As It Happens

Survivor recalls Alabama bus bombing as Obama declares attack site a national monument

“We could hear cries of ‘Let’s burn them n--gers alive.’” Hank Thomas was nearly killed when his bus full of Freedom Riders was firebombed by a white mob in Alabama in 1961. Now President Barack Obama has designated the bus stop a national monument.
(Hank Thomas/AP File Photo)

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When Hank Thomas boarded the bus in May 1961, it nearly cost him his life.

Thomas was one of the Freedom Riders, a group of black and white Americans riding the bus together through the American South to protest racial segregation on buses. When their bus passed through Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961, it was firebombed by a mob of angry white residents. Last week, in one of his final acts as U.S. president, Barack Obama declared the bus station in Anniston a national monument.

"I am very pleased and the other Freedom Riders are very pleased," Thomas told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "It's a long time coming."

In May 1961, a Freedom Rider bus was firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. U.S. President Barack Obama has designated the bus stop a national monument. (AP File Photo)

Thomas recounted his memories from that day, recalling that the attack on the bus seemed to have been premeditated.

"These white people knew very few things about us. But they were willing to kill us," he said.

Before the bus pulled out of the station in Anniston, Thomas said, someone had cut the tires. The bus didn't get very far and came to a stop in front of a country store. That's when the mob started to attack the bus with "bricks, sticks and any other implements they could use to break out the windows," Thomas said.

As the bus started to burn in a matter of seconds and, of course, we tried to get out, two or three men outside were holding the door.- Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider

"They had an incendiary grenade that they tossed aboard the bus through one of the back smashed-out windows. And as the bus started to burn in a matter of seconds and, of course, we tried to get out, two or three men outside were holding the door.

"We could hear cries of 'Let's burn them n--gers alive.'"

Soon, the fire reached the fuel tank of the bus, causing it to explode, allowing the passengers to escape.

Thomas returned to Anniston 40 years later to commemorate the anniversary of the attack. He was pleased, he said, to see how the city had changed.

"In the area where the bus station was, there was a sizeable group of black and white citizens, holding signs and ribbons welcoming us back to Anniston," he said. "I was so overcome that I actually cried when I saw them and heard them singing."

To hear Hank Thomas tell the whole story of the Anniston bus bombing, click "Listen."

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