MAY 4, 1961, BIRMINGHAM, ALA.
Snarling dogs, police officers with batons extended and segregationists with unbridled hatred for people with dark skin and their sympathizers.
These are the things the Freedom Riders knew they were heading toward when they boarded a bus in 1961 headed for Birmingham.
Anniston, Ala., was a stop on the way for the group—a chance to rest, refuel and escape the confines of the bus after riding for 90 miles.
Once in Anniston, the group was met by a mob of locals who lay in wait for the arrival of the riders.
Shortly after the bus met the mob, terror ensued. A bomb was thrown into the bus. Flames began to engulf the bus. Smoke billowed out of windows forced open by passengers inside, desperate for air. Echoes of slurs and threats reverberated throughout the mob.
The terror the riders experienced that night was immeasurable— but the fight was long from over.
JULY 2017, ANNISTON, ALA.
The alarm clock reads 4 a.m., but Reggie Tiller doesn’t wait for it to sound. He is already up and getting to work. He has a busy day ahead as the National Park Service administrator in charge of developing the Freedom Riders National Monument.
Because Tiller works in both Birmingham and Anniston, Ala., in addition to working as an online instructor for Bethel University, he has to keep a tight ship.
“I try to ensure that I have a pretty tight schedule with my meetings and tasks. My wife tells me all the time that I’m doing too much. What else can you do with your waking hours? I never pictured myself [doing this work]. I think that has more to do with evolving as a person and making sure that I’m giving back,” Tiller says.
At the time of the Freedom Rides in 1961, Tiller had yet to be born. But action behind the cause he would champion for the next 30 years was brewing.
His own experiences with discrimination began when he was just 11 years old.
“I was away playing basketball [for school] in an area that didn’t have many minorities,” Tiller recalls. “The crowd was chanting obscenities to us, and when I got home, I asked my mom what some of the words meant. They were basically chanting for us to go home. They used the ‘N-word,’ of course. My team won, and we had to go back there and play again.
“It was interesting to know that these people had such a dislike for me because of my skin tone,” Tiller continues. “I think that’s probably the reason why I have the United Nations as a group of friends—friends from all over—to make sure that I understand how people live and to embrace other cultures. It’s so critical to mending some of the past faults that our country has been a part of.”
Tiller, Trevecca Class of 1987 and 1998—what he calls a double dose of Trevecca—began his career as a public servant after graduating with an undergraduate degree in athletic training. He earned a master’s degree in organizational management in 1998.
“I had this thought that I would be an athletic trainer or an orthopedic specialist. Things like that change when you graduate from school and people offer you a position doing something else,” Tiller says. “That’s probably where my life was heading any way—serving people, working in the inner cities and outreach programs. That was pretty much my initial ministry,” said Tiller. “I grew up as a Baptist kid from Erin, Tenn., where my mom was in the nursing eld and serving others. It prepared me to continue service for others.”
Tiller’s first taste of working for the National Park Service was in 2005 when he started working as a park ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Nearly 10 years later, he moved on to lead the formation of the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce, Ohio, while also serving as superintendent of the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati. Tiller has also served as superintendent of the George Washington Carver National Monument.
Tiller was well prepared, both from his experience working with the park service and also from his education at Trevecca, when he volunteered as the superintendent and administrator in charge of developing the Freedom Riders National Monument.
“My experiences at Trevecca were priceless in helping me develop as a person,” Tiller says. “I joined the National Parks Service, whose mission was to protect natural resources.
“When I heard that Birmingham and Anniston were going to be two new parks, I made sure our staff knew I had the experience and was interested in participating,” he continues. “I may not be the long-term superintendent for either park, but I’m making sure we are continuing planning and making sure that both communities engage the park and support it.”
In addition to his work with the national monument development, he also serves as the deputy superintendent in Atlanta for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and supervisor of the Birmingham Civil Rights Monument.
The Freedom Riders National Monument was established by President Barack Obama in January 2017 to honor the stories and efforts of those who participated in the rides.
Pete Conroy, co-chair of the Freedom Riders Monument committee and director of environmental policy at Jacksonville State University, said they spent almost a decade thinking of the best way to honor the Freedom Riders stories. Conroy acted as a liaison between United States Congress, the White House and local elected officials in putting together the unit.
“Any time an outsider comes to a small town in a leadership role, it’s a challenge,” Conroy says. “Reggie is disarming, humble, knowledgeable and vastly experienced in working with diverse groups of people. I had the honor of taking him from the Chamber of Commerce to City Hall to the County Commission offices, and everywhere he goes, he makes friends and connections. Reggie has become not only a colleague but an extraordinary friend. Now that Reggie is here, we’re hoping he can stay.”
Tiller said history has always been one of his favorite subjects. Working to honor civil rights history—both the gains made and the abuse endured during the ght—was a natural fit.
“In both communities, I have heard from visitors, ‘Why should we be telling these stories? It was a negative part of history.’ I think that’s one of the main reasons. It’s American history. I always love asking people, ‘What do you think of when people talk about American history?’ Some people will go to our first mission to the moon. Some people would go to the Civil War, but not in the context of slavery or civil rights. The Civil Rights Movement many times, is not spoken about in terms of being American history because of its negative connotation. The Civil Rights Movement was a leadership movement that led to other rights for women and other groups. It’s critical that these stories are placed in history prominently so people can learn from them.”
Steve Harris, dean of students and associate provost at Trevecca, said that, throughout the years and in spite of the distance, Tiller has kept in contact with him, sharing his work and continuing to reminisce over his love of Trevecca.
“He tells me over and over how Trevecca changed his life. He’s one of those students that because of his work ethic and his desire to excel and make a difference, if he went anywhere, he would still accomplish the same things,” Harris says. “It’s really phenomenal to see what he has accomplished and that he still has a servant heart. God’s opened the door for him to serve with the parks service and the millions of people that come there. Even as I talk about him, I start getting choked up. I’m extremely proud of him. He’s a wonderful person of high character.”
Tiller said Trevecca will always hold a special place in his heart.
“Trevecca is and always will be that shiny place on the hill that protects, educates and illuminates a person’s life,” said Tiller.