Kevin Murphy, police chief in Montgomery, Alabama, wasn’t even born when a Greyhound bus full of Freedom Riders was brutally attacked by a racist mob in 1961. Thirteen black and white activists made a dangerous journey from Washington D.C. to Jackson, Mississippi, to challenge segregation laws. When the bus pulled into Montgomery, a violent crowd armed with baseball bats and iron pipes was waiting for them. The police did not intervene, and both black and white Freedom Riders were beaten.
Segregation is no longer the law of the land, buses and waiting rooms have been integrated, and Montgomery is now the home of a Civil Rights Memorial created by Maya Linn, the artist who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
On Saturday Montgomery hosted the 13th Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama to honor the Freedom Riders. John Lewis, now 73, and a U.S. Representative from Georgia, returned to Montgomery to take part in the Pilgrimage. In 1961 Lewis had been hospitalized with a skull fracture sustained during the attack.
Now a surprise was waiting for him. During a commemorative service at First Baptist Church, chief Kevin Murphy removed the police badge from his coat and handed it to Lewis as a token of healing.
“When you got off the bus in 1961, you didn’t have a friend in the police department,” Murphy said. “I want you to know that you have friends in the Montgomery Police Department—that we’re for you, we’re with you, we want to respect the law and adhere to the law, which is what you were trying to do all along. This symbol of authority, which used to be a symbol of oppression, needs to be a symbol of reconciliation.”
Afterward Murphy explained, “For me, freedom and the right to live in peace is a cornerstone of our society and that was something that Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Congressman Lewis were trying to achieve. I think what I did today should have been done a long time ago. It needed to be done. It needed to be spoken because we have to live with the truth and it is the truth.”
A grateful Lewis responded, ‘I’m not worthy to accept your badge.” Later he said, “I’ve been arrested and jailed many times, especially during the ’60s—about 40 times—and never has a police officer offered to apologize. And when I started crying, I was crying tears of gratitude, and I guess that we had come to this point: even when I think about it today, for a young police officer—a young, white police officer; the chief in Montgomery, Alabama, who had not even been born 52 years ago when this all took place—to give me his badge, and he took it off of his lapel…I’ve been keeping it in my pocket all day.”
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.