Traditionally, during Black History month, the spotlight is on Americans with African ancestry. It is this exclusive aspect of black history month that continues to trouble this columnist. The quandary is this: how do we recognize an acknowledged hero of the civil rights movement even though he claimed no African ancestry.
On May 20, 1961 Floyd Mann earned his place in American history. On that day, Colonel Mann, serving as Governor John Patterson’s Public Safety Director, waded into a mob, armed with clubs and baseball bats, at the Montgomery Greyhound bus station and saved William Barbee’s life.
In his book, The Judge, author Frank Sikora gives an excellent account of events leading to Mann’s heroic deed. According to Sikora, Barbee was among a group of Freedom Riders who arrived at the bus terminal when a group of about two hundred white people suddenly appeared. The trouble started when a Montgomery Klansman, Claude Henley, with about twenty followers, began cussing and slapping a photographer taking pictures as the Freedom Riders disembarked from their bus.
The crowd turned nasty and “wholesale rampage” began according to Sikora, “…the two hundred swelled into a hate-filled mob of nearly one thousand … Blacks and some of their white companions on the bus were beaten while Montgomery police officers stood by and attended to such mundane functions as directing traffic.” Here is a description from the text of The Judge:
“A young black, William Barbee, was knocked to the pavement, then struck repeatedly with a heavy club; the mob was shouting, ‘Kill him! Kill him!’ It might have happened but for the sudden intervention of Colonel Floyd Mann, the Alabama Public Safety Director, who drew his pistol and ordered the attackers back, threatening to shoot if they didn’t. At that point, Mann called for his state troopers whom he had stationed several blocks away. Their arrival restored order to the terminal.”
In the not-too-distant future, the old Montgomery Greyhound Bus station will house a Civil Rights Museum. This museum will certainly chronicle a history of this important event in the civil rights movement.
The museum will surely recount the role others played in Montgomery on this important day. For example, at this museum you might expect to learn that future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Bryon White, then an assistant U.S. Attorney, met with Alabama’s governor, John Patterson, at the request of then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and received the Governor’s assurance of state police protection for the Freedom Riders.
But perhaps more important than a chronicle of activity of individuals and events, the museum will be a resource for researchers. It will serve as a data bank from which we may gain an understanding of what made Floyd Mann act so differently from his peers when confronted with the same challenges. For example, Birmingham Police were nowhere to be found when members of the Ku Klux Klan assaulted Freedom Riders in the Trailways Bus station in that city on May 14, 1961. When the Birmingham Post Herald asked, “where were the police?” Commissioner Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor responded, “Many were taking the day off because it was Mother’s Day.”
In Montgomery, Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan didn’t issue any special orders to the police in the face of strong evidence that a violent mob would attack the freedom riders at the bus station upon arrival. Montgomery’s legendary political activist, Virginia Durr, suggests in her book, Outside the Magic Circle, that Sullivan sanctioned the attack on freedom riders by white rioters.
This charge, that Sullivan failed to protect the students, would be sustained at a hearing in U.S. District Court. Judge Frank Johnson issued an order specifically finding, in part “…that Montgomery Police Department under the direction of [Commissioner] Sullivan and Chief Ruppenthal willfully and deliberately failed to take measures to ensure the safety of the students and to prevent unlawful acts of violence upon their persons.”
There has never been any question that if Floyd Mann had not intervened, William Barbee, and perhaps others, would have died at the hands of this mob, during the riot at the Greyhound bus station, on May 20, 1961. What we are left to ponder is why did this lawman act so courageously different from some of his contemporaries?
Colonel Floyd Mann died last month, leaving us a lawman’s legacy of which all American’s can be proud. In death, his heroic deed remains a glorious example for those who dare follow his path.
Originally Published: 31 January 1996, Montgomery Advertiser