An Emergency Call to Montgomery
By Dave Turk
Just after one of modern history’s pivotal moments, Doctor Martin Luther
King, Jr. came to Montgomery, Alabama, to honor the “Freedom Riders,” an
organized assemblage of activists and citizens that traveled aboard
interstate buses through terminals in the South. The original intent was
to ride from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in thirteen days in May
1961. Bus terminals and vehicles were segregated and the “Freedom
Riders” hoped to challenge the culture at each stop. The bus was
besieged by mob violence in Alabama, so U.S. Attorney General Robert
Kennedy and the Justice Department sent a representative escort. They
arrived in Montgomery shortly after.
After an attempt to continue the journey to New Orleans, word reached
the U.S. Marshals that Dr. King planned to address a gathering in
Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church on the evening of May
21, 1961. The allotted personnel on hand numbered too few to stem
potential violence, which prompted experienced deputies with riot
training to make emergency travel plans to Montgomery. Sure enough, mobs
threatened to damage or burn the church and its occupants. The
protection of the perimeter around the First Baptist Church and the two
primary organizers of the event, Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy, were
of primary concern.
In securing the area, deputy U.S. marshals obtained
a copy of the program and list of speakers.
The folded program flyer, found in an unmarked file, gave the itinerary
of the program. On the reverse, a deputy wrote down Reverend Abernathy’s
name, address, phone number and notation of his three children and baby
sitter. Three other names were noted on the reverse of the flyer—that of
the Knight family. They may have been related to Pauline Knight, one of
the “Freedom Rider” organizers. It gave a location “Pelcin [Pelican]
Theatre” on “Laurence Street at corner of Monroe.” Finally, a pencil
notation mentions “ATU” and a number. This was a reference to the
primary revenue agent contact—as the protective activity involved
The deputies bravely defended the perimeter with reinforcements and
arrived in time to prevent violence to the attendees. A fiery projectile
nearly burned the roof of the church. While Dr. King considered a
personal appeal, the riots continued until finally broken up with
military assistance. It was not the only time the U.S. Marshals and Dr.
King would cross paths, but it was a pivotal moment—and one of the many
times our personnel stood their ground in the face of violence.
With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day upon us, this
document serves as a living record of our stand.