Tag Archive for 'alabama'

Remembering Rosa Parks

On December 1, 1955—57 years ago today—civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her arrest would set off a nearly year-long battle against segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

In the 1950s, the first ten seats in Montgomery’s public buses were reserved for white passengers, while African Americans were made to sit in the back. Seated in the front of the African American section of a city bus, Parks refused to move when the driver told her to give up her seat to a white male passenger. She was arrested and convicted of disorderly contact.

Her arrest inspired a group of civil rights leaders to organize a bus boycott, which was immediately successful in emptying the buses. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., was formed to supervise the boycott that emerged and gained momentum over the next year as African Americans boycotted public transportation facilities in protest of the arrest and of segregation laws in general. Simultaneously, Parks’ lawyer filed for appeal of her conviction.

Nearly a year later, in November 1956, leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott were at long last able to celebrate victory after the Supreme Court (in a separate case regarding racial segregation) ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional. The Court upheld a U.S. district court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle, in which bus segregation laws were found to be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision involved only Alabama laws, but it had far-reaching effects; at the time, seven other states had laws similar to those found unconstitutional in Alabama.

Thus, the movement Rosa Parks helped inspire achieved a decisive victory; the activists’ success heralded future progress against segregation and discrimination.

Parks paid the price; she lost her job after her arrest and had to move after she was unable to secure new work. Later, she would spend more than twenty years as secretary to U.S. Representative John Conyers. At the same time, she cofounded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation, and, a few years later, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.

Parks later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, among many other awards and honors. After her death, she became the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

Her life was chronicled in the documentary Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks.

To learn more about Rosa Parks, and to view her arrest records, check out this page from the National Archives’ website. To view Parks’ arrest photo, click here. More information can also be found on the Scholastic website, online at Gale Cengage Learning,  and in Rosa Parks and Jim Haskins’ Rosa Parks: My Story (Puffin 1992). With Gregory Reed, she also published a memoir, Quite Strength.

Numerous books pay tribute to Parks’ courage; some of these include Douglas Brinkley’s Rosa Parks: A Life (Penguin 2005) and Jeanne Theoharis’ The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon, forthcoming in January 2013). Readers may also be interested in the juvenile nonfiction book, The Bus Ride that Changed History: The Story of Rosa Parks, by Danny Shanahan and Pamela Duncan Edwards (Houghton Mifflin 2005).

To learn more about the long history of protests against transportation discrimination, check out Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press, 2010).

For more information about the Montgomery bus boycott, check out Stewart Burns’ Daybreak of Freedom (UNC Press, 1997), this blog post, and this page from the PBS website. For a video clip from PBS, click here.

On This Day: The Bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

On September 15, 1963—49 years ago today—four young girls were killed by the blast of a KKK bomb while attending Sunday school at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist church.

Racial tensions were already high in Birmingham, where only five days earlier federal intervention had forced public schools to finally comply with integration orders. After extensive demonstrations and protests (through, for example, the Birmingham Campaign and the Children’s Crusade), civil rights activists had finally begun to see progress. However, any hope engendered by successful desegregation efforts was crushed after Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were killed.

The largest African American church in the city, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was known as the meeting place for prominent civil rights leaders. A white supremacist placed dynamite under the church; the explosion shortly before the 11 A.M. service injured 20 individuals and killed the four girls, three of whom were fourteen years old, and one of whom was eleven years old.

The murder of these young girls shocked and horrified citizens across the country. More than 8,000 people attended the funeral; Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the eulogy. As grief and anger fueled an increased push against racial discrimination and violence, the four children came to symbolize a painful chapter in America’s history.

The four young girls are remembered as innocent victims whose murder served as a catalyst for much-needed societal changes—changes which they unfortunately did not live to witness. When the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial was formally dedicated last year, young actress Amandla Stenberg gave a speech in remembrance of these four girls, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that, “They didn’t live long lives, but they lived meaningful lives.” (To see Stenberg’s speech, fast-forward to 4:00 in this video.)

Despite public outrage, it would be more than 38 years before a conviction was handed down. Finally, on May 23, 2002, Bobby Frank Cherry was sentenced to life in prison for the murders. His appeal was denied and he died in prison.

To learn more about this horrific event, check out this page from NPR.

To view photographs of the destruction, check out this page from the Birmingham Post-Herald.

The Birmingham Public Library hosts an expansive digital collection focused on the bombing, complete with photographs, newspaper clippings, and other documents.

Carolyn McKinstry, a friend of the four girls and a witness to the bombing, wrote a book about it: While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement (Tyndale House Publishers 2011).

