Abernathy v. Alabama

PETITIONER: Ralph D. Abernathy, et al.
LOCATION: Greyhound Bus Station of Montgomery Alabama

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 380 US 447 (1965)
ARGUED: Oct 12, 1964 / Oct 13, 1964
DECIDED: Apr 05, 1965
GRANTED: Jan 06, 1964

Leslie Hall - for the respondent
Louis H. Pollak - for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1961, the city of Montgomery, Alabama, was under martial law as a result of the riots that started when groups of Freedom Riders arrived at the Greyhound Bus Station. On May 25, 1961, a military convoy escorted Ralph D. Abernathy, an African-American pastor from Montgomery, and 10 others (both African-American and white) to the bus terminal. The group purchased tickets, and all 11 went to sit at the lunch counter. There were at least 30 people in the station and several hundred people outside who could see through the plate-glass windows to the lunch counter. Given the tense atmosphere in the city and particularly at the bus station, Colonel Poarch of the National Guard directed the Sheriff of Montgomery County to arrest the eleven men. In his opinion, their actions seemed “calculated to provoke a breach of the peace.”

Abernathy was convicted in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County on charges of disturbing the peace and unlawful assembly. He appealed the case and argued that his Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. The Court of Appeals of the State of Alabama affirmed the conviction. The Supreme Court of Alabama denied the petition for a writ of certiorari.


Did Ralph Abernathy’s arrest and trial violate his Fourteenth Amendment rights?

Media for Abernathy v. Alabama

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 13, 1964 in Abernathy v. Alabama

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 12, 1964 in Abernathy v. Alabama

Earl Warren:

Number 9, Ralph D. Abernathy et al.,Petitioners, versus Alabama.

-- Mr. Pollak.

Louis H. Pollak:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This case arises out of the Freedom Rights of May 1961.

The case comes to this Court on certiorari to review a judgment of the Court of Appeals of Alabama, a judgment which affirmed convictions of the 11 petitioners involved in this case, 11 convictions rendered by the Montgomery Circuit Court.

Ten of the 11 petitioners were convicted both of breach of peace and of unlawful assembly.

The eleventh, a Reverend Wyatt Walker was found guilty only of the latter account of unlawful assembly, but all eleven received the same sentence, 30 days in jail and $100 fine which sentences of course are in suspension pending review here.

Now, if it please the Court, the alleged breach of peace consisted and I refer here to the Solicitor's complaint on the basis of which these cases were tried in the Circuit Court consisted in the petitioner's sitting down as a “racially mixed group” at a lunch counter in the Trailway's bus terminal in Montgomery at a time in May of 1961 when Montgomery was under a state of limited Martial Law.

Reverend Walker was charged only -- was convicted only of unlawful assembly, not of the breach of the peace itself because he was not one of those who actually sat at the counter, he merely was alleged to have conspired with the others to sit at the counter.

Now, if the Court please, as I shall try to demonstrate --

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

What do you mean Mr. Pollak with limited Martial Law, by formal declaration, is that it?

Louis H. Pollak:

Yes -- no, the record doesn't disclose this Mr. Justice Brennan.

The declaration was, if my recollection is right, by the Governor and what it meant for the time period involved which was made 21st through 25th was that the City of Montgomery was in -- for law enforcement purposes controlled by the Montgomery National Guard under the command of General Graham, the Commander of the Guard of whom we will hear more in a second.

It was -- I say limited Martial Law, in the sense that, as you will also see the civil officials were still operating under military direction.

Now, petitioners submit that a review of these facts, which I'm about to narrate, will show that the instant convictions are vulnerable on almost more federal constitutional and statutory basis than I can account as denial of equal protection of the law in the broader sense and that these prosecutions were plainly designed to enforce racial segregation.

As denial of free speech in the sense that, the act of these petitioners in sitting as a racially mixed group at a lunch counter was for them a symbolic utterance of their commitment to desegregation, but they were denied procedural due process in the basic Thompson versus Louisville or vagueness senses in that nothing they did could be equated by any conventional standard with a breach of the peace or if it is then -- if it is under Alabama Law, breach of the peace to sit at a lunch counter then that is a statute which does not give warning of its meaning and that all of the petitioners were denied rights under the -- which have been declared by this Court in Boynton versus Virginia, statutory rights under the Motor Carriers Act declared by this Court in Boynton versus Virginia just five months before this episode arose, the scene of this episode being an Interstate Bus Terminal.

Now, this of course requires and what I intend to devote most of my time to a recital of the facts because if I may refer to a question which Mr. Justice Stewart put to Mr. Greenberg at the beginning of the Hamm argument he said there could be a real case of unlawful assembly, could there not and Mr. Greenberg said, indeed there could be a situation in which people would vigorously assert their rights to the, extent of throwing sugar balls.

I intend to show, I think I can I satisfy this Court, this is not in any sense a sugar ball throwing case.

Potter Stewart:

There is still another argument of course that so far as the Civil Rights Act goes, the new Federal Civil Rights Act goes, you're only invited to ask for service if you think you're entitled to it under the Act and then if you're asked to leave, you're obligated to leave and because then you're only right is to bring a lawsuit.

Do you understand that argument?

Louis H. Pollak:

I do Mr. Justice and I should hasten to say at this point that in the catalog of federal questions I have recited, you'll note that I did not include the new Federal Civil Rights Act.

I don't reject the Act --

Potter Stewart:

That was the subject to my question to Mr. Greenberg.

Louis H. Pollak:

I fully realize that but I thought I had to carry over to this situation.

I don't mean to say that I reject the Federal Civil Rights Act and Mr. Greenberg's argument for this purpose, but it's a -- I think indeed I suppose I could -- petitioners could claim a sort of innocence by association with the contention to which Mr. Greenberg and Senator Motley have made.

But the federal questions which have been in this case from the beginning at every level of the proceedings I think are sufficient to our purposes.

On May 20, as this Court may remember as well all remember just as citizens, the first group of May 20 of 1961', the first group of freedom riders came to Montgomery.

They were met by violence.

On May 21, the following day which was a Sunday, late in that day, Montgomery was placed under the Martial Law which I have described as I say I think by governor's determination.

At all events, it meant that General Graham was in command of the city for the next four days at least.