Bob Davis: An image that doesn’t define us
May 12, 2013 | 5547 views |  0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A photograph on page 12 of a pamphlet given to visitors to Nashville’s First Amendment Center reminds me of just how deep my attachment toward Anniston has grown over the almost 10 years I’ve called this place home.

The publication — “PROTEST: The Power of Petition and Assembly in American Society”— draws a line from the American revolution to the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage to the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s to today’s Tea Party and Occupy movements. I was handed one last weekend while touring the center, which is the brainchild of a wonderful journalist named John Seigenthaler.

As we strolled through displays noting the Boston Massacre of 1770 and the Boston Tea Party three years later, I began to thumb through the pamphlet. At page 12, I was cut short.

That damn burning bus. Again.

OK, let’s lay out a few disclaimers before going any further.

Yes, the attack on the Freedom Riders in Anniston on Mother’s Day 1961 was horrific.

It was carried out by local racists that today we would accurately label as terrorists.

It shouldn’t be swept under the rug. These events should be noted when telling the history of the civil rights movement and of this city.

I hope that’s clear.

So, back to the tour.

As I first caught a glimpse of the picture, my mind went to work. I wanted to tell those on the tour with me: I live in this town and it’s not like that anymore. That awful photo of a bus, smoke and flames billowing out, isn’t the full definition of a city. The Anniston I know deserves better.

It’s a rather defensive posture, I admit. However, the 50th anniversary of the bus burning two years ago is still fresh in my mind. Many of the Freedom Riders returned like aging war veterans coming back to the scene of an old and awful battle. They were welcomed by the townsfolk with celebrations, historic markers and general affirmations that the Anniston they saw in 1961 has changed for the better.

Yet, the images remain, a thorn in the side.

That damn burning bus. Again.

The challenges the city faces today have nothing to do with the Freedom Riders.

The city’s population has dropped by about one-third over the past three decades. The 2010 Census tracts covering Anniston show sharp declines since 2000, including one section on the west side of town that has decreased by 23.5 percent. The same Census data show huge swaths of the city where the household income is below $30,000.

Anniston’s school system is weighed down with issues. A major one is poverty: Nine out of 10 students in the district qualify for free or reduced school lunches. According to the Annie E. Casey Kids Count survey, in 2011 Anniston had a graduation rate of 58.3 percent. Only six districts in the state had a lower rate. This begs the questions: Where do those dropouts go? And what kind of work can they perform?

The city’s violent crime rate is frustratingly high. We are only a few years from a record number of homicides, and almost daily the pages of The Star are filled with police reports detailing all manner of violence within the city limits. FBI crime statistics tell a story of a rate of crime disproportionate to the size of Anniston’s population. Conversations in and around the city present an even more disturbing trend — countless residents who worry if they or their family will be the next victim.

Add it all up, and Anniston has plenty of serious challenges on its plate. (And we haven’t even mentioned growing McClellan into a robust economic engine for Anniston and the rest of the region.)

That damn burning bus. Again.

That one image can’t begin to probe the challenges the city faces. Nor can it explain the many great things about this place I now call home. Here’s a challenge for everyone who cares about this city and addressing our problems of bad schools, an impoverished and unskilled labor force and unsafe streets. Let’s put that charred Greyhound bus in its proper place in history. Let’s move on. Let’s move forward and robustly tackle today’s wicked problems.

Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.
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