BY PHIL NOBLE
When I was a young boy, my family moved from our native Greenville, South Carolina, to Anniston, Alabama, where my father became minister of the Presbyterian Church. Anniston was a small town in north Alabama in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains about 60 miles due east of Birmingham.
Growing up there as a middle class kid was much like growing up in countless other segregated small towns across the South. The city was divided into an east (white) and west (black) side. Pretty much everything else was segregated too — the schools, lunch counters, water fountains and bathrooms, movie theaters, etc. I didn’t think much about it; that’s just the way things were.
We always had a black maid who looked after the house and the kids and cooked many of our meals. There was an old black man named Tee Ball who lived in a small house out back; we called him Mr. T. He was a kind and gentle soul who taught me a lot of things about a lot of things, most memorably how to smoke — Camel unfiltered.
To me, Anniston was like a slightly bigger version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry; our local Barney Fife even gave me a ride on his motorcycle occasionally.
And then, on Mothers Day, 1961, Anniston and my life changed forever. It was on that day that two buses of Freedom Riders came through Anniston on their way from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, testing the new federal law desegregating interstate public transportation.
In Anniston, one of the buses was attacked and firebombed by a white mob, and when the passengers fled the bus, they were savagely beaten. That evening the iconic picture of the bus burning with thick clouds of black smoke billowing upward and the wounded riders in the grass beside the bus, was flashed across the news wires in the Unites States and around the world.
Suddenly, my placid little town was now a vivid symbol of racial hatred and violence.
Obviously, at my young age I didn’t fully understand what the civil rights movement was all about or its larger ramifications. But in some way, from that day to this, the issues of race and division have no longer been about them, the others — out there and other places. It has been about me and us in here — my family, my town. It became something that was within me as a person and it still is.
Shortly thereafter, two African American ministers called my father and asked if they could come talk with him about the racial situation in Anniston. They did not know each other. The black ministers were shocked when my father agreed to meet as every other white minister they had called refused.
My father was not an activist, outspoken or in any sense even a liberal. He was an eighth-generation Southerner who was a simple preacher of the Gospel and who believed all God’s children should be treated the same. As it turned out, that simple idea was a radical idea in the Alabama of George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan — and acting on that simple idea got a lot of people killed.
To make a very long story short, my father became the chairman of a bi-racial council appointed by the Anniston city government. It was the first of its kind in the South and President Kennedy praised it as a model for the country. Over the next few years as the council sought to bring about change, the Klan and others responded with continual death threats, violence, beatings and shootings into homes and churches.
Every day before my father took me to school, he checked under the hood of the car for a bomb; he slept with a loaded shotgun under the bed; and there were frequent phone calls of death threats in the middle of the night. But unlike so many others, our family was spared personal violence.
We learned later from FBI records that my father had the dubious honor of being number one on the Klan’s hit list.
On July 15, 1965, there was a mass rally of segregationists at the county courthouse with one speaker effectively urging the crowd to kill black folks at random. Before the night was out, Willie Brewster was dead. Brewster was a 38-year-old black man with a wife and two small children who was driving home from his job on the second shift at the local foundry. He had never been involved in any civil rights activities but simply had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The response from the black community was predictable, but the response from the white community was not. They quickly came together and put up a $20,000 reward ($150,000 today) for information on the shooter, and they also listed their names in a full-page newspaper advertisement offering the reward. It was a stunning act of defiance of the Klan.
A witness came forward and Brewster’s killer was arrested, tried and convicted of murder by an all-white jury — the first time that had happened in the South since Reconstruction.
In time Anniston, like the rest of the South, slowly moved away from the most egregious forms of segregation. The schools and public facilities were desegregated, and blacks registered to vote and elected their own to public office.
In 2003, my father wrote a book about this time called “Beyond the Burning Bus.” The book sparked what has become an ongoing re-examination of race relations in Anniston with oral histories, exhibits, theatrical performances, school programs and other events focused on teaching young people — black and white — about their shared history.
A few weeks ago, 50 years after Brewster was shot, there were special ceremonies in Anniston. The mayor and the city leadership — black and white — installed a series of historic markers commemorating ‘Anniston’s Civil Rights Trail’. My father, now 94 years old, spoke at the event and was listed among those on the markers. They gave him a key to the city. There are even plans under way for a Freedom Riders Park on the spot where the bus was burned, and a big-time Hollywood screenwriter has been visiting Anniston talking about a movie.
No one would contend that Anniston is today an oasis of racial brotherhood; it’s not, and they still have a lot of problems. But the town has had a transformation (albeit too slow) that few would have thought possible years ago. They have turned their troubled history into a platform to try and build a better future.
Today we in South Carolina and America face a whole new set of different racial problems. In a recent poll, over 70 percent of Americans — black and white — say they believe that race relations are bad and getting worse. They are right.
But it’s not hopeless. In my time growing up in Anniston and in frequent return visits over the years, I think I have learned a few things along the way. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I’d like to humbly offer three basic ideas to keep in mind and help guide us — black and white — as we work our way through today’s difficult times with its new racial challenges.
1) Race relations are like a marriage where divorce is not an option — we all have to work at it every day. No one is going anywhere — “this land is your land, this land is my land.” We cannot get a divorce, and getting along is not something that just happens automatically. We all have to work at it every day; just ask anyone who is in a successful (or unsuccessful) marriage.
2) We are all in the same boat and one third of a boat does not sink — it’s all or nothing. Our state is roughly one third black, brown and other colors and we will ultimately all rise and fall together. Sure, some folks will always be better off than others, but we as a state can ultimately succeed only if we all succeed. We tried “separate but equal” — it did not work. We are not separate — E Pluribus Unum: from many one.
3) We can’t stop talking to each other. Talking alone is not enough; we must do things, but to do anything we must be able to forge a consensus together of what we should do to fix our problems. Today we are in danger of dividing into two (or more) groups and just yelling at each other. The rhetoric turns up the heat, the heat inflames passions and passions can fuel rash acts.
Again, talking is not enough, but it is a precondition of change. Confronting each other’s painful histories, different experiences and bitter current realities, is guaranteed to at times be difficult. It will be uncomfortable, hard and downright painful — on all sides. But we have to go out of our way to talk with those who don’t look or think like we do ... and keep talking, as we never know what may come of it.
Once when things were especially tense in Anniston, my father invited the head of the local Klan to meet and talk — and they did. Just the two of them sat and talked for a while and though there were no great breakthroughs, the telephone death threats did begin to slack off; it’s harder to kill someone when you have sat in their office and talked with them. A few years later the Klansman was arrested on an unrelated issue — and he called my father asking his help, and he responded.
At the memorial service in Dallas for the five slain police officers, President Obama said, “We are not as divided as it seems and as some have suggested.” I believe that he is right. There are those who would seek to benefit from our problems and divisions.
It does not have to be this way.
Anniston, and countless other places, have made painful — if at times too slow — progress. Real change is possible in South Carolina and nationwide — but we must all keep working and keep talking.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association at www.PhilNoble.com. His father, Phil Noble, was the minister at First Scots Presbyterian Church from 1972-1982.