Freedom Rides Museum
Freedom Rides Museum The Freedom Rides Museum is a civil rights memorial museum located in downtown Montgomery, Montgomery County. The museum is located in the historic Greyhound bus station where Freedom Riders stopped on May 20, 1961, and faced violent attacks by white supremacists for using the whites-only waiting room. It is owned and operated by the Alabama Historical Commission and was opened in May 2011 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides. It is part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail and the Alabama Civil Rights Trail.
The bus station was built in 1951 by architect William Strudwick Arrasmith, replacing an earlier station that was located on North Court Street. It followed a standard design from a standard plan in the Streamline Moderne variant of Art Deco architecture and cost approximately $300,000. The station was built with a door in the back of the building labeled “Colored Entrance.”
Freedom Rides Museum Murals The station has been preserved because of its significance in the Freedom Rides in May 1961, an attempt by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to test a recently implemented federal desegregation law. The station played a central role in the second phase of the Freedom Rides. The first phase of riders from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, Louisiana, encountered violence in Anniston, Calhoun County, and Birmingham, Jefferson County, and prompted CORE to end the Rides on May 14.
Freedom Riders The Nashville Student Movement, which was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), started the Rides again on May 17, comprised mostly of students at Fisk University in Tennessee. They boarded buses at Nashville headed to Jackson, Mississippi, by way of Birmingham and Montgomery. Floyd Mann, the director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety (present-day ALEA), provided state troopers as escorts in an attempt to prevent violence. These escorts, however, left the riders as soon as they reached Montgomery, and the young students were met by a crowd of violent white supremacists. Multiple riders were attacked, as well as John Seigenthaler, an official in the U.S. Department of Justice who had been sent to Alabama to observe on behalf of Attorney General Robert R. Kennedy. He followed the bus by car and intervened when female riders were attacked. Hit with a metal pipe, Seigenthaler lay unconscious for nearly 30 minutes. Another rider, William Barbee, was so viciously attacked, that despite Mann’s attempts to protect him, he was paralyzed and died early from his injuries. Jim Zwerg, the only white male member of this group, and future congressman John Lewis were captured in an iconic photo taken that day showing them bloodied. Bernard Lafayette Jr., who would later lead voting rights efforts in Selma for SNCC, also suffered severe injuries. After the violence spiraled, Mann shot his gun in the air and exclaimed, “There’ll be no killing today!” He also pointed his gun at a white man who tried to swing his baseball bat at him.
On May 24, the Freedom Rides resumed with Riders boarding both Greyhound and Trailways buses headed to Jackson, Mississippi, and the activists were once again arrested when they arrived and attempted to use the whites-only waiting room at the bus station. The violence that occurred at Alabama bus stations became a pivotal part of the push for desegregation and successfully integrated bus travel.
Greyhound Bus Station Exterior The Montgomery bus station officially closed in 1995 and a historic marker was placed at the site in 1996. The station fell into disrepair as plans for a museum continued to languish. Meanwhile, the General Services Administration, the federal agency that oversees federal property, planned an expansion of the adjacent federal building and courthouse and joined with the AHC, the U.S. Middle District Court, and the Greyhound Bus Station Committee to preserve the building. Architectural firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates created a design plan for the museum. In 2008, 15 descriptive panels that trace the Freedom Rides and tell the story with words and images were placed outside the building for passersby, as the site was an important tourist destination despite being closed. In 2009, the Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds architect firm, based out of Birmingham, worked with the Alabama Historical Commission to renovate the bus station as a museum. The exterior was cleaned and refurbished, original Greyhound signs were replicated, and the interior rehabilitated.
Freedom Rides Museum Exhibits The museum officially opened in May 2011, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides, and featured a speech by Lewis and Zwerg. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 16, 2011, for its association with the Freedom Rides. The interior of the building had been significantly modified over the years due to expansions and its use as an annex for the adjacent federal courthouse beginning in the late 1990s. In addition, the bus bays were removed along with the segregated services area for African Americans in the rear. In 2012, the museum won a national preservation award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that also recognized the contributions of the organizations that worked together in the 1990s to spur its preservation.
Exhibits trace the history of the Freedom Rides and include an interactive video exhibit called “Share Your Story” that features interviews that highlight the views of Freedom Riders, witnesses, and museum visitors. Panels include recent photographs of Freedom Riders along with quotes about their experiences. Other information describes how the building was designed to promote segregation and how the station has been restored to its 1961 appearance, despite part of the building having been demolished before preservation.
The museum is located at 210 S. Court Street and is open Tuesday to Friday from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for students, seniors, and military, $3 for children between the ages of 6 and 18, and free for those under 6. There are also family and group rates. The Friends of the Freedom Riders Museum organization helps raise funds to promote the museum and its mission. Nearby are many historical attractions, including the Hank Williams Museum, the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Troy University Rosa Parks Museum.