God, Gandhi, and guns: the African American freedom struggle in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1964-1965.

Author:Wendt, Simon

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. (5) The labor activist's reasoning convinced the group of hotheads; they handed over their weapons. The riot averted, Mallisham assembled a small group of World War II and Korean War veterans who decided to put his plan into action. At a larger second meeting, a diverse group of men officially voted to organize the defense unit, asking Mallisham to lead it. The following night, African Americans began to guard the home of T. Y. Rogers with rifles and shotguns. (6)

This incident sheds light on a little-known chapter of civil rights history. Among students of the black freedom movement, Tuscaloosa is known primarily for Governor George Wallace's "stand in the schoolhouse door" at the University of Alabama in 1963. Several scholars have also chronicled the case of Autherine Lucy, a black woman who faced mob violence when she attempted to enroll there seven years earlier. But no historian has yet explored Tuscaloosa's indigenous civil rights movement, whose first tremors began in 1962. (7) As in Montgomery, Birmingham, and other Alabamian cities, a charismatic black clergyman led nonviolent protests against segregation and discrimination. Aided by preexisting organized networks and federal civil rights legislation, the all-black TCAC managed to integrate Tuscaloosa by 1965.

Beyond providing another insight into local civil rights history, however, a closer look at the Tuscaloosa movement also reveals the little acknowledged relationship between nonviolent direct action and black armed resistance during this violent era. A small number of studies have called attention to the significant role that black self-defense played in southern civil rights campaigns. In 1957, for example, NAACP activist Robert Williams organized a rifle club in Monroe, North Carolina to protect the black community against attacks from the Ku Klux Klan. Seven years later, African Americans in Jonesboro, Louisiana founded the Deacons for Defense and Justice, whose Bogalusa chapter gained nationwide attention in 1965 after trading shots with white segregationists. During the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, similar defense groups emerged in the Magnolia state, protecting African Americans against the klan's campaign of terror. (8) Tuscaloosa's defense unit closely resembled its predecessors and those groups that simultaneously operated in Louisiana and Mississippi. Mallisham's group also consisted mostly of black army veterans, who patrolled black neighborhoods and protected movement leaders and white allies. Similarly, while opposed to nonviolence as a way of life, the unit accepted tactical nonviolence and operated side by side with peaceful protest.


Located about fifty miles southwest of Birmingham, Tuscaloosa in 1964 was an industrial and manufacturing city. One-third of the city's 63,000 residents were black. Although African Americans had challenged segregation in numerous Alabamian cities by 1964, the "Druid City" remained a blank spot on the map of the Civil Rights Movement. Rigid racial segregation continued to permeate public life, and whites had traditionally used violence to enforce it. (9) The first well-publicized challenge to segregation came in 1956 when lawyers from the NAACP successfully argued that Tuscaloosa's prestigious University of Alabama could not deny the enrollment of African Americans. On 1 February 1956, after a three-year battle in the courts, a shy and nervous young woman named Autherine Lucy arrived at the all-white campus. Accompanied by Birmingham's civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth, she was determined to become the university's first black student. But white animosity was palpable as soon as Lucy walked to her first class. Many of the more than 7,000 students enrolled at the university at that time opposed integration. On 6 February, some of them joined a crowd of about 500 angry whites from the Tuscaloosa area, yelling racial epithets and pelting Lucy with eggs and gravel. (10)

Officers of the state highway patrol finally rescued her from the mob and brought the unnerved woman to the safety of black Tuscaloosa. At Howard and Linton's Barber Shop, beauticians washed Lucy's hair and cleaned her clothes, while the white mob began to regroup in the vicinity of the shop. Its owner Nathaniel Howard, Sr. feared that the crowd of frenzied whites might attack Lucy. He immediately dispatched telephone calls to his friends, asking for protection. Shortly thereafter, black men armed with rifles and shotguns arrived on the scene. Confronted with this little army, the white crowd weighed its chances. Discouraged, the mob gradually dispersed. Later that afternoon, the armed men escorted Lucy to nearby Birmingham. (11) When NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall arrived there a few days later to challenge the university's decision to expel Lucy, local people took no chances. At night, men armed with machine guns guarded the home of Marshall's host, a local NAACP lawyer. When Lucy's trial began at the end of February, armed watchmen positioned themselves along the route to the federal office building, where the trial took place. However, Marshall's efforts proved fruitless. The court upheld the young woman's expulsion. (12)

The injustice of the Lucy incident stirred local African Americans. They knew all too well the humiliating feeling of being discriminated against on the basis of race. However, in the 1950s, few of them seriously considered engaging in political activism to challenge the status quo. On occasion, a small group of men met at Nathaniel Howard's barber shop to discuss the community's grievances, and a few businessmen sometimes met with representatives of the city administration to talk about improving race relations, but with little success. (13)

Only a black Baptist minister named W. B. Sheeley seriously attempted to organize for active protest. When Rev. Sheeley became the minister of the city's prestigious...

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