Tuscaloosa's 'Bloody Tuesday' Changed the Course of History

State troopers and deputies stand at the entrance to a University of Alabama building in Tuscaloosa on the day in 1963 that George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, said he would defy a Federal order making it mandatory to admit two African American students. Credit - Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

For 60 years, Black citizens in Tuscaloosa, Ala., begged city and state leaders to tell the truth about one of the most violent days in the civil rights movement. They wanted the world to know that on June 9, 1964, police and Klansmen brutalized over 500 Black people huddled inside First African Baptist Church. They called it Bloody Tuesday. It remains the largest assault and invasion of a Black church by law enforcement during the civil rights movement. More were injured and arrested than on Bloody Sunday in Selma, eight months later.

Survivors of Bloody Tuesday, now in their 70s and 80s, recently shared their experiences with the FBI and local law enforcement. They preached a simple truth: “The memory you chose. That’s who you are.” The stories we tell—or don’t tell—shape our lives. Still, they worry their grandchildren will never learn their history in school, and it will die when they do.

On March 4, 1964, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then co-pastor with his father of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, returned to Montgomery, Ala.,where he had launched the bus boycott that catapulted him to national prominence eight years earlier. He came to the state capitol to vent his anger over the slow pace of racial change and announce a bold new campaign to leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Time has come for massive assault on segregation in Alabama,” he vowed. “We will never stop until justice runs down like water.” He identified Tuscaloosa as an early target because breaking segregation there would carry enormous significance.

Read More: The Problem With Comparing Today's Activists to Martin Luther King Jr.

Tuscaloosa, the fourth largest city in the state, was the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and home to its Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton. There was no deadlier or more powerful white supremacist in the country. The city’s history of racial violence was as vicious as any in the state. The recent battle in Tuscaloosa to integrate the University of Alabama, the last all-White university in the South, had made national news.

Nearly 18,000 Black people, a third of the population, lived in Tuscaloosa and had built a dense network of Black churches, clubs, and businesses. It protected them from the indignity and danger of living in a segregated city, where challenge to the color line brought swift arrest, or worse: Tuscaloosa County registered over 100 lynchings and nearly two dozen attempted lynchings since Reconstruction. Black people had staged protests before, though none produced lasting change. Many attended or had graduated from Stillman College, one of the jewels of Black higher education in the state and a hotbed of political activism.

On March 8, 1964, King installed one of his closest disciples, Rev. T. Y. Rogers, as pastor of First African Baptist Church and told him to desegregate the city. “There are [those] who will tell you to put on the brakes,” King thundered from the pulpit. “Tell them you have had on the brakes. Now you want to get going down the highway of freedom and equality.”

As soon as King left Tuscaloosa, Rogers went to work. The Black community picketed stores that refused to serve them, boycotted merchants that overcharged them, and paraded in front of a city hall that ignored their calls for equality. King sent top SCLC leaders to provide counsel, including Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rev. Andrew Young.

Klansmen took notice and beat protestors, shot them with pellet guns, and doused them with acid. Police did little to stop the violence, and sometimes joined in.

Read More: Campus Protests Are Called Disruptive. So Was the Civil Rights Movement

Still, Black Americans protested. Their demonstration on June 9 was to be their largest one yet, to march downtown to drink from white fountains and use restrooms reserved for whites in the new county courthouse. But as they prayed inside First African Baptist, police and sheriff’s deputies smashed the stained-glass windows with water from a fire hose and filled the church with tear gas. When people stumbled outside, police beat and arrested as many as they could. They swept the inside of the church, routing out the elderly and the very young hiding in closets. Nearly 100 went to jail, 33 were hospitalized, and dozens more received care at a local barbershop.

The scale and ferocity of the assault dwarfed prior acts of police aggression in the city and recalled memories of Bull Connor’s brutal attack on protesters in Birmingham a year earlier in May 1963. It sparked doubts that the promise of democracy would ever extend to Black citizens. “How could this happen in Tuscaloosa?” cried Rogers, who had been arrested before the start of the attack and forced to watch it unfold from the front seat of a police car. “How could this happen in America?”

The Alabama Legislative Commission to Preserve the Peace publicly defined the assault as an act of Black rebellion and the start of a coup against the state. Founded in 1963 to monitor Black activism for the governor and legislature, the commission spied on civil rights workers and threatened their lives. Most white journalists blamed Black protesters for instigating the violence. Black newspapers reported more accurately, but only briefly. The University of Alabama made no public statement about Bloody Tuesday. And other events soon grabbed the nation’s attention during the summer of 1964, which civil rights activists called “Freedom Summer.”

Unlike the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, no local, state, or national agency ever investigated what happened in Tuscaloosa on June 9, 1964. As a result, those who lived through the police attack on First African Baptist never testified about their experience and how it shaped their lives in a formal public setting. Nor were the white people who participated in the violence, or stood by while it happened, forced to speak about their actions or held accountable.

On the 60th anniversary of Bloody Tuesday, the cost of forgetting is clear. The American public typically tells the story of the civil rights movement by centering King in the narrative and recalling heavily documented events, often ones featuring extreme violence that we hope are exceptions. They are not.

Read More: What Martin Luther King Jr. Said at the March on Washington About Police Brutality

Far from the TV cameras and reporter’s eye, in small towns and cities like Tuscaloosa, everyday Black citizens persevered despite the overwhelming power of police and white citizens. Immediately after Bloody Tuesday, Black men formed an armed self-defense group called the “Defenders” to protect their neighborhood. They succeeded in thwarting future attacks by the Klan, engaging in gun battles with them when they tried to block integration efforts or harm Black citizens. Black women flooded the ranks of protestors, leading marches and raising money to a degree rarely seen. Together, and strengthened by the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on July 2, they forced the city to integrate by year’s end.

Victory in Tuscaloosa emboldened other Black protestors and unnerved white politicians, leading to extreme measures like the attack by State Troopers on marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in March 1965. Viewed like this, the story of Bloody Tuesday reveals a radically different American history, one defined by ordinary Black men, women, and children surviving a relentless campaign of repression waged by law enforcement and white citizens. In the face of this violence, they fought to secure the freedom and equality promised to them a century earlier.

Recently Alabama, like other states across the nation, passed a law forbidding teaching about “divisive concepts” in the classroom. Teachers are made to fear introducing students to themes of slavery, segregation, and racial justice. They may never offer a lesson about Bloody Tuesday.

But a failure to reckon with the history of events like Tuscaloosa’s Bloody Tuesday obscures the white violence and Black struggle for liberty that lie at the heart of U.S. history and American people’s ongoing pursuit of democracy.

John M. Giggie is the Director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama and author of Bloody Tuesday: The Untold Story of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa.

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