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In America's Deep South, a front seat for Freedom Riders

A disused bus station-turned- museum honors some of those who changed the course of civil rights history.

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Now, a half century after the Freedom Riders first arrived in this city, the Montgomery bus depot has been converted, with the help of the Alabama Historical Commission and historians, such as Raymond Arsenault, into the Freedom Rides Museum – a timely monument to a groundbreaking journey.

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In fact, says Dr. Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, and the author of a critically acclaimed book on the Freedom Riders, it is no stretch to say that the protests in Alabama helped change the tone for the racial equality movement as a whole.

"It really took the struggle out of the courtroom, and into the streets – it helped convince other people that direct action was needed," Arsenault says. "Even today, people are still astonished by the physical and moral courage of the Freedom Riders."

Arsenault adds: "For us, in the 21st century, the idea that the Freedom Riders put their bodies on the line for a principle, it restores our faith in the idea of personal empowerment."

The Freedom Rides Museum is small and square – not much more than a single room. Unlike traditional museums, it is open just two days a week, Fridays and Saturdays, from noon to 4 in the afternoon. The first exhibition, which was unveiled at a grand opening in May, comprises original works from 15 artists, along with a "story" quilt devoted to the Freedom Riders, and a three-dimensional map displaying the path taken by the Freedom Riders. Still, the modest scale of the museum belies the intense behind-the-scenes struggle over the fate of the building itself.

Through the 1980s, the Greyhound station sat empty – sections were destroyed and carted away, or else incorporated into surrounding structures. Then in 1990, the city announced it would demolish the entire station to make way for a vast new courthouse.

"We were extremely worried that they were going to demolish the entire thing," says J. Mills Thornton, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and an early supporter of the Freedom Rides Museum. "It was highly, highly endangered. That worried us, because if you destroy this building, you destroy the context, and no one will get a sense of the events that occurred here."

Eventually, with the help of several Montgomery officials – among them federal district court Judge Myron Thompson – and the Alabama Historical Commission, the station was saved, mostly. The original facade remains, along with the door reserved for whites. (The "colored" entrance and the back corridors are gone.) But the real dynamism of the museum comes from the art within it – the installations, canvases, and sculptures, which give a vibrant face to the history of the movement.


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