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Zero Tolerance:

The 1956 Montgomery Riots


By Chris Oakley

Part 1



When the modern American civil rights movement began in the mid-1950s, it was readily apparent that the movement would inevitably be a source of controversy and it would face hostility from racists among the South’s white population. But even the gloomiest pessimist would have had a hard time imagining that the backlash would come so early--or turn out to be so violent. A boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama metropolitan bus lines would turn out to be the match that lit the fuse for an explosion of bloodshed the likes of which the South hadn’t seen since the end of the Civil War...


...and at the height of the carnage many people, black and white, feared a second Civil War might well be in the offing. But before we delve into the Montgomery riots and their consequences, it’s important to recall the circumstances leading up to the boycott which preceded the riots. Back in the mid-1950s blacks in Montgomery were required by law to sit in the back when they rode on buses operated by the city’s mass transit system; this was considered an intolerable situation by the leaders of the nascent civil rights movement, and they were always on the lookout for an opportunity to mount a protest against it and push for a change in the law.1

That opportunity came on December 1st, 1955 when department store worker and NAACP2 member Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white man. Galvanized by the arrest, Birmingham’s black community, under the leadership of an eloquent young preacher by the name of Martin Luther King Jr., commenced a voluntary embargo on the use of the city’s bus lines. Since much of Birmingham’s municipal budget depended on the money earned by collecting fares from city bus passengers, this constituted a major blow against the power structure in Birmingham-- a structure that was entirely white and significantly racist.

Some of the more violent elements of the segregationist community in Birmingham were spoiling for a fight with the NAACP. The Ku Klux Klan, long an active presence in the city, was especially willing to use force to end the boycott; for decades they’d been terrorizing the black citizens of Birmingham, and the NAACP boycott was in the Klan’s eyes just one more excuse to lash out at those they deemed inferior. As ridership on the Birmingham bus lines dropped, and revenue dropped with it, the Klansmen gathered their forces for a dramatic retaliation against those who had dared challenge their white supremacist views...


....while other white supremacists, not necessarily part of the KKK but sharing many of its bigoted positions, took to the streets in a counter-protest demanding that the NAACP’s boycott be terminated at once. One of the most vocal figures involved in the counter-boycott was a longtime die-hard segregationist named George Wallace, a fiery populist who in the early ‘60s would campaign for the governorship of Alabama on a platform of what he called "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever".3 Wallace ranted to anyone who would listen-- especially if that person had a microphone or camera --about how ‘outsiders’ were stirring up trouble and everything had, at least from his point of view, been fine between whites and blacks in Alabama until then.

Wallace’s tirade conveniently forgot to mention one small but crucial detail: most of the bus boycott organizers were Montgomery residents fed up with the discrimination that had been part and parcel of Southern life for generations. It also left out the hard fact that many of Wallace’s fellow Southern whites had been, at best, highly insensitive in their treatment of blacks. He blamed the problems in Montgomery on "Northern agitators" and Communists, although just who exactly these agitators and Communists were Wallace couldn’t say with any degree of certainty. When a journalist from a Chicago newspaper challenged Wallace to come up with concrete evidence of such outside intrusion, his only response was an inflammatory rant in which he more or less accused the reporter of being a KGB agent.

In early January of 1956, just over a month into the Montgomery bus boycott, Wallace and over two thousand supporters marched through the city’s streets demanding that Montgomery’s blacks end the boycott. Wallace said the blacks should, to use a phrase once all too popular in the South, "learn their place" and stop trying to push for change in the Montgomery bus lines’ policy towards black passengers. This, of course, outraged boycott supporters and made them more determined than ever to see that their cause triumph. It also sparked plans by boycott leaders to hold their own demonstration in downtown Montgomery-- and lit the fuse for what would turn out to be the worst civil unrest that city had seen in at least a generation...


January 10th, 1956 was a typically cold winter day in Montgomery. However, those who turned out for the rally being held that morning in support of the bus boycott were more focused on getting their message across than on chilly weather. In a direct challenge to Montgomery’s segregationists, the civil rights marchers held their rally directly across the street from the offices of the city’s mass transit bureau; given that George Wallace and his backers had used that same spot a week earlier as the starting point for their anti-boycott protests, it was almost inevitable that some of the pro-segregation forces in the city would take the civil rights marchers’ actions as a deliberate affront.

About two hours into their march, the NAACP demonstrators were confronted by a cluster of white segregationists waving pro-Wallace placards and screaming racial slurs. Some of those harassing the NAACP marchers were off-duty cops carrying their service revolvers with them and displaying those revolvers in a way blatantly meant to intimidate the blacks. But far from being intimidated, the blacks were defiant; some of them hollered a few choice epithets of their own at the pro-Wallace marchers. One round of angry words led to another, then still another, then to fistfights and thrown objects, and finally to an act of violence so shocking it would horrify people of all racial stripes.


To Be Continued...


[1] The Interstate Commerce Commission had previously ruled that bus companies could not segregate black passengers; these rulings would be cited by Parks’ lawyers as part of her defense.

[2] National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People.

[3] From the closing paragraph of Wallace’s first campaign speech.


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