TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – The voices surrounding her that had been singing freedom songs moments before were now screaming in terror, the sounds slowly dying out to moans and coughs.
The 16-year-old had felt the shock of a cattle prod, as if she had stuck her finger in an electrical socket. Tears filled her eyes because of the gas released from canisters, which came crashing through the church’s multicolored stained-glass windows.
Irene Byrd retreated to the back of the church, running through a maze of pews and people, trying to dodge the stinging spray of water shot from fire hoses.
“I just remember walking out that church ready to roll, and before I could get fired up in my step and my walk, we were detonated,” Byrd said last week. “People were screaming and hollering and running and jumping.”
Monday marks the 50th year since “Bloody Tuesday” in Tuscaloosa, when a group of peaceful black marchers, including Byrd, were beaten, arrested and tear gassed by law enforcement officers. The marchers were walking from the First African Baptist Church to the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse to protest against whites-only drinking fountains.
Thirty-three black men, women and children were sent to the hospital and another 94 were arrested by the Tuscaloosa Police Department.
The events of June 9, 1964, came almost a year after then-Gov. George C. Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at Foster Auditorium in an attempt to prevent two black students from integrating the University of Alabama. The national media spotlight shone on Tuscaloosa on June 11, 1963, but the beatings of “Bloody Tuesday” were largely ignored.
The Rev. T.W. Linton, the last surviving organizer of the march, said black residents were told the new courthouse would be completely integrated, but at the dedication of the new building on April 12, 1964, with Wallace in attendance, they discovered the Jim Crow signs still in place.
“When we went in to see the new courthouse, (signs) said restroom (for blacks) downstairs and the water fountains said ‘White’ or ‘Colored,’ ” Linton said.
He said the Tuscaloosa Citizens for Action Committee began to meet with the County Commission about taking down the signs and integrating the courthouse as was promised. All requests were denied.
The committee, headed by the Rev. T.Y. Rogers, who was installed as pastor of First African Baptist Church by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in early 1964, was moved to action in response to its denied requests. The committee decided to organize a march to the courthouse to use the white restrooms and drink from the white water fountains.
Rogers led Monday night mass meetings. Black residents began filling the pews and overflowing into the aisles clapping their hands, stomping their feet and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
On Monday, June 8, 1964, the night before the march, 16-year-old Byrd, 17-year-old Harrison Taylor and 21-year-old Maxie Thomas sat scattered in the audience at the church hanging on every word Rogers had to say.
“He was giving us directions about what was going to happen the next morning. We were going to the courthouse. We were going to march, and if somebody fell in front of you, step over them and keep going. No matter what happens, keep going,” said Taylor, who now serves as president of the Tuscaloosa City Council. “He convinced us that we had to make a change, and the time was now. When he got through speaking, they could’ve had alligators out there. We were going to march.”
But Police Chief William Marable had other plans. Thomas said the marching permit had been denied, but Rogers told the crowd to come prepared to go to jail because they were going to march anyway.
Marchers from across Tuscaloosa, many of them high school students, began to arrive at the church around 9 a.m. As Byrd was walking up to the church that Tuesday morning, she said policemen, white residents, fire trucks and paddy wagons were outside the church.
When the marchers lined up two-by-two to march out of the front doors around 10:15 a.m., Marable arrested Rogers and the other leaders of the march.
“(The police) said, ‘Go back in the church.’ Our orders were, whatever it took, keep going. We’ve got to get to the courthouse,” Taylor said.
The marchers continued to walk toward the courthouse.
They never made it.
One minute Byrd was walking in a uniform line, careful not to step on the ankles of the person in front of her. The next thing she knew, the orderly line dispersed into chaos like an ant bed that had been stepped in, and she was running for her life.
Thomas took his last step about 50 feet from the front doors of the church when he was hit over the head with a baseball bat and taken to jail.
Taylor ran through a screaming crowd and out the back door of the church where he jumped the fence and escaped.
“I was really afraid that day,” Taylor said.
Some marchers escaped, some were arrested, some were beaten and some were pushed back into the church by police and white residents charging toward them with billy clubs, baseball bats, cattle prods, fire hoses, tear gas and other weapons.
“All I know is, when we stepped out of that church, we got as far as the (Van Hoose) funeral home as I can remember, and then the policemen let into us with the billy sticks and the cow prods. I remember getting hit right in the side with a cow prod,” Byrd said.
Byrd ran to the back of the church, behind the pulpit, and waited.
She said it felt like a lifetime holed up in that room, but “ultimately, at some point, they let us go.”
Byrd became the charter principal of Brookwood Middle School in 2002 and retired from the Tuscaloosa County School System in 2007.
Federal Judge Seybourn Lynne ordered the county to remove the discriminatory signs on June 25, and they were gone less than a week later.
The next year, on March 7, 1965, more than 600 peaceful marchers were beaten and tear-gassed by law enforcement authorities during a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in what has become known as “Bloody Sunday.”
While “Bloody Sunday” and “Bloody Tuesday” have several similarities, there was one big difference: Journalists with cameras were there to capture images of the violence of “Bloody Sunday.”
National outrage over the “Bloody Sunday” beatings led to President Lyndon Johnson proposing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which when approved by Congress opened voting booths to millions of blacks in the South and ended all-white governments.
Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com
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