For a photographic account designed for children, check out Larry Dane Brimner’s Birmingham Sunday (Boyd Mills Press 2010).

To read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eulogy, check out this page from the King Center.

To read a collection of New York Times articles regarding the eventual conviction, click here.

For more on Birmingham’s significance in the civil rights struggle, check out Glenn Eskew’s But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (UNC Press 1997) and Horace Huntley and John W. McKerley’s edited oral history volume Foot Soldiers for Democracy: The Men, Women, and Children of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement (University of Illinois Press 2009).

49 Years Ago: Executive Order 11118 and Birmingham’s Integration

On September 10, 1963—49 years ago today—the Birmingham City Schools were integrated after President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 11118, ordering federal assistance in removing “unlawful obstructions of justice in the State of Alabama.”

Nine years after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation in public schools, many areas of the South still resisted integration, forcing the federal government to take action. In Birmingham, federal intervention proved particularly necessary.

Birmingham was no stranger to the civil rights movement. Four months earlier, the Birmingham Campaign had ended in victory after local officials agreed to desegregate downtown stores and release jailed demonstrators. Schoolchildren had taken an active part in the movement, marching in the Children’s Crusade.

But despite the success of the Birmingham Campaign in integrating certain facilities, the city schools were still segregated. The Fifth Circuit Court in mid-1963, deciding that the Board of Education had operated a race-based segregated school system, ordered the School Board to submit a desegregation plan by August 19, 1963—a plan which came to be known as the “Freedom of Choice Plan.” Under the plan, approved immediately by a district court judge, students were supposed to choose which school to attend.

The new plan did not end the desegregation controversy. Violence broke out in the tense atmosphere as white supremacists agitated against integration. Alabama Governor George Wallace, an ardent segregationist, vowed to block integration and swiftly shut down several schools that had been slated for integration, citing the threat of violence.

After Wallace attempted to use the Alabama National Guard to block integration, President Kennedy federalized more than 200 of these Guardsmen, finally putting a stop to Wallace’s maneuvers and allowing African American students to enter previously all-white city schools.

Despite threats and demonstrations, the first day of integrated education went fairly smoothly; the Associated Press on September 11 reported no serious incidents of in-school violence that day. National Guardsmen stood by to break up any potential violence. That said, it was a tense atmosphere, with segregationists demonstrating with signs and confederate flags.

To read the full text of the Executive Order, check out this page from the American Presidency Project.

For more on Birmingham’s significance in the civil rights struggle, check out Glenn Eskew’s But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (UNC Press 1997) and Horace Huntley and John W. McKerley’s edited oral history volume Foot Soldiers for Democracy: The Men, Women, and Children of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement (University of Illinois Press 2009).

To learn more about George Wallace, check out Dan Carter’s The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics (Louisiana State University Press 2000).

Three months before the Birmingham City Schools were integrated, George Wallace had also tried to block the desegregation of another school: the University of Alabama. To learn more, read this post from the LCRM blog and check out E. Culpepper Clark’s The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama (Oxford University Press 1995).

On This Day: The Tuskegee Institute Opens Its Doors

On July 4, 1881—131 years ago today—Booker T. Washington opened the Tuskegee Institute—an educational institution which continues to thrive today as Tuskegee University.

Invited to start a school for African Americans, Washington arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama, to find only a one-room building with a leaky roof. But he also found many individuals eager to learn whatever he could teach them.

When he opened Tuskegee on July 4th, Washington was the sole teacher for a class of 30 students. Soon, though, other students and teachers arrived at the institute, and Washington’s talent for securing loans and credit allowed him to expand facilities. The school grew quickly, hosting 200 faculty members, 100 buildings, and 1,500 students by 1915.

Washington aimed to train students to become teachers themselves—to move to rural areas where they could teach children moral values, improve intellectual and religious life, and instill a belief in the importance of hard work. He became well known for advocating vocational training.

Washington remained principal of the school until his death in 1915, by which time Tuskegee had gained national prominence. It has, over the years, attracted some of the foremost African American figures, hosting teachers such as George Washington Carver and students like Ralph Ellison.

During World War II, the school hosted the Tuskegee Airmen flight training program, from which the first African American pilots graduated.

What began as a one-room, 30-student institution is now home to more than 3,000 students. It is also now a national historic site.

To learn more, check out this information from PBS, and also this summary on Tuskegee University’s website.

The National Park Service website also provides information, as well as discussions about Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and the Tuskegee Airmen.

