Op-Ed: As a 12-year-old, I defied the KKK to comfort Freedom Riders injured in a firebombing

People sit and stand outside a bus that is on fire, with smoke coming out the door.
A firebomb was thrown into a bus ridden by Freedom Riders on the outskirts of Anniston, Ala., on Mother’s Day in 1961. The author, then 12 years old, rushed to help the injured.
(Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

In early 1961, I considered myself an unremarkable, shy seventh-grader except for the fact I made straight A’s, wore thick prescription glasses and had recently won the Alabama state spelling bee on the word “cloisonné.”

But after the Freedom Riders arrived in my small hometown of Anniston, Ala., I became famous — or infamous — as the 12-year-old white girl who defied the Ku Klux Klan to tend civil rights activists injured in a vicious attack on their Greyhound bus. My life would never be the same, and some people would come to hail me as a hero. I never saw myself that way.

As a preteen, I was already a civil rights activist, intent on doing the right thing. I was just closeted about it until the first wave of Freedom Riders almost landed on my doorstep 60 years ago on Mother’s Day — May 14, 1961. They were conducting “Freedom Rides,” with Black and white passengers riding side by side to protest segregated busing practices in Southern states.


Over breakfast days earlier, my dad told my family “those damn Freedom Riders” would be coming through town, and the KKK had some kind of “surprise party” planned for them. That woke me up. I could tell he knew more than he was saying, but I was afraid to pry. I didn’t want to even imagine my dad could be a member of the KKK. I never knew if he was.

The first attack on the Freedom Riders occurred at the Anniston Greyhound station, where an angry mob struck the bus with baseball bats and iron pipes — and slashed the tires, forcing the bus to stop on the side of the highway in front of my family’s home just outside town.

I could hear the cacophony before I could see who was causing it. Angry white men yelling racial epithets and armed with various bludgeoning implements milled around our frontyard and the parking lot of our family’s grocery store next door. They surrounded the bus with obvious evil intent while their families — wives, children and babies in arms — quietly watched.

From my perch near Forsyth and Son Grocery, I watched a man break a passenger window on the bus with a crowbar and lob something into the resulting hole. A crowd stood around him, trying to hide his identity, but I could see he was white. The “something” turned out to be a firebomb, and the bus burst into flames. Acrid black smoke soon billowed out the back window.

My daughter, Thea, a cellist, is spending the summer in Montgomery, Ala.

The bus riders, coughing and gagging from the dense smoke, tumbled out of the bus and onto the lawn. The growling, cursing white men began to beat them, and I could hear the passengers cry out, “Water, please give us water … we need water.”

After offering up a quick prayer for protection, I sprang into action. I went to our house and got a bucket of water and as many drinking glasses as I could handle. I fixated on a Black woman who reminded me of Pearl, the woman who helped raise me. I washed her face, held her, gave her water to drink. And then I did it again and again and again, comforting as many people as I could. Every time I ran out of water, I went back for more.

No one stepped up to help me, but no one stopped me, either. I knew what I was doing was dangerous, and it could get me in real trouble. A white person wasn’t allowed to drink out of the same water fountain as a Black person, let alone get on the ground with them, touch them, give them water — especially in the middle of a KKK ambush.

Passing time has blurred my memories of that day. I heard that a Klan meeting was held to decide whether to try me as an adult for my crime of compassion. In the end, they considered me to be “weak-minded” because no right-minded person would ever do what I had done.

For years, various local KKK members railed against me, sometimes getting right in my face. In the hallways of my high school, the offspring of Klansmen often confronted me. But no one laid a hand on me. After the initial furor passed, my family never talked about it again, as if I had done something shameful that would be best forgotten. It wounded me for decades.

If Freedom Rider Hank Thomas had forgotten me, my actions that day might have been lost to history. When CBS was producing a 20th anniversary segment about the civil rights activists, he told producers they couldn’t “do that story justice” without finding the little white girl who had given the Freedom Riders water. Thomas and reporter Ed Rabel went on a road trip and found me. I’ve been part of the Freedom Rider story ever since.

While visiting Pearl on her deathbed in 1984, I told her I thought my father, Richard Forsyth, had never forgiven me for helping the Freedom Riders. Pearl’s response was as magnificent and healing as it was unexpected. “No, that’s not right,” she said. “Mr. Richard told me he had never been prouder of you than he was that day.”

Janie Forsyth McKinney lives in Thousand Oaks. She recently retired from UCLA, where she worked in human resources.