Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

God, Gandhi, and Guns: The African American Freedom Struggle in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1964-1965

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

God, Gandhi, and Guns: The African American Freedom Struggle in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1964-1965

Article excerpt

On the morning of 9 June 1964, over five hundred African Americans assembled at First African Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. They knew that the city's chief of police William Marable had prohibited their long-planned nonviolent protest march to the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse downtown, but the black Tuscaloosa Citizens for Action Committee (TCAC) had already announced that it would defy the ban. The large crowd of college and high school students who crammed into the church that day agreed, parade permit or not, they too were ready to march. Rev. T. Y. Rogers and fellow TCAC leaders had no doubt that the local police would stop them, possibly with violence. Indeed, dozens of blue-helmeted police officers and deputies, armed with nightsticks and cattle prods, surrounded the historic brick building. Nearby, firemen readied high pressure water hoses to disperse potential protesters. Rumors among African Americans that the local Ku Klux Klan had infiltrated the police force intensified the activists' apprehension. (1)

When Rev. Rogers led the long column of marchers out of the church into the summer heat, they faced a cordon of police officers. Chief Marable immediately confronted the black minister, reminding him that the demonstration had been banned. He asked bluntly, "Do you intend to march anyway?" "Yes," Rogers said firmly and nodded. The police chief was furious. "You're under arrest," Marable snarled and motioned his deputies to lead the minister to the waiting squad car. (2) Shortly thereafter, police officers arrested TCAC's remaining leadership. The black students were undaunted by the arrests. Singing and clapping, they made another attempt to break through the line of blue-helmeted policemen, but were brutally forced back. Using their cattle prods, sticks, and fists, the police pushed the demonstrators back into the church, while firemen began to spray them with high-pressured streams of water.

When a few angry teenagers allegedly began to throw rocks and bottles at the police, Marable's men suddenly hurled a tear gas canister into the church. Inside, the gas immediately caused a panic. "Tear gas, tear gas," the protesters screamed and began to break some of the church windows with chairs and other objects to let in fresh air. This prompted the police to shoot another barrage of gas shells into the building. Gasping for air and their eyes welling with tears, the frightened students poured out of the church. Outside, they received a violent welcome. Angry policemen chased the fleeing demonstrators and bloodied them with sticks and fists. When the almost one-hour-long siege finally ended, ninety-four demonstrators had been arrested. Thirty-four persons, among them one policeman, needed hospitalization for cuts, bruises, and injuries caused by tear gas. (3)

Tuscaloosa's black community was outraged at the brutal police response. Not only had police officers attacked one of the last sanctuaries of the African American community; worse, they had brutalized peaceful women and children. In particular black men, few of whom had participated in the demonstration, were outraged. The violent events seriously undermined their faith in nonviolent protest. Later that day, dozens of these men armed themselves to safeguard their community. Some of them drove downtown with their guns, seeking revenge against the white community. During the night, scattered violent incidents left two African Americans wounded. (4)

Concerned about this volatile situation, a group of older black activists tried to calm the potential rioters. In particular, Joseph Mallisham, a Korean War veteran and long-time labor organizer, sought to convince the angry group of the futility of violent disorders. Rather than burn down the city, he argued, African Americans ought to organize their own protective agency to prevent violent incidents like the one at the church that day. Moreover, he suggested, this group could provide protection against the Ku Klux Klan. …

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