On 8 March, following two weeks of student-led protests against segregation, Montgomery police arrested thirty-seven demonstrators near the Alabama State College campus.1 In the telegram below, King warns Eisenhower: “Lest bloodshed stains the streets of America we ask that the American people through you be made aware of the brutal and flagrant violation of constitutional rights.” He requests that Eisenhower instruct “the Attorney General to take immediate action ... to restore law and order.2 In a 17 March reply, Eisenhower’s deputy assistant Gerald Morgan highlighted recent statements by the president expressing support for the protests sweeping the South.3
the white house
a reign of terror has broken out in montgomery, alabama. gestapo like methods are being used by police and city authorities to intimidate negroes who have been pursuing peaceful and non violate techniques to achieve their moral and constitutional rights. while students of alabama state college were convened in an orderly protest on their campus, city officials and police launched an incredible assault, and infiltrated the college campus with police armed with rifles shotguns and tear gas. yesterday they arrested more than 35 students, a faculty member, and a physician.4 today they had numerous trucks parked not far from the campus with the threat of arresting the entire student body. police are parading in front of churches they inhibit the holding of meetings and religious services. they have actually physically intruded themselves into these religious services. yesterday a bishop was conducting a church meeting when police invaded the meeting in a raid5 telephones are being tapped and telephone lines of negro leaders are left disconnected so that they cannot make nor receive calls. this calculated and provocative conduct of the police backed by the municipal and state authorities leads inescapably to the conclusion that they are trying to incite a riot in the hope that the responsibility for the injuries and deaths that might result will be fastened on the negroes. the negro community and students cannot permit themselves to be intimidated. they will not turn away from the pursuit of justice. they must and will pursue their righteous and non violate course. lest bloodshed stains the streets of america we ask that the american people through you be made aware of the brutal and flagrant violation of constitutional right. mr president we appeal to you to intervene by instructing the attorney general to take immediate action in your name to restore law and order in the capital of alabama. we are prepared to go with the attorney general into the federal court for injunctive release. we appeal to you to urge the city authorities to put down their guns, to garage their vehicles of aggression we are unarmed and dedicated to non violence though determined to resist evil. we pray that no harm may come either to our people or to those who oppress us. though it appears that the aggressors may unleash violence against us no matter how restrained our conduct. may god help us to maintain our endurance against provocations we are conscious of the many pressing duties of your office, but we feel this terror which grips a whole community in an american city violating elementary constitutional rights requires immediate federal emergency action. our concern for the honor of the nation which we love despite our suffering impels us to make this public outcry and appeal for justice and human decency.6
martin luther king, jr president
the southern christian leadership conference.
1. Reporters estimated that one thousand students, about half the student body, attended the protest (Dick Hines and Arthur Osgoode, “City Police Arrest 37 Negro Agitators for Demonstration,” Montgomery Advertiser, 9 March 1960). The demonstrations began on 25 February when several students staged a sit-in demonstration at the snack-bar of the Montgomery courthouse. The following day more than two hundred and fifty students held a rally outside the courthouse (John Coombes, “Rally Held by Negroes at College,” Montgomery Advertiser, 27 February 1960).
2. Other civil rights proponents joined King’s appeal including UAW president Walter Reuther, who informed the president: “The struggle of our Negro citizens for equality and dignity under law has focused the eyes of the world upon America. The image of our country—already defaced by violent and lawless segregationist elements—must not be permitted to suffer further damage. If American democracy is to provide inspiration, hope and leadership in the world struggle against communism, then America must first get its moral credentials in order by bridging the gap between our noble promises and our ugly practices in the field of civil rights” (Reuther to Eisenhower, 11 March 1960; see also Randolph to Eisenhower, 10 March 1960).
3. At a 16 March press conference, Eisenhower told reporters that some of the student protests “are unquestionably a proper expression of a conviction of the group which is making them.” He also expressed his deep sympathy “with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights, the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution,” adding “that if a person is expressing such an aspiration as this in a perfectly legal way, then I don’t see any reason why he should not do it” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960-1961 [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961], p. 294). The day after the press conference, King sent Eisenhower a telegram commending his “recent statement declaring the present demonstrations ... constitutional and proper,” and explaining that they “are not ends in themselves, but a means to awaken the dozing consciences of those who oppress us, and urge them to respect our selfhood as much as they respect our dollars.”
4. Montgomery police also arrested faculty member Olean Underwood and her husband, physician Jefferson Underwood, when he arrived at the city jail to inquire about his wife. After their arrest, King sent the Underwoods, who were members of the MIA, a telegram expressing “absolute support in all that you face” (King to Jefferson and Olean Underwood, 10 March 1960).
5. On 6 March police broke up a march and prayer vigil protesting the expulsion of nine student leaders (“Police Thwart Negro Services at Capitol: Whites Held at Distance by Officials,” Montgomery Advertiser, 7 March 1960; see also Reddick, “The Montgomery situation,” April 1960).
6. After this telegram was publicized in the press, Montgomery police commissioner L. B. Sullivan responded that “we have made every effort to maintain law and order here, and to protect the rights and property of all our citizens in what we feel is a tense situation. We would welcome any type of unbiased, unprejudiced investigation” (“King Asks Ike to Act in Montgomery,” Atlanta Journal, 10 March 1960).
WCFG-KAbE, White House Central Files (General File), Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kan.