MONTGOMERY, Ala. —Freedom Riders who were attacked in Alabama's capital city on May 20, 1961, returned 50 years later to be hailed as heroes and have a museum dedicated at the old bus station where they were confronted by an angry white mob.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said he teared up Friday when he walked through the old Greyhound station where he was beaten and knocked unconscious.
"It says something about the distance we've come and the progress we've made in this state and nation," said Lewis, who participated in the rides.
That change was evident in former Alabama Gov. John Patterson. In 1961, he called the Freedom Riders fools and agitators when they set out to integrate Southern bus stations. But the 89-year-old ex-governor welcomed them Friday and praised them for bringing needed changes.
The Freedom Riders were mostly college students, black and white, who set out on Greyhound and Trailways buses across the South to test a U.S. Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate transportation.
After one bus was firebombed near Anniston and the Ku Klux Klan threatened and beat Freedom Riders in Birmingham, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy secured a promise from Patterson to have state troopers protect the group's bus from Birmingham to Montgomery. City police were supposed to take up the job once they crossed the city line.
But when they reached Montgomery's Greyhound station, police were not there. Instead, an angry crowd fueled by Klansmen attacked them.