Click here to read Booker T. Washington’s The Educational Outlook in the South, in which he discusses education for African Americans. As Susan Reverby states in Examining Tuskegee, “The need to carefully gauge the appropriate balance of the needs of blacks and whites and meet the financing of the institute continually haunted Washington’s efforts.”

To learn more about African American education during this time period, check out James Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (UNC Press, 1988).

To learn more about civil rights in this Southern town, check out Robert Norrell’s Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee (UNC Press, 1998).

To learn about Robert Moton, Washington’s successor at Tuskegee, check out William Hughes and Frederick Patterson’s Robert Russa Moton of Hampton and Tuskegee, available through UNC Press’s Enduring Editions collection.

Tuskegee, Alabama, is, however, infamous for its forty-year syphilis study, which involved hundreds of African American men and has today become known as a prime example of medical racism. To learn more, check out Susan Reverby’s Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy (UNC Press, 2009).

Remembering NAACP v. Alabama

On June 30, 1958—54 years ago today—the Supreme Court in NAACP v. Alabama took a stand in favor of individuals’ constitutional rights, asserting that Alabama’s demand for the NAACP’s membership lists violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In 1956, Alabama Attorney General John Patterson sued the NAACP, claiming that the civil rights organization violated a state law which required out-of-state companies to file their corporate charter with state officials and designate an agent to act on the company’s behalf.

After the NAACP refused to capitulate to a state judge’s orders to cease operations and produce records—including the names and addresses of its members—the organization was fined $10,000. While the NAACP was willing to turn over some records, it was unwilling to produce the membership lists.

After the Alabama Supreme Court twice refused to review the case, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments.

In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that Alabama’s demand violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The disclosure of membership lists, the Court argued, would suppress legal association among the group’s members—in fact, earlier disclosures of member identities had led to loss of employment, physical coercion, and other hostile treatment.

The ruling read, in part:

Effective advocacy of both public and private points of view particularly controversial ones, is undeniably enhanced by group association, as this Court has more than once recognized by remarking upon the close nexus between the freedoms of speech and assembly. . . It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the “liberty” assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech. . .

. . . This court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations. . . Inviolability of privacy in group associations may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.

The Court did not rule on the legality of the NAACP’s work in Alabama, but it did overturn the contempt order and the fine. The decision signaled an important acknowledgement of the freedom of association, and paved the way for future success in the struggle against racial discrimination.

To read the full text of the decision, click here.

To listen to the oral argument, click here.

To read a news article printed at the time, click here.

To learn more, click here and here.

To learn more about the NAACP, click here.

To learn about the controversial John Patterson, who became Governor one year after NAACP v. Alabama, check out Gene Howard’s Patterson for Alabama: The Life and Career of John Patterson (University of Alabama Press, 2008).

To learn about African Americans’ struggle for civil rights during the next decade in Alabama, check out Frye Gaillard’s Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America (University of Alabama Press, 2004) and Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail (University of Alabama Press, 2010).

On This Day: Bethel Street Baptist Church

On June 29, 1958—54 years ago today—the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Street Baptist Church (Birmingham, Alabama) fell victim to its second bombing in only a year and a half.

The church, which had been bombed in December 1956, served from 1956 to 1961 as headquarters for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). The ACMHR, a nonviolent direct action organization, is perhaps best known for its participation in the Freedom Rides of 1961; however, members spent many years previous protesting segregation and discrimination.

Around 1:30 a.m. on June 29th, a smoking can of dynamite was found against the building’s wall. Fortunately, an African American man named Will Hall—one of six volunteers who guarded the church each Saturday night after the 1956 bombing—was able to safely deposit the can on the side of the road before the explosion, sparing the building more serious damage. No one was injured, but the church and nearby residences did sustain some damage.

White supremacist J.B. Stoner was finally convicted of the bombing 22 years later, in 1980, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served only three and a half years in prison before being paroled. (Stoner, by the way, served as an appeals attorney for James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr.)

This wasn’t the last time the church would face fire; on December 14, 1962, the church once again fell victim to a bomb. Bombings threatened other churches within Alabama and across the South—most famously the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (also in Birmingham), which killed four young girls. At that time in the South, African Americans were never guaranteed safety—not even in a church.

Today, a historic marker summarizes the history of the church and Rev. Shuttlesworth.

To read news articles published at the time, click here and here.

For a report of the roughly 50 racially motivated bomb attacks in Birmingham from 1947 to 1965, click here.

To learn more about J.B. Stoner’s trials and conviction, click here.

To learn more about the ACMHR, click here.

To learn more about the ACMHR, the Bethel Street Baptist Church, and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, check out Birmingham’s Revolutionaries: The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (Mercer University Press, 2000, ed. Marjorie White and Andrew Manis).

