Freedom Rides Museum has grand opening

“Woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom.”

So sang 11 Freedom Riders, schoolchildren and a large crowd of well-wishers during the dedication Friday of the Freedom Rides Museum at the site of the former Greyhound bus station on South Court Street in Montgomery.

It was a much different sort of crowd than the one that greeted the same Freedom Riders in Montgomery almost exactly 50 years earlier.

A group of people — some wielding baseball bats, chains and other weapons — were waiting for the Riders as they walked out of the bus station at 10:23 a.m. May 20, 1961.

“The moment we started down the steps, people came toward the reporters and started beating them. Then the mob turned on us,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was among the Freedom Riders present for the ceremony.

Reporters had been following the Freedom Riders to document their challenge of segregated bus stations in the Deep South, which the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional.

Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks described how women in the crowd — some holding babies at the time — were screaming racial epithets at them.

There were no police officers to be found as the mob attacked. Floyd Mann, the state’s public safety director at the time, had to single-handedly bring an end to the bloodshed.

The scene was much different Friday, with tight security in the perimeter around the tent where the Freedom Riders were celebrated.

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange presented each of the Freedom Riders with a copy of a proclamation naming May 20, 2011, as Freedom Riders Day.

Jim Zwerg was beaten to within an inch of his life that day in 1961 and offered remarks Friday that struck a tone of reconciliation.

“Montgomery was a city of firsts for me,” Zwerg said. “It was the first time I had the crap kicked out of me. It was also the first time I received a bouquet of flowers.”

Zwerg went on to explain that he received the flowers while in the hospital after the attack, along with a card assuring him that not all Montgomery residents were like the people who attacked him that day.

An interpretive panel outside the museum states that Zwerg, who is white, was targeted with some of the most vicious attacks because of his race.

The museum features artwork with civil rights themes, including “Transforming Hate: Freedom Riders, 1961” by Jean Grosser, an art teacher at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C. The artwork is part of a yearlong exhibit titled “Road to Equality.”

The most inspiring thing about the Riders, Grosser said, was their ages. They were college students and recent graduates between the ages of 18 and 21.

“It makes me wonder what my students will do,” Grosser said.

Story Here — Montgomery Advertiser

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