ANNISTON, Ala. — Walk through this small industrial town in northeast Alabama and it looks much like it did 50 years ago. The light brick one-story building on Gurnee Avenue that once housed the Greyhound bus depot is on the same corner. So is the police station in the next block.
Yet the tenor of the town where Hank Thomas was almost killed for trying to desegregate buses in the Deep South has changed.
Back then, Thomas was a 19-year-old black college student facing an angry mob of white people who firebombed and slashed the tires of the Greyhound bus in which he and other students, black and white, were riding as part of a protest known as the Freedom Rides. Police did nothing as the choking riders fled the flaming bus.
As events this summer mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides, the iconic image of that bus is a reminder of the nation’s troubled history. For his part, Thomas returned last month to a contrite and welcoming town.