Listen to this story
This Day In History: May 21st
On the night of May 21, 1961, more than 1,000 Black residents and civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth attended a service at Montgomery’s First Baptist Church to show support for the Freedom Riders. However, they were faced with racism and hatred from the town’s white residents while trying to hold the event.
The Freedom Riders were an interracial group of civil rights activists that challenged the existing condition of interstate passenger travel. They began busing through the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals and they were often harassed in the towns they traveled through.
The group arrived in Montgomery the day before the scheduled service and were attacked with bats and other weapons by the angered white residents. Reverend Ralph Abernathy, organized the event to honor the activists, but as the service took place, another mob surrounded the church. The crowd grew in size and the level of violence also escalated as the night went on.
Dr. King had to call in help due to the threat posed by the mob. He enlisted the help of former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy while taking cover in the church’s basement. Luckily for those inside of the church, Kennedy sent U.S. Marshals to break up the riot. However, the marshals were met with bricks and bottles. In response, the marshals used tear gas and were eventually assisted by local police.
Although the police and marshals were working to gain control of the crowd, the mob broke into smaller groups and continued on a path of destruction. While dispersed in smaller groups, the crowd overturned cars, attacked homes and even attacked Black residents in the streets. The events on May 21 forced Alabama Governor John Patterson to declare martial law in Montgomery, he even called on the National Guard to restore order in the city.
Seventeen rioters were arrested by the end of the mayhem. As the streets finally stabilized, the individuals being held inside the church were allowed to leave. The Freedom Riders were safely escorted from Montgomery and departed to Jackson, Mississippi. Just four days after the incident, Reverend Abernathy was arrested on breach of peace charges.