In this WSB newsfilm clip from May 21, 1961, Montgomery, Alabama police commissioner L. B. Sullivan speaks about the Freedom Rides and the race riots in the city during an interview with a reporter.
The clip begins by focusing on a sign for the Greyound bus station in Montgomery. African American and white people walk down the sidewalk under the sign. White policemen and another white man stand together on the edge of the bus parking lot. The camera moves to show a Greyhound bus parked in the parking lot. Next the camera focuses on the sign over the door to the Montgomery Police headquarters.
Following these images an off-screen reporter interviews Montgomery police commissioner L. B. Sullivan. The reporter's first question is incompletely recorded. Sullivan responds to the question of the possibility of further trouble by expressing hope that there will not be more trouble. Sullivan reminds the reporter that Montgomery did not invite the Freedom Riders to come to the city. He feels that race relations in the community have improved recently and worries about the negative effects of the presence of the Freedom Riders. The reporter asks Sullivan why there is such a negative response to the Freedom Rides. Sullivan explains that it is "against the law of human nature" for people to respond well when things are forced upon them. He praises Montgomery citizens as "the finest people in the world" and declares that racial problems could be solved locally. Sullivan answers the reporter's question about plans in case of further troubles by first announcing increased patrol coverage. He goes on to condemn United States attorney general Robert F. Kennedy for sending United States marshals to Montgomery. According to Sullivan, local resources including police, the sheriff's office, and the highway patrol "are perfectly competent to take care of the matter." Sullivan later clarifies that while Montgomery law enforcement did not invite the U.S. marshals, he did not say they would not cooperate with the federal representatives. The clip ends with Sullivan's assertion that Montgomery is capable of taking care of local problems.
In the summer of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized an interracial "Freedom Ride" through the South to test compliance with the United States Supreme Court ruling banning segregation in interstate transportation. The ride, patterned after CORE's 1947 "Journey of Reconciliation," began in Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961 after three days of nonviolence training. Riders traveled in two groups, one by Greyhound and one by Trailways. The group met minor resistance in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. However, on May 14, both groups of travelers were attacked by white mobs in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. In both communities, local law enforcement were purportedly aware of plans for mob violence and made arrangements for the mob to attack the riders before the police arrived. On May 15, officials from the United States Department of Justice, including Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, began negotiating with Alabama officials in an attempt to arrange safe passage for the riders from Birmingham to Montgomery. When Kennedy was unable to get Alabama governor John Patterson to agree to protect the riders, he arranged for the Freedom Riders to fly to New Orleans. A second group of riders arranged by the Nashville, Tennessee, student movement, was also attacked on May 20 in Montgomery, Alabama. During the riot in Montgomery, John Seigenthaler, Attorney General Robert Kennedy's personal assistant, was severely beaten. The riot in Montgomery following the riders' arrival lasted several hours and caused President John F. Kennedy to finally authorize federal marshals to go to the city and protect the riders. White mobs again gathered and threatened the riders at a mass meeting held at First Baptist Church on May 21. The mobs were finally dispersed early in the morning of May 22, after Alabama governor John Patterson declared martial law and sent members of the Alabama National Guard to the church. Once there they escorted the weary meeting participants home. On May 24, riders were heavily protected during the trip from Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi. Once in Jackson, under a secretly negotiated deal between Department of Justice officials and Mississippi state leaders, the riders were all arrested under "breach of peace" charges as they got off the bus. Throughout the summer, subsequent groups of Riders who also traveled to Jackson were arrested. In September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the governmental body responsible for interstate travel, issued a ruling forbidding segregation in facilities serving interstate passengers.
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The Civil Rights Digital Library received support from a National Leadership Grant for Libraries awarded to the University of Georgia by the Institute of Museum and Library Services for digital conversion and description of the WSB-TV Newsfilm Collection.
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Cite as: WSB-TV newsfilm clip of police commissioner L. B. Sullivan speaking about the Freedom Rides and about race riots in Montgomery, Alabama, 1961 May 21, WSB-TV newsfilm collection, reel 0780, 1:41/03:42, Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, The University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Ga, as presented in the Digital Library of Georgia.