The Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration attracted sixty leaders, most of whom were ministers, from twenty-nine communities in ten southern states.1 On the final day of the two-day closed session, King and Abernathy rejoined the gathering after inspecting the bomb-damaged churches and parsonages in Montgomery. The leaders called for federal intervention in the South in telegrams to Vice President Richard Nixon, Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., and in the following message to the president.2 In an 18 January reply to this telegram, Eisenhower's chief of staff Sherman Adams explained that the president was unable to schedule a speech on desegregation in the South, but assured the black leaders that the Department of Justice was "closely following all developments” in the region.
the white house
dear mr president;
extreme violence continues to be directed toward negro people in the south who merely seek rights guaranteed every american citizen by the united states constitution. negroes, who seek to vote, are driven from their land in mississippi on threat of death. in tennessee, negro children have been attacked. in florida, stoning and cross burning are used to obstruct justice. negro leaders are threatened.3 in alabama, christian churches literally have been destroyed by dynamite and t.n.t. numerous individuals, including women have been beaten on the streets. the homes of negro and white leaders have been bombed. men and women, black and white sitting peacefully in buses have been attacked by snipers.4 a fortnight ago, a 15 year old negro girl was brutally beaten. a few days ago the legs of a woman eight months pregnant were shattered by a gun fired into a public conveyance.5 a state of terror prevails.
as we have demonstrated the question before the nation is no longer whether there shall be segregation or integration, but rather, whether there shall be anarchy or law. the maintenance of law and order in the nation finally rests squarely on the executive branch of government—directly upon the president. but beyond your constitutional power, as president, you possess and can wield an immense moral power. we, therefore, urge you to use the weight of your great office to point out to the people of the south the moral nature of the problem faced at home and abroad by the unsolved civil rights issues and the violent racial disorder that will arise again and again until these issues are solved.
we ask you to come south immediately to make a major speech in a major southern city urging all southerners to abide by the supreme court’s decisions as the law of the land. as the leader of a great nation which proclaims its defense of freedom abroad, you will understand our urgent plea that you make this trip to defend, by words of wise counsel, american citizens unjustly and brutally attacked at home.
the rev. m l king jr montgomery, alabama
the rev c k steele, tallahassee florida
the rev f l shuttlesworth, birmingham alabama
the rev t j jemison baton rouge louisiana.
for southern negro leaders conference on transportation and nonviolent integration meeting in atlanta, georgia, january 10-11 1957, appreciate reply by wire to rev m l king jr 530-80 union street montgomery ala.
1. Many of the conference participants had also attended an interracial gathering, “Nonviolence and the South,” held at Atlanta University from 8-10 January and called by King, Abernathy, and Steele. Conference organizer Glenn Smiley had worked closely with the MIA since February 1956. King spoke to the 150 attendees on 9 January. Reporting to an associate, Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) concluded: “While I do not know that you would want to say it, it seems clear to me that the FOR has developed in the south a self-conscious, nonviolent movement with King at the head” (Smiley to William Robert Miller, 14 January 1957; see also “Statement Issued by Atlanta Conference,” 8 January-10 January 1957).
2. In their 11 January letter to Brownell, King, Steele, Shuttlesworth, and T. J. Jemison, pastor of Baton Rouge’s Mount Zion First Baptist Church, requested a meeting to urge federal action in the South against local officials who “subvert the clear mandates” of the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision: “The confused state requires that we talk with you in order to secure a clarification from the highest legal authority of the land as to the extent to which we can rely upon the federal government to carry out these plans to have the law complied with; and to also explore with you the responsibilities incumbent upon us as citizens seeking to avail ourselves of our rights under the law.”
3. Belzoni, Mississippi voting rights advocate Gus Courts left the state shortly after being shot in November 1955; Mississippi activists T. R. M. Howard, Clinton C. Battle, and Maurice Mackel soon followed. King also likely refers to the efforts of segregationists to prevent black students from integrating a school in Clinton, Tennessee, in August 1956. On 1 January stones were thrown through a window in C. K Steele’s home. Two nights later a cross was burned in front of his church. Other Tallahassee ministers received threatening phone calls (“Burn Cross on Minister’s Lawn,” Chicago Defender, 5 January 1957; “Tallahassee Leaders Receive Abusive Calls,” Birmingham World, 2 January 1957).
4. Between 26 and 31 December 1956 the Montgomery Advertiser reported several sniper attacks against buses in Montgomery and Birmingham, prompting the Montgomery police department to hire twenty additional patrolmen to guard against future violent acts.
5. On 24 December 1956 several white men assaulted fifteen-year-old Ollie Mae Collins after one of them demanded that she not ride Montgomery’s buses. Four days later Rosa Jordan was shot in the legs by a sniper’s bullets. Jordan, who was eight months pregnant, received assistance from the MIA during her recuperation. Following this attack, night bus service in black neighborhoods was suspended (“Three White Men Beat Negro Girl At City Bus Stop,” Montgomery Advertiser, 25 December 1956; “Sniper Fires On Bus; Wounds Negro Woman,” Montgomery Advertiser, 29 December 1956; see also Will D. Campbell to J. Oscar Lee, 9 January 1957).
WCFO-KAbE, White House Central Files (Official File), Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kan., GF 124-A