On Saturday night, the chief of police in Montgomery, AL apologized publicly to civil rights leader John Lewis for the department’s failure to protect Lewis and other Freedom Riders from an angry white mob back in 1961.
Today, Lewis is a Georgia Congressman. Back then, he was chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and co-founder of the Freedom Riders, a group that rode buses into the South to fight segregation. (The US Supreme Court had ruled that interstate travelers had the right to disregard local Jim Crow laws, but local police departments tended to disagree with the Court’s decision. They arrested the Freedom Riders — at best — and allowed local haters and KKK chapters to attack them, at worst.)
You can read a gripping account of the Freedom rides here. The short version of what happened in Montgomery on May 20 and 21, 1961: When a bus carrying 22 Riders arrived at the Greyhound Bus terminal in Montgomery, the police had chosen not to be there. (The bus had been escorted by Alabama state troopers until it arrived at the Montgomery city limit, then continued on without protection.) There was a mob of more than 200 people waiting. As the Riders disembarked, Klansmen screamed “Get the niggers!” The mob attacked with lead pipes, baseball bats and broken bottles. They went after Riders, bystanders and reporters — no footage or photos of the event survived, because all the cameras were smashed. Twenty people were injured, many seriously. When a Justice Department official (who’d followed the bus in his car) tried to help two women riders, he was beaten unconscious. The mob grew to more than 1000 people and began attacking African-Americans on the street. They set a teenage boy on fire. The cops finally showed up, made no arrests, and served the Riders with an injunction blaming them for the violence. Under local segregation laws, Black cab drivers weren’t allowed to take white Freedom Riders to the hospital, and white cab drivers refused to. Only one hospital was willing to treat Riders of any color.
The next night, May 21st, Martin Luther King spoke to more than 1500 Black citizens at a service at Montgomery’s First Baptist Church to honor the Freedom Riders. A mob of 3000 whites gathered outside. Again, the Montgomery police were absent. The mob threw rocks, shattering the church’s windows so tear gas streamed in. They set a car on fire and threatened to burn the church down. Children were sent to the church’s basement for their own protection. No one could leave the sweltering, tear-gas-filled church for the entire night.
That’s your backdrop for the event this past weekend at the same First Baptist Church. Lewis was there as part of an annual three-day Congressional Civil Rights pilgrimage, this year honoring the 50th anniversary of the movement.
At the event, current Montgomery Police chief Kevin Murphy apologized for his department’s failure to protect the Freedom Riders back in 1961 and presented Lewis with the badge off his uniform. Rachel Maddow has the exclusive footage of the badge presentation (alas, I’m sorry about the ad, and there’s no footage of the apology, here or anywhere; the badge part starts at 4:57).
Murphy told Lewis, “This symbol of authority, which used to be a symbol of oppression, needs to be a symbol of reconciliation.” (Hesitating before taking the badge, Lewis replied, “Do you have another one?”)
Murphy’s apology is backed up by his concrete efforts to change the institutional culture of the Montgomery Police Department (MPD). After taking the top job a couple of years ago, he instituted a mandatory class for the entire force called “Policing in an Historic City” that analyzes the role of the police department’s role during the civil rights era. “It’s an educational effort to show our officers, especially the very young ones — some were born in 1991 and are now wearing a badge — that we can’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” he told Maddow.
Speaking to the press on Saturday immediately after the event (the video is here; again, sorry about the ad!), Murphy told reporters he wasn’t even supposed to speak that day. He’d asked the church pastor if he could attend the ceremony, but then after the mayor and director of public safety were called away at the last minute, he was asked to step in and speak. “I really felt that God directed me here today,” he said. “And I think that somebody who was wearing this uniform, with this iconic patch that you see in the photographs with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, that that voice needs to be heard in a different light than what history has recorded in years past…[apologizing] was the right thing to do.” He continued:
“Honor, duty, loyalty…those are the values that Congressman Lewis lived by, and those have become our values now. And I want him to know and I want everybody in the movement, the struggle, to know: Your voices were heard. Your dedication to putting your life on the line — you made a difference…we are going to move forward as one Montgomery, one MPD, and we are going to continue to work at it. There’s still a lot of work to be done. We know that. And the police department has to make the first move to build that trust back in our community, that was once lost because we enforced unjust laws. Those unjust laws were immoral and wrong.”
Afterward, Lewis said, “I think it can dramatize the power of love and peace and nonviolence, and move us toward reconciliation. I’m very grateful, and I accepted the apology.”
Lewis said later, “I’ve been arrested and jailed many times, especially during the ’60s—about 40 times—and never has a police officer offered to apologize. And when I started crying, I was crying tears of gratitude, and I guess that we had come to this point: Even when I think about it today, for a young police officer—a young, white police officer, the chief in Montgomery, Alabama, who had not even been born 52 years ago when this all took place—to give me his badge, and he took it off of his lapel…I’ve been keeping it in my pocket all day.”
I hate to rain even a tad on a beautiful story, but the response to Montgomery’s local paper’s coverage of the apology was mixed. One white employee of the State of Alabama wrote on the Montgomery Advertiser’s Facebook page, “what in the hell is the mpd doing apologizing for something that happened over 50 years ago. the black community should be apologizing for the trashing of montgomery and their wanton destruction accross the untied states”. Other commenters, Black and white, were more positive.
As Murphy said, there’s still a lot of work to be done. But an institutional apology — paired with Murphy’s efforts at education of his officers and outreach to the current community — is a fine contribution to that work.