May 20th, 1961

Mob Attacks Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama

On May 16, 1961, mob violence in Birmingham, Alabama, threatened to prematurely end the Freedom Ride campaign organized by the Congress on Racial Equality. The Nashville Student Movement, an interracial group of twenty-two college students studying in Tennessee, volunteered to take over the ride and continue through Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana.

The new Freedom Riders reached Birmingham on May 17 but were arrested and returned to Tennessee by Birmingham police officers under the command of Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. Undeterred, the riders and additional reinforcements from Tennessee returned to Birmingham on May 18. Under pressure from the federal government, Alabama Governor John Patterson agreed to authorize state and city police to protect the riders during their journey from Birmingham to Montgomery.

On May 20, 1961, nineteen Freedom Riders arrived in Montgomery. Abandoned by state police at the city limits, the bus continued unescorted to the bus station, anticipating the arrival of city police escorts. But Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner L.B. Sullivan had promised the Ku Klux Klan several minutes to attack the riders without police interference. The riders were met at the bus station by several hundred angry whites armed with baseball bats, hammers, and pipes. Montgomery police watched as the mob first attacked reporters and then turned on the riders. Several were seriously injured, including future United States Congressman John Lewis. John Seigenthaler, an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was knocked unconscious. Ignored by ambulances, two injured riders were saved by good samaritans who transported them to nearby hospitals.