On this day in history, students from Alabama State College (a traditionally African American college in Montgomery, Alabama), started an anti-segregation sit-in at a lunch counter in the Montgomery County Courthouse. In response, the store-owners closed the lunch counter and a mob of pro-segregationists physically assaulted the students.
Four days later, on February 29, Alabama Governor John Patterson held a news conference to condemn the sit-in. Patterson, who was also chairman of the State Board of Education, threatened to terminate Alabama State College’s funding unless it expelled the student organizers and warned that “someone [was] likely to be killed” if the protests continued.
On March 1, more than 1000 protesters marched from the campus to the state capitol and back. On March 2, Alabama’s all-white State Board of Education unanimously accepted then-Gov. John Patterson’s expulsion resolution. Under pressure, then-ASU president Harper Councill Trenholm expelled the nine students identified as sit-in leaders and suspended 20 other students.
On Sunday March 6, protesters began to gather at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy – a well-known member of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A crowd of whites surrounded the church, physically assaulting some members of the march and forcing them to flee into the church. It was reported that the city fire company brought two fire trucks to the scene and used the high-powered fire hoses on retreating protesters; soon after this, the police dispersed the crowds and ended the protest.
More than 1000 students immediately pledged a mass strike, threatened to withdraw from the school, and staged days of demonstrations; 35 students, a faculty member, and a physician were arrested. Montgomery Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan recommended closing the college, which he claimed produced only “graduates of hate and racial bitterness.”
Dr. King sent a telegram to President Eisenhower on March 9, writing:
MR PRESIDENT WE APPEAL T O YOU TO INTERVENE BY INSTRUCTING THE ATTORNEY GENERAL TO TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION IN YOUR NAME TO RESTORE LAW AND ORDER IN THE CAPI- TAL OF ALABAMA. . . . 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.”
Meanwhile, six of the nine expelled students sought reinstatement through a federal lawsuit. (On August 4, 1961, in Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education (294 F. 2d 150, 5th Cir. 1961) a federal court upheld the expulsions and barred the students’ readmission to the school.)
On February 25, 2010, in a ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the sit-in, Alabama State University (formerly Alabama State College) President William Harris reinstated the nine students, criticized Governor Patterson’s “arbitrary, illegal and intrusive” role in forcing the expulsions, and praised the student protest as “an important moment in civil rights history.” Three of the men, James McFadden, St. John Dixon and Joseph Peterson, received honorary degrees.