UCLA Today

A single act of kindness becomes part of civil rights lore

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The 1961 firebombing of a bus carrying 13 civil rights activists by a mob outside Anniston, Ala., became a rallying cry that brought hundreds of other black and white volunteers to the south to continue the Freedom Rides. Ths bus was attacked as it was parked outside Janie McKinney's childhood home. Photos from the PBS documentary airing May 16, "Freedom Riders."
A simple act of compassion became a symbol of racial tolerance that is still celebrated 50 years after it was performed by a 12-year-old girl living in the segregated south during the turbulent civil rights era.

Janie Forsyth McKinney, a UCLA staff member who works as a communications specialist for External Affairs staff training, grew up on the outskirts of Anniston, Ala., where the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force. When 12-year-old McKinney went to aid civil rights activists who came under attack by white supremacists, she became part of the civil rights movement's lore, changing her life forever.

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McKinney in 7th grade.
When she was growing up, the KKK was so feared and accepted by the community that her father, a small-town grocer, felt pressured to join.

 “He used to say, ‘It’s good for bid-ness,’” McKinney recalled of her dad. “But he was a kind-hearted soul. If he found out people were hungry, he would give them food. He didn’t care what color they were.’”

But racism was deeply embedded in Anniston and surrounding towns in the form of brutal, midnight beatings of black men “who didn’t remember their place” and white-only schools and restrooms. McKinney felt differently, largely because of Pearl Seymore, the family’s black housemaid who helped raise her and whom she loved.

By age 12, McKinney was “old enough to know about the Klan … and I was deathly afraid of them. The Klan was like a nightmare. It was something you could see out of the corner of your eye, and then it would disappear.”

One day, her dad let her in on a secret: Outside agitators from up north were on their way by bus from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans and would be passing through town. But the KKK, he told her, was going to give them a little surprise party before they reached Anniston.

The "agitators" were the Freedom Riders: black as well as white civil rights volunteers — many of them idealistic college students — trained by the Congress for Racial Equality in nonviolence and committed to exposing illegal segregation in public facilities and transit systems that involved interstate commerce. So they integrated buses that crossed state lines.

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The bus burst into flames after someone tossed in an incendiary device.
On Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961, just outside of Anniston, a mob of around 200 white men, angry and chanting hate slogans, stopped the Greyhound bus carrying 13 Freedom Riders, in addition to other unsuspecting passengers. The men hammered the vehicle with sticks and pipes and slashed its tires. When the bus driver somehow managed to maneuver the bus free of the crowd, a convoy of cars followed it.

Riding on its rims with sparks flying, the bus finally could go no farther and stopped next to McKinney’s home and adjacent grocery store. As the angry mob surrounded the bus, the white bus driver ran off. Watching, McKinney saw a hand with a crowbar or heavy chain emerge above the crowd and smash out the back window of the bus. In the next moment, someone threw an incendiary device through the broken window, instantly filling the bus with roiling black smoke.

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Outside the grocery store, men gathered to watch.
“The people on the bus were gagging,” she recalled. While some of the passengers lay down on the bus floor in search of air to breathe, others, including an elderly black woman, panicked. Meanwhile, the crowd yelled out epithets, McKinney recalled. “They were saying things like, ‘Roast those n*****s alive.’”  There were reports of people outside the bus holding the bus doors shut to prevent anyone from escaping.  Then, something in the bus exploded, forcing the mob back and giving the passengers a chance to break out of the burning vehicle.

lyingonground“The door burst open, and there were people just spilling out of there. They were so sick by then they were crawling and puking and rasping for water. They could hardly talk.”
 
Those desperate voices, raw with smoke, propelled McKinney to do something. The 7th grader ran into the house, washed out a bucket, filled it with water, grabbed some cups and went into the crowd. “I couldn’t just stand there and do nothing,” she said.

The first person she helped was the elderly black woman, who reminded her of Pearl. “Thank God Pearl wasn’t there that day,” McKinney said. “She didn’t have to see this.” After giving her water and washing man.glassher face, the girl then went on to give water to others. Chaos erupted as the crowd closed in on the Freedom Riders, some of whom were beaten as they scrambled off the burning bus.

“I don’t know why they let me live. I figured, well, maybe they won’t kill me because I’m not grown up yet. If I had been, they would have had my head on a pike.” But she felt she had to live up to her Christian beliefs, she said, summed up in “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.”

