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Zero Tolerance:

The 1956 Montgomery Riots


By Chris Oakley

Part 2



Summary: In Part 1 of this series we reviewed the circumstances leading up to the 1956 Montgomery riots; in this chapter we’ll start to examine the riots themselves and look back at how the rest of America and the world reacted to the violence.


The first punch thrown in the confrontation between the NAACP and the segregationists at the January 10th rally effectively squelched any hopes of achieving a peaceful resolution to the standoff. But nobody realized just how truly violent things were about to get-- until one of the segregationists pulled out a .38 revolver and shot one of the NAACP march organizers, a highly respected church pastor named Ralph Abernathy. There was a brief moment of stunned silence as Abernathy’s body toppled to the pavement; the silence soon gave way to horrified screams from the NAACP demonstrators and from whites who didn’t share the KKK’s taste for violence against those who opposed segregation.

As some of Abernathy’s supporters rushed frantically to get him to a hospital, all hell broke loose. A cluster of Ku Klux Klansmen armed with clubs, baseball bats, rocks, hunting rifles and anything else they could get their hands on tore into the NAACP marchers like sharks smelling blood in the water; the NAACP demonstrators defended themselves vigorously but were forced to retreat in the face of the Klansmen’s brutality. The Montgomery police were called in to restore order, but their heavy-handed tactics only served to exacerbate the situation, and it didn’t help matters any that some of those police officers were either covertly or openly sympathetic to the KKK.1

Gunshots were heard almost continuously in the streets of Montgomery as the day wore on; some of those participating in the NAACP’s demonstration had brought their own guns for self-defense, and for every shot the Klansmen and other white supremacists fired at the NAACP marchers the marchers fired one of their own in reply. Not since the end of the Civil War had Alabama seen such a fierce gun battle on the streets of one of its major cities. A stray bullet narrowly missed the head of a newspaper photographer from Mobile...


....but not before the story of the horrendous events unfolding in downtown Montgomery began making its way over the wires and into newsrooms all across America. By noon radio and TV commentators in New York City were giving summary accounts of Reverend Abernathy’s shooting; around 1:45 the first photos of the shooting appeared in West Coast newspapers. President Dwight Eisenhower learned about the rioting and the attack on Rev. Abernathy just after 2:15 PM, and in a matter of minutes Eisenhower had convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet to attempt to hammer out an effective federal response to the carnage going in Montgomery.

Meanwhile, the KKK was assaulting the black sections of Montgomery with a savagery outstripping even the worst excesses committed by the group during the Reconstruction era. Houses, businesses, schools, and anything else they came across were being sacked; any black people who had the bad luck to get in the way of their rampage were shot down in the streets like dogs. Whites who sympathized with the NAACP’s cause also fell victim to the rioters’ wrath, often being shot, lynched, or beaten right alongside the blacks. At least two white clergymen who supported the NAACP’s bus boycott were fatally stabbed right on the doorsteps of their churches-- with one of those stabbings happening in full view of a sheriff’s deputy who did absolutely nothing to prevent it.

Even today it’s still not known precisely how many people died in the Montgomery riots. However, the most reliable eyewitness accounts of those grim days suggest that the body count in the first hours of the crisis must have been close to 400, with at least as many others injured or missing. Hospitals were kept busy dealing with both white and black victims of the violence; corpses kept flowing into morgues like cars passing through an assembly line. So many people died that Montgomery’s mortuaries nearly ran out of caskets and crematory urns to handle all the corpses left in the wake of the unrest.

Alabama’s delegation to the U.S. Congress was kept apprised of the turmoil in Montgomery via written notes delivered by Capitol Hill pages from the House and Senate phone and telegraph offices. Those who had access to radios kept one ear glued to them as breathless national news commentators relayed the horrific accounts of the violence being perpetrated in one of the South’s most prominent cities. Not since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor nearly 15 years earlier had a radio news bulletin captured the attention of so many American listeners....


...and it wasn’t just American ears that were peeled to the news from Montgomery. In Canada radio stations in Toronto and Montreal interrupted their National Hockey League coverage to keep listeners abreast of the latest developments on the riots; in Great Britain, the BBC sent a correspondent to one of London’s largest hotels to get the opinions of American tourists on the situation; in the Soviet Union Radio Moscow gloated that the Montgomery riots were proof positive of the barbarity and inevitable collapse of capitalism; in Japan, U.S. servicemen and Japanese civilians learned of the violence in Alabama via Armed Forces Radio; in Egypt Radio Cairo compared the KKK’s atrocities against blacks to Israel’s treatment of Palestinian refugees following its 1948 war for independence. In South Africa, where apartheid was the law of the land back then, the government- owned South African Broadcasting Corporation cited the Montgomery riots as justification for Pretoria’s policy of racially segregating blacks from whites.

Elsewhere in Africa, anti-colonial sentiment was heightened by each new report of violence being perpetrated against Montgomery’s black residents. The impact was particularly strong in Kenya, where the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in that country was then in its fifth year; the Kenya African Union, the most influential pro-independence group in the country at the time, cited the Montgomery riots as evidence of the need for British colonial administration to end in Kenya without delay. Not surprisingly, many British subjects came to the opposite conclusion, regarding the riots in America as a sign that Her Majesty’s Government needed to take a more firm hand than ever in Kenya.

In Vietnam, which was just starting to recover from an eight-year-long war for independence from French rule, the competing regimes of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi and Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon tracked the chaos in Montgomery to see what if any lessons could be taken away from it and how they could be used to advance each regime’s political agenda. In East Germany, where Berlin had been torn by a brief anti-Soviet uprising three years earlier, the government of Walter Ulbricht began brainstorming ways they might use the Montgomery riots as fodder for anti-U.S. propaganda; on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the West German government in Bonn kept a wary eye on extremists of both the left and the right who were trying to exploit Montgomery to advance their own agendas.

Back in Washington, President Eisenhower had the unenviable task of trying to decide whether to send federal troops to intervene in the Montgomery riots. On the one hand he couldn’t simply allow the carnage in that city to continue raging unchecked; on the other hand, federal intervention might serve to increase the segregationists’ already deep hostility towards the federal government. Eisenhower’s predecessor in the White House, Harry Truman, had stirred considerable resentment in the ranks of the segregationists eight years earlier by ordering that the U.S. armed forces be racially integrated. If federal troops were dispatched to Montgomery now it provoke a segregationist backlash all across Alabama, if not the entire Deep South-- possibly even trigger a second Civil War. But as then-US Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. pointed out to Eisenhower, the consequences of doing nothing would be ten times worse.

At 4:25 PM on the afternoon of January 10th, nearly two hours after he had first convened his cabinet meeting, President Eisenhower finally gave the go-ahead for federal troops to intervene in the riots in Montgomery. As the meeting was adjourning, Eisenhower found himself quoting a comment he’d made to his field commanders on the eve of the Normandy invasion: "I don’t like it, but there it is...I don’t see how we can do anything else...."


To Be Continued



[1] A 2001 investigation by the Alabama state attorney general’s office confirmed long-standing suspicions that certain Montgomery policemen had helped incite the Klansmen to riot; that investigation resulted in 26 arrests and indictments and 17 convictions on charges ranging from disturbing the peace to second-degree murder.


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