National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
African American History Month Feature 2012
Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, Alabama

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

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Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station
Photograph copyright Robin Cook, courtesy of the Alabama State Historic Preservation Office via GSA: http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/284809#284873

On May 20, 1961, the Freedom Riders were attacked by a local mob at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station in Montgomery, Alabama.  The historic importance of the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station is limited to this one day, but the repercussions from the events of May 20, 1961, brought the Civil Rights struggle into sharp relief and caught national and international attention. The Freedom Riders were a group consisting of  students and civil rights activists who used nonviolent tactics and rode interstate buses into the segregated southern states to test the United States Supreme Court decisions Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which declared that segregation in interstate travel, including bus station facilities, violated the Interstate Commerce Act.  Despite the ruling, law enforcement officials within some local jurisdictions in southern states still supported segregation between African Americans and European Americans on interstate buses, and many citizens in the South also supported the segregationist stance within their towns.

Freedom Rides organized to test the validity and enforcement of segregation on the nation’s new interstate system, which was subject to federal oversight. The Freedom Riders were founded by the Nashville Student Group in Tennessee, who successfully deregulated the movie theaters and lunch counters in Nashville. To test the system and draw attention to the de facto segregation practices in the South, the Freedom Riders decided to travel in racially mixed groups, sitting where they pleased and testing the policies of segregated restrooms and dining areas. Leaders of the Freedom Riders patterned their efforts after a 1947 Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) project known as the Journey of Reconciliation.

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Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station
Photograph courtesy of the Alabama State Historic Preservation Office

CORE, which formed in 1942, sought to apply the principles of nonviolence as a tactic against racial segregation, most notably campaigning for equality and voting rights. CORE’s staff recruited and trained the 13 initial Freedom Riders.  On May 4, 1961, 13 activists in Washington, D.C., chosen by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), climbed aboard Greyhound and Trailways buses bound for New Orleans. Some of the riders made only partial journeys, with new activists taking their places along the way. The riders consisted of a mix of African Americans and Caucasians, with clergy and students comprising the majority of the group. The early portion of the journey through Virginia and North Carolina passed with little incident. However, as the group moved deeper into the South, hostility from local citizens and law enforcement officials increased. In South Carolina, an angry mob beat the riders.  Martin Luther King Jr., meeting the group in Georgia, warned, “You will never make it through Alabama.”

Despite the threats, the Freedom Riders continued their journey. Just outside of Anniston, Alabama, segregationists firebombed one of the buses and a mob attempted to attack the riders as they fled the burning vehicle. When the second bus reached Birmingham, Alabama, a mob with similar intentions also assaulted the riders, who were dragged away and beaten nearly to death. The Freedom Riders were not allowed to leave the city for five days as Bull Conner, Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner, effectively held them hostage. The situation in Birmingham resulted in a standoff between President Kennedy and Alabama’s Governor, John Malcolm Patterson.  After negotiations, the Freedom Riders left the Birmingham bus station to Dothan, Alabama, by way of Montgomery. With a law enforcement escort, they departed.  John Lewis, a student activist who later would become a key figure in the civil rights movement and a U.S. Congressman, was one of the Freedom Riders on this portion of the journey. 

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Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station
Photograph courtesy of the Alabama State Historic Preservation Office

Montgomery, Alabama, played an important role in the American civil rights movement. During the early years of the movement African Americans began pushing for equal rights. Dr. Martin Luther King was a Montgomery resident and King’s presence often put Montgomery in the national spotlight. Many scholars consider the city to be the epicenter of the civil rights struggle because of the importance of the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott and its role in launching Dr. King as the national leader of the civil rights movement. The atmosphere of segregation coupled with attempts to change the status quo remained in the city in the early 1960s when civil rights activists and students organized the Freedom Riders throughout the South.

Arriving early in Montgomery with only a lone motorcycle patrolman escort, the Freedom Riders soon discovered that a crowd of approximately 200 angry protestors crowded the streets and the arrival bay area at the bus station. Among the crowd were several notorious Klansmen who were involved in the Birmingham violence. Reporters greeted the Freedom Riders, but before the first question could be answered, a mob, bearing lead pipes and baseball bats, attacked first the reporters, smashing their equipment, before turning their attention to the Freedom Riders. By this time, some of the Freedom Riders formed a human chain by joining hands. The mob quickly overwhelmed them.

