SIEGE OF 1ST BAPTIST CHURCH (3000 whites try to burn MLK in church)


This is the May 22, 1961 edition of The Mexia (Texas) Daily News with the headline “700 U.S. MARSHALS SENT TO ALABAMA.”  On May 21, 1961, First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama was a refuge for the passengers on the Freedom ride which met with violence at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Montgomery. The church was filled with some 1500 worshipers and activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, Diane Nash, and James Farmer. The building was besieged by 3000 whites who threatened to burn it.  In the basement, Dr. King, in the company of Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker, James Farmer, and John Lewis, was on the phone with United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, while bricks were thrown through the windows and tear gas came drifting in. According to Lewis, Kennedy jokingly asked King to say a prayer, since he was in a church anyway; the activists in the basement were not amused. The events of 20–21 May 1961, including the “siege of First Baptist,” played a crucial part in the desegregation of interstate travel.

Robert and John F. Kennedy both pleaded with John Malcolm Patterson, governor of Alabama at the time, to cooperate and help protect the people inside First Baptist Church. Eventually, around 10PM, Patterson placed the city under “qualified-martial rule”. A large group of city policemen along with more than a hundred members of the Alabama National Guard had swarmed to First Baptist Church and created a shield around it. Former marshals on the scene were placed under the National Guard command. Shortly after the mob was finally dispersed. Yet; the citizens in the church continued to be held in a siege by the National Guardsmen.

At around 4AM, assistant attorney general William Orrick, worked out a deal with the Adjutant General of the National Guards, Henry Graham, to release everyone in the church. National Guard trucks and Jeeps were sent to retrieve the Freedom Riders and parishioners out the church.

An Emergency Call to Montgomery

By Dave Turk
United States Marshals Service Historian

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 (see below). 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 multiple jurisdictions.

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.

Document is not part of the collection (only the newspaper).


Freedom Riders Program
Freedom Riders Program
Freedom Riders Program
Freedom Riders Program