I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
You know about the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who rode buses into the Deep South in the 1960s to challenge Jim Crow practices that illegally forced Black people into segregated seats and station waiting rooms.
But did you know that on May 14, 1961, a white mob surrounded one of the buses and set it on fire, nearly killing seven Riders inside? When the bus arrived in Aniston, Alabama, about 50 white men crowded it, smashing windows with crowbars, chains and brass knuckles, the glass raining down on those inside.
A man flashed a gun at Rider Genevieve Hughes, who tried to keep her eyes focused on the book in her lap. Someone took a knife and slashed the left front tire.
After about 20 minutes, local police (who had allowed the attack) cleared a path to let the bus continue. But after six miles, that front tire began to hiss. The bus pulled over. The chasing mob surrounded it again, demanding the riders get out or get gassed. A man lit a bundle of cloth, a firebomb, and threw it through a busted window. The bus was on fire.
Two men blocked the exit, yelling: “Let’s burn them alive. Let’s burn them alive.”
As a former seventh grade U.S. history teacher, Henderson knows the value of kids experiencing an event, not just reading about it.
“So me teaching students about World War II history is different than if I take my students to the Holocaust museum and they get to experience what it was like to be back in those spaces. And that’s what AR does very well. It puts you in the spaces so that you can experience these things for yourself.”
In our AR experience, “A dangerous ride on the road to freedom,” Henderson narrates the story with the help of first-person memories from Hank Thomas, who was on that bus 60 years ago. He was 19 and not planning on going, but his roommate got sick and Thomas took his place.
“By accident, I became a Freedom Rider,” Thomas remembers in a story by Melissa Brown.
Experience it in augmented reality:A dangerous journey with Freedom Riders on the road to equal rights
He explains what it was like when the bus pulled over for the tire, and the mob surrounded it again: “Many of them had just come from church, good Christian people who brought their children with them to watch the Freedom Riders get killed.”
Then the flaming rag came through the window. The seats caught fire.
As the flames spread, Thomas talks about making a choice: Does he die from the smoke filling the bus or at the hands of the Klan?
Experiencing the 1961 scene in AR today, Henderson started asking himself the same questions, “What would I do? Would I want to just succumb to the smoke or would I want to get the heck off the bus?
“You hear the gunshots and see the bullet holes in the glass window,” he said. “You hear that a burning rag is being thrown on the bus and then turn around and find that there’s this ever-growing fire.”
And that’s what made this so moving.
“Just understanding that there will be a whole generation of people who this might be their first entry into civil rights or into who the Freedom Riders were. And they’ll be able to share that experience along with Hank. That was super emotional to me, that was like the epitome of building empathy and masterful storytelling.”
I hope you’ll try out this AR experience as well, part of our series called “Seven Days of 1961,” which looks at seven pivotal protests that set in motion a new era of civil rights. It’s painful but so important to our understanding of the hatred and struggle and sacrifice that has brought us to this moment in our history.
All you need is your smartphone. Here is what to do:
- Download the latest version of the USA TODAY app on your iOS or Android AR-capable device. (The app is free.)
- Open your camera app on your phone and scan the appropriate QR code. Again, this is free. (If you are reading this on our app already, access it here.)
- Point your phone at a flat surface and start the ride.
Throughout this project, our goal was to elevate the voices of the civil rights veterans themselves. Have them share their stories directly – their history in their words. They do just that in this AR experience, as well as our seven-part podcast, and in the stories and videos of those historic seven days.
We look back at Jan. 11, when rioters gathered outside the dorm room of Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the first Black students at the University of Georgia, which still resisted integration seven years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.
We take youtothe scene of Black students arrested while trying to eat at a whites-only lunch counter on Jan. 31, Black students arrested for using the public library on March 27, and the Freedom Ride of May 14, that ended in a fire on the side of the road.
Next, you’ll join more than 100 students who, on Oct. 4, walked out of Burglund High in Mississippi to protest racial injustice. Their work helped rally young people across the South. You’ll learn why hundreds of Black and white college students from across the Northeast flocked to Baltimore and Annapolis on Nov. 11 to conduct sit-ins at segregated restaurants.
And you’ll understand the impact of Dec. 15, when 1,500 Black college studentsprotested the arrests of 23 peers for picketing outside segregated stores the day before. Four years later, their Supreme Court case secured First Amendment rights for future protesters.
We published the last of these stories this week. National reporter Deborah Berry conceived the project as a way of recording the history of the veterans before the veterans are gone.
At our news meeting Wednesday, as she talked about the response from those who shared their stories.
“They appreciate the fact that USA TODAY is even doing this, that we are respecting the work that they’ve done, respecting the fact that they didn’t always get the credit and the props that they deserve. Some of them don’t think they even deserve it now.”
Her voice caught when she shared an email from a friend and former journalist Wiley Hall that said, “Journalism is the first draft of history. You and your colleagues at USA TODAY are showing that good journalism can do the rewrites too, when the first couple of drafts get it wrong.”
We hope you’ll take some time with this very special project, whether it’s the stories, the videos, the podcasts, the graphic novel, the AR experience or watching one of the three online events where veterans told their stories in real time.
“We can play a role in correcting history or enhancing history or offering readers a better, a clearer view of history,” Berry said. “And not just from our perspective of telling it, but from their perspectives.”