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Zero Tolerance:

The 1956 Montgomery Riots


By Chris Oakley

Part 3



Summary: In the first two episodes of this series we focused on the 1956 Montgomery riots and the global reaction to the horrific violence perpetrated against Montgomery’s black community. In this chapter we’ll review the chain of events that followed President Eisenhower’s decision to deploy federal troops to the city to halt the riots.


It was just after 7:00 PM on the evening of January 10th, 1956 when the first convoy of Federal troops assigned to patrol Montgomery crossed the Alabama state line. Every man in the convoy had their guns fully loaded and ready to fire-- a wise precaution, given that (A)the violence in Montgomery’s downtown areas was threatening to spill out beyond the city limits and (B)some of Wallace’s more militant backers had threatened to attack any National Guardsmen who intervened against the rioters. Wallace himself wasn’t doing much to calm anyone’s fears, for that matter; both in public statements to the media and in private conversations with his supporters he was taking a very confrontational attitude that halted just an inch short of openly advocating an armed insurrection against the federal government.

Fortunately for Wallace, and America at large for that matter, his fantasies of a do-or-die struggle with the Guardsmen didn’t come to pass. The Guard soldiers were too well-trained to let themselves be provoked into an unnecessary firefight with the segregationists in Montgomery; furthermore, they were better equipped and organized than the rioters. Any armed engagements between the Guard troops and the segregationists would have been a serious mismatch-- not to mention a potential catalyst for wider civil unrest.

The National Guard advance units reached Montgomery just after 8:00 PM and immediately began disarming the rioters; they also set to work clearing away the wreckage left behind by the rioters in their earlier rampages and assisting the Montgomery fire department with the job of putting out the blazes that had been lit by the rioters in the latter stages of the unrest. As the night wore on, additional Guard units arrived in Montgomery and re-asserted the rule of law in that city; by dawn on the morning of January 11th there were at least 50,000 National Guardsmen in Montgomery and its suburbs.

With the Guard in Montgomery in force, Wallace decided discretion was the better part of valor and refrained from making any more shows of defiance. Backpedaling from his earlier belligerent statements, he now urged his supporters not to commit any violent actions that might give the Guard an excuse to crack down further than they already had. Most of them took his advice and complied with the Guard’s directives, albeit with a certain amount of under-the-breath grumbling; those who didn’t follow that advice quickly found themselves locked up either in Montgomery City Jail or in the special detention centers the Guard set up when the city jail became overcrowded.

While one group of Guardsmen arrested the rioters and began the work of rebuilding the sectors of Montgomery demolished by the riots, another contingent worked to relieve the strain which had been put on the city’s health care system during the unrest. In fact, Montgomery would see the largest peacetime deployment of National Guard medical personnel until Hurricane Katrina; at least a dozen medics would get special commendations for their service treating injured survivors of the riots.

One of their first patients was Ralph Abernathy, who in spite of civilian doctors’ best efforts was still in critical condition in the wake of his shooting the previous day. Guard medics would spend close to 36 hours working over the civil rights leader and overseeing his post-op care following extensive surgery. In the months after Rev. Abernathy was released from the hospital, many of these same medics paid regular visits to his home to be sure he was continuing to make progress in his recovery from the shooting.

The last of the fires in downtown Montgomery was finally put out early on the afternoon of January 12th. Over the coming days there would be a great deal of work to do clearing away the debris the fires had left behind and laying the victims of those fires to rest....


...not to mention investigating the men accused of starting them. State and federal law enforcement agents inspecting the ruins of the buildings burned during the riots turned up disturbing evidence that some of the fires had been more than just spontaneous outbursts of racist anger; there were hints some parts of the black sections of Birmingham had been intentionally targeted for arson long before the riots erupted. The agents’ suspicions were amplified when US marshals, acting on an anonymous tip, raided the home of a local mechanic and found a list of black-owned businesses in downtown Montgomery along with a road map of the city that had the locations of those businesses circled in red ink.

Montgomery’s black community was outraged, but not surprised, that arson had been committed at the time of the riots. Ever since its creation in 1871, the Ku Klux Klan had often used arson as a major tactic in its campaign to terrorize blacks into submission and rebuild the old white supremacist power structure in the South; even before the Montgomery riots rumors had been floating around that a gang of KKK men were plotting to torch black homes and businesses in certain Mongomery neighborhoods with the approval(or at least acquiescence) of the Alabama state KKK leadership.

In late January eleven men suspected of having helped instigate the Montgomery riots and the arson fires that ensued during the riots were indicted in a federal court in Atlanta on twenty-seven criminal counts ranging from forgery to attempted murder. Not surprisingly, the indictments were greeted with outrage among the more racist elements of Birmingham’s white community. One pro-segregation politician gave a radio interview on the day of the indictments in which he accused the Justice Department of trying to persecute the defendants the way the Nazis had persecuted the Jews during the Holocaust1. The courthouse in Atlanta became the focus for a fairly sizable and dedicated group of demonstrators who, without any apparent sense of irony, denounced the indictments as "a government-ordained lynching".

As for George Wallace, while federal and state authorities were unable for one reason or another to bring him up on criminal charges, they did have sufficient grounds to file civil charges against him, and he was soon named defendant in one of the biggest wrongful death lawsuits in American history. But rather than wilt under the glare of adverse publicity, the ever-confrontational Wallace chose to strike back with a vengeance, filing countersuit against the Feds alleging First Amendment rights violations and intentional infliction of mental and emotional distress. Although his countersuit was eventually thrown out by the courts, the publicity it generated helped make him a major force in Alabama politics and would later serve as the genesis for his campaign for the state governorship a few years down the line.

The Atlanta trial lasted more than two months; during that time the rest of America would get a sobering look into the antediluvian mindset of segregation’s most hard-line followers, and as a result of this public opinion throughout the country would start to turn against segregation once and for all. In Southern cities and towns previously thought to be unshakably in the segregationists’ grip, black and white residents alike began speaking out in favor of abolishing Jim Crow for good. Other NAACP branches in the South, inspired by the men and women who’d put their fortunes and lives at risk in the Birmingham city bus boycott, launched their own economic boycott campaigns to desegregate civic and business institutions in the southern United States; before long, these local and regional protests had begun coalescing into the modern national civil rights movement we know today.


By the spring of 1956 Alabama’s highest state court had ruled in favor of desegregating Birmingham’s city bus lines and the US Supreme Court was getting ready to tackle the issue on the federal level. The Southern tradition of racial separation, which once seemed as eternal as the granite of Georgia’s Stone Mountain, was looking more and more vulnerable with each passing day. The black community, galvanized by the events in Montgomery and the U.S. Supreme Court’s anti-segregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka two years earlier, was becoming ever more assertive about exercising their rights as citizens of the United States; many whites who had previously been on the fence about integration came down on the side of the integrationists and got involved with the civil rights movement to a degree they wouldn’t have thought possible just a short time before. Even some whites who had previously favored segregation abandoned this position and started to back racial integration.

To paraphrase the title of a folk song that would be recorded seven years later, the times in the Old South were a-changin’.


To Be Continued



[1] This would prove to be a career-ending mistake; the politician happened to represent a district whose constituency included a small but influential Jewish-American enclave and a number of World War II veterans who’d helped liberate concentration camp inmates from the Nazis in the war’s final days, and when he came up for re-election he was defeated by a landslide. He never ran for public office again.


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