May 14—"Racial incidents."
That's the label The Anniston Star's readers saw on their front page Monday afternoon, May 15, 1961. It described the white mob terrorism directed the previous day against those who would test the government's will to enforce integration law.
The crucial difference between this and other stories they had read about racial conflict: This one had happened in their own town.
Sam Jones had written this article, a taut example of his skill at capturing a narrative. After a lead paragraph that stated what had happened and what the result was — "sent at least a dozen passengers to Memorial Hospital" — Jones introduced not one but two conflicts. One was the conflict between the mob, described as "ugly" and "rowdy," and the people on the bus trying to stay alive and unhurt, while the other, noted in a secondary headline, was between the people testing the integration law and the law enforcement officers.
"A spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality ... said lawmen on the scene 'let this happen,'" according to the article.
There was at least one exception, reporter Jones told readers. A 45-year-old state criminal investigator by the name of Ell Cowling had been assigned to ride the bus that carried the Freedom Riders and routine passengers. Cowling had never experienced a mob like the white men attacking the bus, yet he bravely "stood in the door and kept them out till he fell out from smoke" that had filled the interior of the vehicle, according to a Greyhound official who happened to be on board.
The Page 1 article was, of course, important enough to present with eye-catching typographic treatment — the first two paragraphs received larger print. It was positioned in the top right corner of the page, where the biggest news of the day normally goes.
Sometimes a dramatic event off the beaten track slips by unrecognized for its larger importance, but not this one. The writer included the descriptive phrase "that drew the nation's attention to Anniston" because as Model City residents read their news 24 hours after the fact, words and images had already been transmitted around the world.
Indeed, there were the pictures.
As television established its journalistic credentials in the early 1960s, newspaper editors understood they needed to reserve space for their own visual presentation, too. For that, The Star relied on the work of Joe Postiglione, a photographer who went by the name of "Little Joe" in the credit lines that appeared with his work.
And static pictures were needed. Obviously there were no devices at the time whereby the news-consuming public could freeze a motion picture, so the work of "Little Joe" became all the more important for people to see so they could understand what had happened.
The wire services Associated Press and United Press International both transmitted Postiglione's photographs to member publications, according to David Weintraub, a South Carolina writer in his essay "Eye on Image-Making: A Dream Revealed Blog."
Front-page photos that Star editors chose that day showed riders on the ground outside the bus gasping for air; lawmen trying to control the white mob; Ell Cowling, the state investigator riding along who helped protect the passengers; and some of the racists who had gathered at the bus station on Gurnee Avenue to try to prevent the vehicle from leaving. Inside the May 15 issue, more "Little Joe" pictures showed the interior of the burned-out bus and victims of smoke inhalation trying to catch their breath.
The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, in its exhibit about the bus burning, describes Postiglione as "an aggressive and determined photographer [who] followed the mob that intercepted the Greyhound bus.
"He caught the Freedom Riders in the immediate aftermath, their clothes ashen, their faces distraught, and the flames and smoke from the bus in plain view."
His images "were shown around the country and around the world," writes Dr. Turkiya Lowe, chief historian for the National Park Service, on the website of The Conservation Fund, which helps preserve vital places of human and natural history in the U.S. "The media played a role in prompting federal action and making the events known to so many people."
On May 17, 1961, according to the FBI files related to the bus burning trial, The Anniston Star turned over 56 of the 66 photographs taken by Postiglione of the Greyhound bus station and site of violence as an investigative aid.
At the end of the month, on Tuesday, May 30, 1961, Postiglione's observations as a professional photographer at the scenes of the attack were entered into the record of the U.S. District Court in Montgomery. Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. presided over the hearing, sought by the Justice Department to establish the extent of KKK involvement in the mob action and to obtain an order requiring Birmingham and Montgomery police to protect future interstate passengers.
"Called to the witness stand by government attorneys, Postiglione described the scene at the Greyhound station, named several persons whom he recognized in the crowd, and possibly linked the Klan with the Sunday incident," Montgomery reporter Judith Rushin wrote on special assignment for The Star.
Postiglione, on a tip, had arrived at the Greyhound station early Sunday morning but subsequently learned the Freedom Riders' bus would not be there as early as expected. He left the station but nearby saw a few men gathered nearby.
"Approaching the group, he told one man that the bus was not coming. Another man reached on the floorboard of his car and got a shotgun saying, 'I'm ready for them,' Postiglione related," according to the article.
When the bus with damaged tires pulled out of the station a little after 1 p.m., Postiglione got into his car and followed it at a speed of about 30 mph along with a caravan of cars that joined in from all intersections.
Exactly a year after the bus-burning, Postiglione, described as "a free lance photographer working on assignment from The Star," won third prize in the category Spot News Photography in the annual Alabama Associated Press Association for the bus-burning images. (Postiglione snagged first place, too, for a picture of a racial demonstration at City Hall early in 1961.)
For his prose, Jones tied for first in the overall news writing sweepstakes prize, and won first prize outright for newspapers in The Star's size category.