To learn more about the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, check out Andrew Manis’ A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (University of Alabama Press, 1999).

For more on Birmingham’s significance in the civil rights struggle, check out Glenn Eskew’s But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (UNC Press, 1997).

Remembering Guinn v. United States

On June 21, 1915—97 years ago today—in the landmark Guinn v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down Oklahoma’s grandfather clause, marking an important step in the fight for suffrage for all citizens, regardless of race.

The clause, part of the Voter Registration Act of 1910, required voters to pass a literacy test; however, it exempted citizens who were entitled to vote on January 1, 1866 (before African Americans gained suffrage through the Fifteenth Amendment), and those whose ancestors (“grandfathers”) were entitled to vote at that time.

Unsurprisingly, given the racial discrimination prevalent at the time, local voter registration officials applied the law in different ways. Often, they imposed unreasonable literacy tests on African American applicants—or refused to administer the test at all.

Finally, in 1915, the federal government prosecuted voter registration officials for denying African American citizens of Oklahoma the right to vote, as a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Also in question was a piece of Maryland’s constitution, which carried similar restrictions.

In a unanimous ruling (one justice sat out), the Supreme Court struck down the restrictions as unconstitutional. The decision read, in part:

. . . how can there be room for any serious dispute concerning the repugnancy of the standard based upon January 1, 1866 (a date which preceded the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment), if the suffrage provision fixing that standard is susceptible of the significance with which the Government attributes to it? Indeed, there seems no escape from the conclusion that to hold that there was even possibility for dispute on the subject would be but to declare that the Fifteenth Amendment not only had not the self-executing power which it has been recognized to have from the beginning, but that its previous provisions were wholly inoperative, because susceptible of being rendered inapplicable by more forms of expression embodying no exercise of judgment and resting upon no discernible reason other than the purpose to disregard the prohibitions of the Amendment by creating a standard of voting which on its face was, in substance, but a revitalization of conditions which, when they prevailed in the past, had been destroyed by the self-operative force of the Amendment.

Although the ruling had little short-term effect (Oklahoma quickly passed new voter registration restrictions), it led to the dismantling of similar restrictions in other southern states, such as Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia, and Georgia. The battle for suffrage continued for many more decades, but the ruling marked an important step toward the eventual banning of voting restrictions seen in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To read the full text of the Supreme Court decision, click here.

For more information, click here, and check out this entry from the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture.

For more on disfranchisement, click here, or check out Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (UNC Press, 2001).

For more on suffrage, check out J. Morgan Kousser’s Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction (UNC Press, 1999) and Charles S. Bullock III and Ronald Keith Gaddie’s The Triumph of Voting Rights in the South (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009).

On This Day: Reynolds v. Sims

On June 15, 1964—48 years ago today—the Supreme Court in its landmark Reynolds v. Sims ruled that state legislative districts must be roughly equal in population, thereby setting the stage for political power to shift from rural areas to urban areas and for urban residents to finally be able to participate in government on equal terms.

Two years earlier, in Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court ruled that it had the authority to review cases brought by individuals believed to have been harmed by legislative apportionment. More than 30 lawsuits were filed following this ruling; several such complaints referred to Alabama’s apportionment system.

Alabama’s districts were based on the 1900 census population estimates—drawn up more than six decades earlier. In the ensuing decades, urban districts had markedly increased in population, thus effectively diluting the urban residents’ votes. The plaintiffs argued that this system violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In an 8-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court held that Alabama’s system was unconstitutional because it gave more weight to some votes than it did to others. The ruling read, in part:

Undoubtedly, the right of suffrage is a fundamental matter in a free and democratic society. Especially since the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized. . .

Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system.

The decision was certainly controversial. In fact, one senator went so far as to propose a constitutional amendment to permit unequal legislative districts (this effort failed). Ultimately, though, the Supreme Court’s decision prevailed, and states were required to make “honest and good faith” efforts to construct districts of roughly equal population.

To read the full text of the decision, click here.

To listen to the oral argument, click here.

To learn more, click here and here.

To view newspaper articles published at the time, click here and here.

To learn more, check out Richard Cortner’s The Apportionment Cases.

To listen to the oral arguments from Baker v. Carr—the case that set the stage for Reynolds v. Simsclick here.

For a broader discussion of election law, check out Richard Hasen’s The Supreme Court and Election Law: Judging Equality from Baker v. Carr to Bush v. Gore (NYU Press, 2006).

