May 21st, 1961

National Guard Disperses White Crowd Threatening Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama

The Freedom Riders were an interracial group of civil rights activists who began riding interstate buses in 1961 to test Supreme Court decisions that prohibited discrimination in interstate passenger travel. Their efforts were unpopular with whites who supported continued segregation.

On May 20, 1961, Freedom Riders arriving in Montgomery, Alabama, were attacked by a white mob and several suffered serious injury. On the evening of May 21, more than 1000 black residents and civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth attended a service at Montgomery's First Baptist Church organized by Rev. Ralph Abernathy to support the Freedom Riders. A white mob surrounded the church and vandalized parked cars. From the church's basement, Dr. King called United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and requested help. United States Marshals soon arrived to dispel the riot; the growing mob pelted them with bricks and bottles. The marshals responded with tear gas.

When police arrived to assist the marshals, the mob broke into smaller groups and overturned cars, attacked black residences with bullets and firebombs, and assaulted black people in the streets. Alabama Governor John Patterson declared martial law in Montgomery and ordered National Guard troops to restore order. Authorities arrested seventeen white rioters and, by midnight, the streets were calm. Only then were those in the church permitted to leave. Three days later, troops escorted the Freedom Riders as they departed to Jackson, Mississippi, where they would face further resistance.