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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Violence increases as whites and blacks clash in the early 1960s

LeMaistre saw the civil rights movement building toward the end of the Eisenhower administration, so that by the time of the Kennedy campaign, African Americans were politically and socially motivated. But their increasing visibility spurred a white supremacist response, too, as the Klan mobilized to harass activists and interfere with protests. LeMaistre dismisses the Klan as "noisy." He remembers also an incident when a mob attacked a group of Freedom Riders but were interrupted by the highway patrol.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALLEN J. GOING:
We were talking about the increase of tension and pressure for the "movement," as it was called, after Kennedy's inauguration in January of 1961.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Actually, I would think that the increasing pressure really began in the latter part of Eisenhower's administration. A great many more blacks had become interested in voting in Kennedy's campaign. And there was a good bit of open movement toward demanding rights, and that sort of thing, and there was a feeling on the part of black young people that they had certain rights that were being denied to them, where I think that their fathers and mothers had just written off that they never really had them. These youngsters were beginning to lead demonstrations and start sitting in. I think the sit-in movement probably spread even before Kennedy got into office. And they were sitting in Woolworth's cafeteria and the bus station cafeteria. One of the things in the bus station that very quickly attracted attention was the water fountains with "white" and "colored" signs on them, and most bus stations solved that very quickly simply by taking down the signs. One or two didn't ever make the change, and at least one, I recall, put up a sign on one of them which said, "White Only." But the implication was that if you wanted to drink with black people, you could drink at the other. When Kennedy took office in sixty-one, there was a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and I think that had been building under John Patterson. In his administration there was more evidence of Klan activity. Bobby Shelton became much better known—in Tuscaloosa. He was the Imperial Wizard of the Klan and was much better known in the early sixties than he had been in the early fifties. I don't know how many new members they had or whether their contributions were any greater than they had been before, but they became a great deal more active; and they were publishing things like The Thunderbolt. I know that The Thunderbolt even attacked the United Fund because some of the causes for which its money was spent included blacks and Jews and Catholics, people that they traditionally had fought.
ALLEN J. GOING:
They were becoming more active in resistance to civil rights-integration now than the White Citizens Councils; they were kinda fading out, I guess.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
The White Citizens Council in Tuscaloosa never became quite that big a deal. In Mississippi I think they were effective; I think they were effective in Selma and in the Black Belt, but around here the head of the White Citizens Council was not any big wheel. It seems to me Mr. Lassiter was the head of it, but I'm not sure—J.B. Lassiter who was a CPA and didn't have much to do and didn't do much as the head of it. As you say, I think they were beginning to lose their popularity.
ALLEN J. GOING:
The Klan had more support, particularly from labor, I guess—the workers in Tuscaloosa.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
And the Klan had several meetings around here where they blocked country roads, burned crosses, and made themselves rather obvious to people if you were more conscious of the Klan—maybe because you expected more, I don't know. I never really thought the Klan developed into any great political persuasive group. They were noisy, I guess is the best description of them.
ALLEN J. GOING:
The so-called Freedom Rides where you had the riots in Birmingham and Montgomery—there weren't any in Tuscaloosa though?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
We didn't have any Freedom Rides, but we did have a very serious incident at the First African Baptist Church.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But that was later. That came after the University's integration.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
That's right. That came after it and came at a time when they were trying to extend integration to the churches.
ALLEN J. GOING:
When we were talking earlier, you were saying something about the head of the State Troopers.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Floyd Mann was the head of the Highway Patrol under Patterson's administration, and there was a very serious incident at the Montgomery bus station when the Freedom Riders came there and were attacked by a group of thugs that were gathered at the station. And more and more seemed to be joining them, and the Montgomery police just stood with their hands in their pockets or looked the other way. And Mann brought in the Highway Patrol and broke it up. I'm convinced in my own mind that if he had not come in with the armed state troopers, there would have been a good amount of bloodshed because it was clearly out of hand. The question was whether the people doing the beating would restrain themselves enough to keep from killing those Freedom Riders. And, as you know, along about that time, maybe a little earlier, they had burned a bus on the highway between Anniston and Montgomery. And as I recall, one man was seriously injured when he jumped out of the bus after they threw a fire bomb into it. I don't know whether anybody was killed or not.