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Last updated 1:02AM ET
March 3, 2021
Historic Civil Rights Site in Peril
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - The old Greyhound bus station where Freedom Riders were beaten in 1961 now sits empty, with only a sign on the sidewalk recounting how it was a historic tipping point in the civil rights movement.

The federal government, which owns the building, leased it to the state in 2000 in anticipation of it becoming a museum honoring the Freedom Riders. But its once busy waiting room remains silent.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller said he would like to see the building next to the federal courthouse preserved. But he recently warned state officials that if the building continues to deteriorate, it will become a security risk for the courthouse, and it will have to be torn down.

"The roof is within a few years of collapsing," Fuller said.

John Neubauer, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission, said Fuller is overstating the situation. "There are a couple of leaks, but structurally, it is sound," he said.

John Seigenthaler, a former Justice Department official who was attacked with the Freedom Riders, said the small bus station may look like "an empty Cracker Jack box," but the demonstrators who shed their blood in Montgomery deserve to have their contributions remembered.

"It's a seminal moment in the history of race relations in America," said Seigenthaler, who went on to become editor and publisher of The Tennessean in Nashville and founded the First Amendment Center.

One of the Freedom Riders who was beaten that day agrees with Seigenthaler.

"The Greyhound bus station in Montgomery should be looked upon as a place where citizens moved by a higher calling gave a little blood to redeem the soul of America," U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said.

Neubauer's agency has painted the outside and repaired the Greyhound sign, but that's it since 2000. The commission is expecting $400,000 in state funds to make more repairs, including fixing the roof.

Neubauer said the state intends to preserve the bus station and create a civil rights tourist attraction that would cost an estimated $7.5 million to $8 million. But right now, "the money is not there."

The bus station is not alone. All the historic sites owned or leased by the Alabama Historic Commission struggle with funding.

"This has been a continuing problem for at least 25 years and probably goes back beyond that," veteran State Archivist Ed Bridges said.

The brick bus station was just another nondescript stop along Southern highways until May 1961, when the Freedom Riders set out from Washington to test a U.S. Supreme Court ruling desegregating seating on interstate buses. After experiencing a bus burning near Anniston, Ala., and beatings in Birmingham, the Freedom Riders prepared their wills and headed to Montgomery on May 20.

With no Montgomery police in sight, an angry mob including Ku Klux Klansmen attacked and beat the Freedom Riders. Some were close to death before state troopers arrived to end the violence.

Seigenthaler, then administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had been sent to Montgomery to try to negotiate the Freedom Riders' safe passage with Gov. John Patterson. He rushed in to help two Freedom Riders, but was hit on the head with a pipe and knocked unconscious.

After the beatings, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flew to Montgomery for a nighttime church meeting, which was surrounded by thousands of angry whites for hours.

The violence forced the young administration of President John Kennedy to take a stand on civil rights. Robert Kennedy sent U.S. marshals to the city to keep the peace.

"It was for the Kennedy administration a question, then a challenge and then a decision to act all within a few hours," Seigenthaler recalled.

In Lewis' view, it set the pattern for the Kennedy administration.

"It was the first major test for the Kennedy administration, and it demonstrated how far this nation would have to go to advance the cause of equal justice in America," he said.

The federal government acquired the bus station 12 years ago after Greyhound moved out of downtown. The bus parking area, where many of the Freedom Riders were beaten, was torn down to make way for a new federal courthouse, but acceding to public pressure, the federal government left the station standing next to the courthouse.

The proposed bus station museum was supposed to join a growing list of civil rights attractions in the capital that include a memorial to slain civil rights activists, King's parsonage when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, and a museum celebrating the contributions of Rosa Parks.

Busloads of tourists arrive regularly at those attractions, but the only thing to see at the bus station is the historic marker on the sidewalk.

"We haven't gone anywhere in 12 years," Fuller said.

Patterson, the former governor, said he's surprised, considering the success of Montgomery's other civil rights attractions.

"It's an important historical place. It really is," he said.

Fuller said he doesn't want to see the building demolished, but its deteriorating condition and unguarded glass windows pose a security problem.

"That building has been occupied by transients and drug dealers," he said.

The federal government has allocated $300,000 to build a secure mail room for the federal courthouse. Fuller recently offered to put the mail room in the bus station, saying it would at least preserve the building, although it wouldn't be open to the public. The state, however, could put up displays in a building it owns across the street.

Neubauer said the commission, as well as supporters of the bus station project, were not keen on that idea.

"That is a bad use of the space," said Randall Williams, who owns a publishing company down the street from the station.

Neubauer, who's leaving his post next month, said the commission is working with historically black Alabama State University to develop a master plan for the bus station and is pursuing other means to fund the project.

Patterson said the state ought to launch a fundraising drive because he believes there are plenty of people who would contribute to making the bus station a memorial to the Freedom Riders.

"There are funds available to do that. It really ought to be done," he said.

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