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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

A Night of Fear

Nash reacted to the news by contacting civil rights leaders from around the country, including Dr. King and Farmer, and encouraging them to join the Freedom Riders in Montgomery. Dr. King, Farmer, and Reverend Shuttlesworth were among the leaders who joined Nash at the church for a rally Sunday evening.

By the start of the rally at 8 p.m., First Baptist was jammed with men, women, and children, most of them African-American. The Nashville Freedom Riders were in the basement, subject to arrest under Judge Jones' order. While U.S. marshals patrolled the area, a few FBI agents were present, along with two plainclothes State detectives assigned by Mann. They saw a white crowd of about 2,000 people who shouted and waved signs, but initially made no attacks.

As the meeting began, several leaders were concerned about the growing crowd outside the church. The crowd had begun throwing rocks at those entering the church and smashing the windows of cars parked along the street by the church. Dr. King and a few others left the basement to go outside to get a sense of the crowd. As soon as the protesters recognized Dr. King, they began shouting and throwing rocks and other objects at him. He quickly reentered the church.

Soon, the mob ignored the U.S. marshals and crossed onto church property. They began banging on the doors, breaking windows, and screaming epithets. They torched the gas tank of a Buick parked near the church, causing an explosion.

As the situation got out of hand, the U.S. marshals called for backup, while Dr. King spoke by telephone with Attorney General Kennedy, who assured him that additional marshals were on the way. Their arrival temporarily relieved the situation, but this quickly assembled force included many officers who had little experience with law enforcement and none with mob control. Their attempt to disperse the mob with tear gas backfired when the wind blew the gas back on the officers and into the church. The small Federal force was soon under attack.

Governor Patterson had secretly been listening in on the conversations with Federal officials, including the Attorney General, waiting for the right moment to assert State control. That moment came around 10 p.m., when he declared "qualified martial rule" in the city. Soon, city police officers and members of the Alabama National Guard under Adjutant General Henry Graham surrounded the church - most of them more sympathetic to the mob than the crowd inside. The head of the Federal force placed his men under Graham's control. Graham immediately ordered the force to leave the area.

By the time the mass meeting ended, everyone inside was eager to go home. However, State and local forces blocked the doors. The situation, Graham explained to Dr. King, was too unstable. They would have to stay inside the church until the situation was under control. Dr. King called the Attorney General to describe the situation and complain about the departure of the U.S. forces, but Kennedy felt he had done all he could for the Freedom Riders. [Freedom Riders, p. 240]

Only after 4 a.m., would the State and National Guard forces relent:

[A] convoy of National Guard trucks and jeeps pulled up in front of the church, and over the next hour the Freedom Riders and the faithful parishioners of First Baptist finally left the scene of a confrontation that none of them would ever forget. [Freedom Riders, p. 242]

While the future of the Freedom Ride was in doubt, the Nashville contingent regrouped at the home of a prominent African-American pharmacist along with Dr. King, Farmer, Nash, and other leaders.

The Governor's declaration of martial law temporarily vacated Judge Jones's injunction within the city limits, but the Freedom Riders were subject to arrest anywhere else in the State. Therefore, on Monday, attorneys for the Riders went before U.S. Judge Frank Johnson on Monday. John Lewis, the designated plaintiff, testified about the reason for the Freedom Ride and the assertion of legal and constitutional rights. Although Judge Johnson expressed some doubt about the wisdom of the provocative Freedom Ride, he ruled that Judge Jones's injunction was an unconstitutional infringement of Federal law. As far as the Federal court was concerned, the Nashville Freedom Riders were no longer subject to arrest. [Freedom Riders, p. 248]

With the Freedom Riders determined to resume their journey to Jackson on Wednesday, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, a proud member of the White Citizens' Council, sent a telegram to Attorney General Kennedy:

You will do a great disservice to the agitators and the people of the United States if you do not advise the agitators to stay out of Mississippi.

He said he would not tolerate mob violence or Federal intervention:

The people of Mississippi are capable of handling all violations of law and keeping peace in Mississippi. We . . . do not want any police aid from Washington, either marshals or federal troops. [Freedom Riders, p. 251]

He followed up this telegram by putting the Mississippi National Guard on alert and directing State troopers to stop all buses at the Alabama-Mississippi border and search for Freedom Riders.

Governor Patterson was infuriated by the implication that Alabama had not handled the situation properly. In a press conference, he blamed the trouble on meddling Federal officials. He urged them to go home and let State officials handle law and order. The only thing he wanted from the Kennedy Administration was for it to encourage the Freedom Riders to get out of Alabama as soon as possible:

If they want to go to the state line we will see that they get there. I'm opposed to agitation and mob violence no matter who does it. But it's just as guilty to provoke an incident as to take part in one. [Freedom Riders, p. 252]

The Attorney General was losing patience with the Riders, who had provoked a series of violent incidents that made the United States look bad at a time when his brother was focused on foreign issues:

The president was first and foremost a Cold Warrior, and his focus on world affairs was never more intense than during the troubled spring following the Bay of Pigs fiasco [in April 1961]. In the midst of getting ready for his first presidential trip abroad-to England and France-he had just learned that Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev had agreed to a June summit meeting in Vienna . . . . From the administration's perspective, the timing of the confrontations in Alabama couldn't have been much worse, as the president told [aide Harris] Wofford in no uncertain terms after the Monday morning headlines [about the Mother's Day riot]. "Can you get your . . . friends off those buses?" Kennedy exploded. "Stop them." [Freedom Riders, p. 164]

Frantic negotiations continued among officials in Montgomery, Jackson, and Washington. Recognizing that the inept performance of Federal forces at Montgomery's First Baptist Church ruled out their continued involvement as peacekeepers, Attorney General Kennedy enlisted the help of Senator Eastland of Mississippi, a Democrat and an avowed segregationist. The Senator assured the Attorney General that the Freedom Riders would not come to harm in Mississippi, but any attempt to violate the State's segregation laws would result in arrest. Kennedy, who wanted the Freedom Riders out of the news, accepted the compromise. The key was to keep Federal forces out of the situation and allow the segregationists and States' rights advocates to handle the situation without violence.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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