The Montgomery sit-in was largely the work of students from Alabama State College (now University), an all-black, publicly funded school founded in 1867. Fearing that student leaders would organize the campus for widespread protest, Alabama governor John Patterson demanded that the state college’s president identify and expel any student involved, and he threatened to remove the school’s public funding. City leaders denounced the protest, blaming “outside forces” and promising to “preserve the time-honored traditions and customs of the South.” On Saturday violence spread to the streets. White men, carrying “small baseball bats concealed in paper sacks,” patrolled Dexter Avenue, ensuring that the city’s department stores and lunch counters remained segregated. One African American woman was assaulted after “bumping” a white pedestrian, and local authorities scrambled to restore order. Alabama State students assembled at First Baptist Church, the pulpit of Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a veteran of the bus boycott. Abernathy cautioned the students to avoid downtown Montgomery where “a real state of terror had developed.” They filed a petition with Governor Patterson, protesting the planned expulsion and warning that “we shall not yield our rights…without an extreme effort to retain them.”
By Sunday protests temporarily cooled. The Montgomery Advertiser warned citizens to avoid the acts of a “small, aggressive minority” and chastised the students for “idly and absurdly playing follow the leader.” However, the demonstrations occurring in Montgomery, in Nashville, in Chattanooga, and across the South presaged the coming storm. From Montgomery, sit-ins spread to other Alabama cities, particularly Birmingham, and remained an integral weapon in the fight for civil rights. Sit-ins gave politically minded students an opportunity to combat the South’s pervasive social inequality, yet as events in Montgomery soon proved, the protests also created a visible target for the growing resistance to civil rights activism.
By “sitting-in” at the Montgomery Courthouse, the students of Alabama State helped to usher in a new phase of the civil rights movement. African Americans across the South had long protested racial discrimination in public spaces, but until the 1950s, their actions were sporadic and disorganized. Beginning in 1955 those disparate acts of protest coalesced in Montgomery where the African American community, led by Martin Luther King Jr., boycotted the city’s public bus system. In 1956 the Supreme Court struck down the city’s segregation laws, and the boycott’s leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to maintain the momentum won on the streets of Alabama’s capital. However, as King and the SCLC focused on raising money and garnering support, the movement lagged. Thus, when sit-ins rocked southern cities and towns in early 1960, the students re-energized the struggle for civil rights. Their determination encouraged activists young and old, black and white, to organize in order to claim equal rights for all Americans.