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U.S. Marshals Service

An Emergency Call to Montgomery

By Dave Turk
USMS 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. 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.
 
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