, but he soon retreated, locking the door behind him. For the next twenty minutes Chappell and other Klansmen pounded on the bus demanding that the Freedom Riders come out to take what was coming to them, but they stayed in their seats, even after the arrival of two highway patrolmen. When neither patrolman made any effort to disperse the crowd, Cowling, Sims, and the Riders decided to stay put.

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Eventually, however, Couch and another member of the mob, Cecil “Goober” Lewallyn, decided that they had waited long enough. After returning to his car, which was parked a few yards behind the disabled Greyhound, Lewallyn suddenly ran toward the bus and tossed a flaming bundle of rags through a broken window. Within seconds the bundle exploded, sending dark gray smoke throughout the bus. At first, Genevieve Hughes thought the bomb-thrower was just trying to scare the Freedom Riders with a smoke bomb, but as the smoke got blacker and blacker and as flames began to engulf several of the upholstered seats, she realized that she and the other passengers were in serious trouble. Crouching down in the middle of the bus, she screamed out, “Is there any air up front?” When no one answered, she began to panic. “Oh, my God, they’re going to burn us up!” she yelled to the others, who were lost in a dense cloud of smoke. Making her way forward, she finally found an open window six rows from the front and thrust her head out, gasping for air. As she looked out, she saw the outstretched necks of Jimmy McDonald and Charlotte Devree, who had also found open windows. Seconds later, all three squeezed through the windows and dropped to the ground. Still choking from the smoke and fumes, they staggered across the street. Gazing back at the burning bus, they feared that the other passengers were still trapped inside, but they soon caught sight of several passengers who had escaped through the front door on the other side.

They were all lucky to be alive. Several members of the mob had pressed against the door screaming, “Burn them alive” and “Fry the goddamn niggers,” and the Freedom Riders had been all but doomed until an exploding fuel tank convinced the mob that the whole bus was about to explode. As the frightened whites retreated, Cowling pried open the door, allowing the rest of the choking passengers to escape. When Hank Thomas, the first Rider to exit the front of the bus, crawled away from the doorway, a white man rushed toward him and asked, “Are you all okay?” Before Thomas could answer, the man’s concerned look turned into a sneer as he struck the astonished student in the head with a baseball bat. Thomas fell to the ground and was barely conscious as the rest of the exiting Riders spilled out onto the grass.

By this time, several of the white families living in the surrounding Bynum neighborhood had formed a small crowd in front of the grocery store. Most of the onlookers remained safely in the background, but a few stepped forward to offer assistance to the Riders. One little girl, twelve-year-old Janie Miller, supplied the choking victims with water from a five-gallon bucket while braving the insults and taunts of Klansmen. Later, ostracized and threatened for this act of kindness, she and her family found it impossible to remain in Anniston. Even though city leaders were quick to condemn the bombing, there was little sympathy for the Riders among local whites. Indeed, while Miller was coming to the Riders’ aid, some of her neighbors were urging the marauding Klansmen on.

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At one point, with the Riders lying “on the ground around the bus, coughing and bleeding,” the mob surged forward. But Cowling’s pistol, the heat of the fire, and the acrid fumes wafting from the burning upholstery kept them away. Moments later a second fuel tank explosion drove them back even farther, and eventually a couple of warning shots fired into the air by the highway patrolmen on the scene signaled that the would-be lynching party was over. As the disappointed vigilantes slipped away, Cowling, Sims, and the patrolmen stood guard over the Riders, most of whom were lying or sitting in a daze a few yards from the burned-out shell of the bus.

Several of the Riders had inhaled smoke and fumes and were in serious need of medical attention, but it would be some time before any of them saw a doctor. One sympathetic white couple who lived nearby allowed Hughes to use their phone to call for an ambulance, and when no one answered, they drove her to the hospital. For the rest of the stricken Riders, getting to the hospital proved to be a bit more complicated. When the ambulance called by one of the state troopers finally arrived, the driver refused to transport any of the injured black Riders. After a few moments of awkward silence, the white Riders, already loaded into the ambulance, began to exit, insisting they could not leave their black friends behind. With this gesture—and a few stern words from Cowling—the driver’s resolve weakened, and before long the integrated band was on its way to Anniston Memorial Hospital.

Photo credits: 1) “Freedom bus” in flames, near Forsyth and Son Grocery, six miles southwest of Anniston, Alabama, Sunday, May 14, 1961. Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library.
2) The burned-out shell of the bus disabled and bombed by white supremacists near Anniston, Sunday, May 14, 1961. Journalist Moses Newson (far left, partially obscured) and Alabama Highway Patrol investigator Ell Cowling stand near the bus. Freedom Riders (left to right) Jimmy McDonald and Hank Thomas and regular passenger Roberta Holmes can be seen sitting in the foreground. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. INCITE

    The 4,897th Carnival of the Vanities

    OK, perhaps there haven’t been 4,897 CotVs, but I’m not really sure what the count is, and I like my version better.

  2. Richard Forsyth

    The twelve year old girl who brought water for the choking victims was, in fact, Janie Forsyth, daughter of the owner of Forsyth & Son Grocery and my sister. Janie has been invited to (and attended) the two Freedom Rider reunions which have been held to date in Atlanta.

    Richard E. Forsyth, Jr.

  3. Stephen Forsythe

    I was wondering why it said Janie Miller and not Forsyth. The family didn’t leave Anniston after that did they? I have read this same account in many places on the internet. It would be nice if the original publishers could issue a correction.

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