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Beyond the Burning Bus:
The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town
By Phil Noble
NewSouth Books, 2003
Trade Cloth, $24.95 (168 pages)
ISBN: 1-58838-120-X
 
 
 

Phil Noble tells the story of the Civil Rights movement in Anniston, Alabama from the perspective of a white Southern Presbyterian minister.  Mother's Day, 14 May, 1961, Freedom Riders challenged Southern segregation by riding a bus through Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and into Alabama.  The bus was stopped in Anniston; the Freedom Riders were beaten; and the bus was burned--the image of the burning bus is generally the first and last mention of Anniston in Civil Rights histories.  As Noble writes, "Sadly, this may be the most famous photograph ever take in Anniston."  Beyond the Burning Bus fills an important gap in the story of the Civil Rights by telling "the story of what happened after the burning of the bus on a Mother's Day Sunday afternoon in the beautiful Southern town of Anniston, Alabama."    

Noble's memoir and history of Anniston reflects on his involvement with forming "bridges" between deeply segregated, divided, and mutually suspicious black and white communities by applying "Christian principles to the crucial racial issues of the day"--a strategy that could be equally useful today as it was during the 1960's.  Noble writes confidently and insightfully on his role in the church that allowed him both access to a white congregation as well as a site to make tentative steps meeting African American ministers in Anniston. Noble's meetings lead to the Bi-Racial Human Relations Council, which he leads through the emotional powder keg of integrating bathrooms, lunch counters, and--dramatically--the library.   

Beyond the Burning Bus expertly places the events of Anniston within the larger framework of Civil Rights activities in the South and in the nation, making an appropriate narrative for high school and college students who may not have much previous knowledge of the Civil Rights era.  Noble frequently maneuvers the text for his "younger readers" to demonstrate the horrific systematic caste system that was the Jim Crow South. 

However conscious Noble is of the injustice of racism within the Southern system, there are a few moments when he chooses to overlook his own implication in the maintenance of white power in Anniston.  He writes of the racial composition of the Bi-Racial Human Relations Council, "It would later often be said that the Council was composed of four whites and four blacks, and Phil Noble!"  No matter Noble's good intentions and racially liberal goals, in effect, the Council was weighted for white power: five whites and four blacks.   

Noble's memoir should be avidly sought by students and academics interested in the literature and history of the Civil Rights movement--the episode of Noble's "racial conversion narrative" alone makes Beyond the Burning Bus worth reading.  The stories of white Southerners who supported Civil Rights progress need to be told to create a complete History of the Civil Rights movement. 

Beyond the Burning Bus includes a "Foreward" by William B. McClain, the African American Methodist minister who worked with Noble to integrate Anniston, that testifies to the deep and lasting relationship forged between McClain and Noble and an "Introduction" by Nan Woodruff, author of American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta (Harvard 2003), that provides important contextual information about Anniston's position in New South economy as well as a context for Civil Rights activities surrounding the events in Anniston. 

J. Phillips Noble grew up in Learned, Mississippi and became minister of Anniston's First Presbyterian Church in 1956.

 

Sean Wells
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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