 For 15 to 20 minutes, police did not stop the violence. “They just let it go on uninterrupted until they finally got it under control.” Ambulances took the injured to the local hospital, which officials announced was closed, leaving the injured Freedom Riders in the waiting room.

“It took a black minister from Birmingham to form a convoy to come and pick them up and take them back to Birmingham,” she said. Hours later, a second bus carrying seven Freedom Riders was attacked in Birmingham by a crowd wielding bats and pipes. But the momentum had begun for the civil rights movement, and the Freedom Rides continued until November as more than 400 blacks and whites from across the nation headed south to join the rides despite the prospect of beatings and imprisonment.

For McKinney, her brush with history was over, but not the repercussions. She found out later that the local KKK met to decide whether to try her as an adult for her efforts to undermine their cause. In the end, they determined she hadn’t known any better and decided to do nothing, disregarding her as weak-minded, mentally deficient child.

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Pearl Seymore, the family's housemaid who helped raise McKinney.
Still, life was never the same for McKinney, who felt “like a changeling,” unable to fit in with her family or community. “This was such a black mark on my family that nobody — not even my father — would talk about it. I was the black sheep. I got ostracized in school by some hard-core Klan kids. They would call me names.”

It wasn’t until years later, after her father had died, that McKinney learned the truth. When Pearl lay ill and dying, McKinney visited her. “We were going down memory lane together. And I said, ‘Pearl, Daddy never got over being mad at me about that bus, did he?’ She said, ‘No, child. That’s not right. He told me he had never been prouder of you than he was on that day.”

In 1981, 20 years after the bus burning, which had become a low point in the national consciousness about race, a TV news correspondent working for Charles Kuralt’s “CBS News Sunday Morning” found McKinney. In preparing a segment on the anniversary of the Freedom Riders, nowheralded as heroes of the civil rights era, a reporter had interviewed Henry Thomas,  who was a 19-year-old college student when he rode that bus, the youngest of the 13 Freedom Riders. Thomas, who never forgot the white girl who had so courageously ministered to them, urged the reporter to find her. “He said, ‘You cannot do this story unless you find that little girl who lived in the house next to that store,’” McKinney said. So Thomas and the reporter went to Anniston and found the house where they talked to her mother.

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Earlier this month, McKinney appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show, where the UCLA staffer was reunited with the Freedom Riders she helped.
CBS correspondent Ed Rabel located McKinney living in California and got her account of what happened that day. McKinney later got in touch with Thomas, who had gone on to become a successful owner of seven McDonald franchises in Georgia. Through the blur of years, she could still see the young man, wearing “the ugliest suit I ever saw in my life,” sitting on the ground after someone had hit him with a baseball bat. He, along with five others, had nearly burned to death that day.

“It was a great reunion,” said McKinney. “We have an amazing bond,” cemented by shared moments of terror and compassion that have kept them in contact for many years after that. In 1991, McKinney’s story was featured on NBC Nightly News on the Freedom Riders’ 30th anniversary.

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A hug for Henry Thomas, who was 19 and the youngest of the Freedom Riders on the bus. He never forgot the white girl who gave him water to drink after he nearly burned alive.
This month, the 50th anniversary, McKinney took time off from her UCLA job to be on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where she had a surprise on-camera reunion with Thomas. This week, she is back in Anniston to participate in a reenactment of that Freedom Ride. More than 1,000 college students from all over the nation competed for 40 spots to participate in the commemorative journey, sponsored by the PBS history series, the “American Experience.”

“They’re retracing the route, and I’m going to meet them at the house, have dinner with them and talk to them,” McKinney said excitedly.

On May 16, PBS will air “Freedom Riders,” a documentary produced by “American Experience.” On May 22-26, Freedom Riders from across the country who bravely fought segregation will have their own celebration in Jackson, Miss., and Thomas has invited her to attend.

Today, a highway marker along Alabama Highway 202 marks the spot of the bus burning that became a nationwide rallying cry for the civil rights movement.

“All I know is that if I had made any other choice, I would have had to live with that. I’m proud of the choice I made. I think it was a moral choice, a humane choice, a spiritual choice. I wouldn’t undo it for anything.”
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A segment from "Freedom Riders" featuring McKinney:
 
 
Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.
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