For a discussion of apportionment in America’s early years, check out Charles Kromkowski’s Recreating the American Republic: Rules of Apportionment, Constitutional Change, and American Political Development, 1700-1870 (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

On This Day: Wallace’s Stand and Alabama’s Long-Awaited Integration

On June 11, 1963—49 years ago today—in one of the most strikingly racist political displays in the nation’s history, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium, attempting to prevent the enrollment of two African American students.

James Hood and Vivian Malone arrived on campus to register for classes on June 11, 1963—more than nine years after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregated public education unconstitutional. They met immediate resistance from Wallace, who vowed to physically block their enrollment.

Hood and Malone were not the first African Americans to attempt to integrate the University of Alabama. Seven years earlier, Autherine Lucy became the first African American student to attend the University. However, her time at the University was cut short after violence and threats against her ultimately gave the University an excuse to expel her.

Now, seven years later, Hood and Malone sought lasting integration—and Wallace was determined to prevent it.

Wallace’s speech that day was nothing short of hateful and discriminatory. Ironically, he used the rhetoric of constitutional rights to argue against integration—against a right which all American citizens were due. He argued, in part:

I stand here today, as Governor of this sovereign State, and refuse to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government. I claim today for all the people of the State of Alabama those rights reserved to them under the Constitution of the United States. Among those powers so reserved and claimed is the right of state authority in the operation of the public schools, colleges, and Universities. . .

. . . It is the right of every citizen, however humble he may be, through his chosen officials of representative government to stand courageously against whatever he believes to be the exercise of power beyond the Constitutional rights conferred upon our Federal Government. It is this right which I assert for the people of Alabama by my presence here today.

In essence, Wallace argued that the constitution conferred on the states—not the federal government—authority over public schools. His anger over integration was certainly not a surprise; he had originally been elected to office as a segregationist, and had in his inauguration speech declared his support for “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

President Kennedy ordered Wallace to cease and desist—and still Wallace refused to move. It would be more than four hours until Brigadier General Henry Graham of the National Guard enforced the order, allowing Hood and Malone to register at long last and forever integrating the University. It was an historic moment in Alabama—one heavily reported in national and international media.

Hood and Malone’s enrollment paved the way for other African American students to attend the University; in fact, the next day, Dave Mack McGlathery was successfully registered at the Huntsville campus.

Malone, who became the first African American to graduate from the University of Alabama in 1965, later worked for the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division. Hood withdrew soon after enrollment, but later returned and earned a doctorate degree. And, many years later, Autherine Lucy returned, receiving a master’s degree in 1992.

To learn more, click here. Also, check out NPR’s story about the event, complete with an audio excerpt from Wallace’s statement, an interview with Malone, and a video.

For more on the integration of the University of Alabama, click here and here.

To read Wallace’s speech, click here. Wallace later had a change of heart regarding race relations and segregation; however, his actions at the University that day would follow him for the rest of his life.

To learn more, check out E. Culpepper Clark’s The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama (University of Alabama Press, 2007).

On This Day: First Baptist Church Under Siege

On May 21, 1961—51 years ago today—Freedom Riders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and 1,500 men, women, and children who had gathered at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, faced mob violence at the hands of several thousand white segregationists.

The Freedom Rides had only just begun on May 4th, but the activists had already faced violence in several Southern towns. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., traveled to Montgomery in support of the freedom riders, planning to address a gathering of movement supporters at the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church that evening.

Threats were certainly expected. The initial group of U.S. Marshals sent to guard the church proved too small in number to hold off the angry white mob—which had already begun to set fire to vehicles parked outside and had threatened to set fire to the church. After King called Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who in turn called Alabama’s governor, federal troops ultimately broke up the mob—but only after the men, women, and children had been trapped in the church for nearly the entire night.

In the face of a full-scale riot outside—with fires burning and rocks and bricks flying through the windows—the group inside the church remained firm in their commitment to nonviolence. They sat in the church all night until federal troops were able to escort them safely home.

Their courage and commitment in the face of mob violence provided further momentum to the desegregation movement. Soon afterwards, the Justice Department petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban discrimination on buses and at bus terminals; in September, the orders were issued, and in November the Freedom Rides ended in victory.

To see photos taken inside the church that night, click here, here, and here.

To read the US Marshal Service’s summary of the event, click here.

To see the planned program for the gathering, click here, or navigate from the previous link.

To see news footage of participants singing a hymn amidst the rioting, click here.

To learn more about the Freedom Riders, click here; for a timeline, click here.

For more about this movement, check out Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press 2007), on which PBS’s documentary, Freedom Riders, is based.

To learn more about protests against transportation discrimination, check out Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press 2010).