10. The Montgomery Freedom Rider Riots of 1961
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10 The Montgomery Freedom Rider Riots of 1961 The election of a racial liberal to the Montgomery City Commission in 1953, and his persuasion of his two colleagues on the commission—both of whom were fairly moderate on racial questions—to accept the hiring of black policemen in the spring of 1954, precipitated a po­ liti­ cal crisis in Montgomery.The racial liberal, Dave Bir­ ming­ ham, was defeated in the city elections of 1955 by an extreme segregationist,Clyde C.Sellers.And though the moderate Mayor, William A. Gayle, survived, and another moderate was elected to join them as the third commissioner, both of the moderates were swayed by Sellers’s victory into adopting somewhat harder-­ line positions on suggestions of racial reform.1 Because of these developments, it became clear to black leaders that blacks could not obtain from the new commission what were, now that the integration of the police force had been effected, their two chief goals: the appointment of a black member of the city Parks and Recreation Board, and the modification of the seating plan on city buses to allow the pattern of segregation in use in Montgomery’s coastal neighbor Mobile, under which blacks, once seated, could not be unseated to make additional room for whites. The po­ liti­ cal failure of March 1955, turned Montgomery’s black leaders toward an effort to influence the commission outside the electoral context. As a result, after the arrest of Mrs. Rosa L. Parks on De­ cem­ ber 1 of that year for her refusal to vacate her seat for a boarding white, black leaders agreed upon the idea of a boycott of the buses as a way of influencing the now less responsive commissioners. But the Bus Boycott, because it was such a pub­ lic effort at “intimidat­ ing,” as whites saw it, the po­ liti­ cal structure, actually had the effect of driving the commissioners into extreme intransigence. All three of them joined the newly formed White Citizens’ Council—until then an organization that all but the most frenzied white elements had held in contempt, but which by the spring of 1956 was the largest single organization of any kind in Montgomery County. And this new white intransigence begat a new black militancy.Through the first two months of the Bus Boycott, the black 200 / Chapter 10 leadership had rejected any suggestion that they seek racial integration on the buses. They continued to press only for the adoption of the Mobile plan of seating segregation. But at the beginning of February 1956, after the bombing of the homes of two of the boycott’s leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Edgar D. Nixon, blacks were finally driven to file suit in federal court seeking to have bus segregation declared unconstitutional, even though doing so necessarily required the abandoning of their earlier request for a more acceptable pattern of segregation. Meanwhile, racial moderates among the city’s businessmen had been seeking to negotiate a compromise.But their effort was not merely a failure. It brought them an intense outpouring of harassment and hostility from the newly powerful Citizens’ Council. Thus by the spring of 1956, three months into the boycott, all negotiations ceased, and the bus dispute now was turned over to the courts—the blacks depending on their federal court integration suit, and the whites having indicted the black leaders in state court for violation of the Ala­ bama Anti-­ Boycott Act of 1921.2 When bus integration finally came to Montgomery just before Christ­ mas of 1956, therefore—as a result of a decision by the US Supreme Court in the suit filed by blacks in February—it came to a city completely polarized . The Montgomery that emerged from the Bus Boycott at the end of 1956 was virtually unrecognizable as the city that had elected a liberal commissioner of pub­ lic affairs in 1953 and had voluntarily integrated its police force in 1954. And the sequel was predictable: sniper shootings into the integrated buses that badly wounded a black passenger and a series of dynamite bombings in the early weeks of Janu­ ary 1957,which did extensive damage to black homes and churches. Moderate businessmen, who had been impelled into silence the preceding spring, exerted themselves once more in the face of this violence, and under heavy pressure from them, police actually succeeded in breaking the bombing cases and in obtaining the indictment of the ringleaders.The violence , it turned out, had...


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Subject Headings

  • Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877).
  • Civil rights -- United States -- History.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1865-1951.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1951-.
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