John Lewis remembered the scene, stating that hundreds of people with makeshift weapons attacked the Freedom Riders. The angry crowd pushed some of the Freedom Riders against a retaining wall, from which some jumped eight feet below to escape. Five African American women Freedom Riders escaped in a cab driven by an African American. Two Caucasian women were pulled from another cab and beaten by the mob. A federal agent attempting to help the two women was hit on the head with a metal pipe and was pushed under a car. Those Freedom Riders, who remained on the loading platform of the station, unable to escape their attackers, received the most serious injuries. The only Caucasian male rider, Jim Zwerg, was attacked viciously, losing consciousness from his beatings, and flung over a railing.

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John Lewis poses for pictures in front of new artwork depicting Freedom Rides.
Photograph copyright Robin Cook, courtesy of the Alabama State Historic Preservation Office via GSA: http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/284809#284873

After they dealt with Jim Zwerg, the attackers focused on the African Americans Freedom Riders.  The Klansmen brutally attacked John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and William Barbee.  Barbee suffered the brunt of the assault, and suffered injuries that would shorten his life. Three men escaped the violence by jumping over the retaining wall and running to the adjacent post office. Floyd Mann, Alabama’s director of public safety, arrived on the scene and attempted to stop the violence, finally pulling out his pistol and firing two shots in the air.  Mann succeeded in dispersing the crowd on the loading platform, but other areas of the station were in turmoil. 

The Montgomery police force arrived ten minutes after the bus’ arrival, and arrested the most violent member of the mob, but made no real effort to detain or arrest the vast majority involved in the beatings. An injunction barring the Freedom Riders from Alabama was read to Lewis, who was lying on the pavement. Now outlaws in Alabama, the scattered Freedom Riders made for the home of Reverend Solomon Seay, Sr., who offered his residence as a refuge. The riots continued until Floyd Mann called approximately 70 highway patrolmen to the scene.

20 people were seriously injured, including John Seigenthaler, who was a personal representative of the President. President Kennedy, realizing the State officials would not help the Freedom Riders, dispatched Federal marshals to Alabama. Reporters and photographers recorded the attack, but much of their equipment was destroyed. The Freedom Riders, desperate, called on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for help.  On Sunday, may 21, 1961, more than 1,000 people, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other prominent civil rights leaders, gathered at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama to show their support for the Freedom Riders. Outside the church, an angry crowd gathered. The National Guard used tear gas to disperse the crowd. 

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Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station
Photograph copyright Robin Cook, courtesy of the Alabama State Historic Preservation Office via GSA: http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/284809#284873

On May 24, 1961, the Freedom Riders departed Montgomery from the Trailways Bus Station.  300 National Guard troops cordoned off the street, providing protection as the group departed for Mississippi. According to historian Raymond Arenault, the events in Montgomery transformed the Freedom Rides and subsequently the Civil Rights movement.  Although they were later arrested in Jackson, Mississippi for “breach of peace” and over 350 went to jail for 40 days and endured hardships, they continued in the civil rights struggle after their release. The attacks in Montgomery garnered worldwide attention and forced the federal government to intervene to solve civil rights issues.

The Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, located at 210 S. Court Street in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, is a small, modest, single story-building constructed in 1950-1951. The station contains elements of the Moderne style, which include asymmetry, horizontal emphasis, and windows that wrap around corners. Although it is a reserved example of the style and has undergone several alterations since its construction, it is still recognizable as a mid-20th century bus station. By 1950 the Greyhound Bus Company wanted to build a new bus company to replace an older station on North Court Street. Choosing the site behind the federal courthouse building, W.S. Arrasmith, a Louisville, Kentucky, architect who specialized in bus station design, designed the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station. Construction of the building commenced in 1950 and was completed the following year.  The Brice Building Company of Birmingham, Alabama, served as the construction company; the enterprise had built 15 bus terminals for Greyhound since 1945.  The station opened in August 1951 with much fanfare. The Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on May 16, 2011.

Excerpts from the National Register Documentation for the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, Montgomery, Alabama (Stepaine Foell, Supervising Architectural Historian [Parsons Brickerhoff], Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, NRHP Nomination, Alabama SHPO, May 16, 2011)

The bus terminal is owned by General Services Administration (GSA). The Alabama Historical Commission leases the terminal from GSA and has restored the building, creating a museum about the Freedom Rides. The museum's grand opening was May 19-21, with U.S. Rep. John Lewis and other Freedom Riders attending and speaking.

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