Opinion Forum

The measure of a man

Exactly 46 years ago today — May 20, 1961 — U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia met Alabama lawman Floyd Mann in the Montgomery Greyhound bus terminal.

Lewis was far from Congress then. He was one of the leaders of the Freedom Riders, a small group of civil rights workers trying to integrate bus stations across the South. Other Riders had been savaged by mobs in Anniston and Birmingham; before the bus arrived in Montgomery, Lewis told his fellow riders, "Be ready to die."

And he almost did. In his 1998 autobiography "Walking With the Wind," Lewis recalls stepping off the bus, only to be set upon at once by a maelstrom of a mob.

"I learned later that someone had swung a wooden Coca-Cola crate against my skull," writes Lewis. "By the time I regained consciousness, the scene was relatively under control.

"Floyd Mann, the state public safety director, had pushed his way into the mob, tried pulling some men off (civil rights worker William) Barbee’s body, then raised a pistol and fired it in the air, warning the crowd away."

Stopping a mob. To Mann, a former Opelika police chief whom John Patterson tapped to run state law enforcement when he was elected governor in 1959, it seemed an obvious thing to do.

Yet that act distinguished him as the only white law official in Alabama, at least on that day, who stood between what he later recalled as "thousands" of murderous rioters and that small, unarmed group.

In fact, out of all the sorry tales of racism and brutality in the days after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation, Mann is that rare creature in Alabama civil rights history: a bona fide white hero, a man in a position of power who cared only about fair enforcement of the law.

"He wasn’t part of the public. He was the law," says his son Lane Mann, who is circuit clerk to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Montgomery and one of five siblings. "He didn’t take sides in any issue. He just wanted to do what was right."

This episode in history is captured in a new documentary sponsored by the Russell County Commission, "The Life of John Patterson," premiering at 4 p.m. CDT at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. In it, Mann and others recall what happened when the Freedom Riders arrived in Montgomery, nearly a lifetime and surely a world ago.

A NATIVE of Alexander City, Mann flew as tailgunner in a B-17 "Flying Fortress" from England to Germany in World War II before he became police chief in his hometown and in Opelika. He grew up in Tallapoosa County with Patterson, who calls him "the best friend I ever had" and his only choice for public safety director; when Patterson’s father was murdered on the eve of exposing the Phenix City mob, Mann was one of those friends who came immediately to the Patterson home. Colloquial, so prone to sunburn and so red-haired that people called him "Red Man," he never went to college.

But the purity of his lawman’s code was confirmed, his son remembers, by a training stint at the FBI Academy. Plucked out of the provincial South, his father "learned what was the proper role for law enforcement," Lane Mann says. "It changed the way he viewed his authority and responsibility."

Mann became "the Justice Department’s lone white friend in Alabama," writes Diane McWhorter, whose book on this era in Alabama, "Carry Me Home," won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Fabled federal judge Frank Johnson stood at a window in the courthouse — now named after him — and watched Mann intervene in the mob scene, and the two men became close friends. David Halberstam, in his book "The Children," called Mann "amazingly color-blind."

His son says a historian has told him that, in an archive somewhere, there’s a blotter from President John F. Kennedy’s desk during this time. In JFK’s hand, this note is penciled in: "Floyd Mann. A good man."

On that day in May 1961, Mann’s actions saved at least three lives, "and possibly as many as ten," Halberstam writes. The mob was so mindless, in fact, that it took police 20 minutes to discover John Siegenthaler, right-hand man to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, unconscious in the parking lot. Someone had brained him with a pipe.

MANN HIMSELF believed he was intervening in murder. In the new documentary, says Bill Benton of the Russell County Historical Commission, you see the results of an oft-reported cabinet meeting Patterson called after the violence in Birmingham, and Siegenthaler requested help protecting the Riders.

According to Halberstam, Patterson turned to Mann for confirmation: "We can’t promise (the Freedom Riders) protection, can we, Floyd?" Patterson asked.

"Governor, you appointed me public safety director," Mann calmly replied. "If you tell me to protect them, they’ll be protected." And 16 cars and a helicopter accompanied the Freedom Riders from Birmingham to the Montgomery city limits.

Patterson says it’s "untrue and unfair" to imply that he and Mann ever disagreed on this. The state tried not to encroach on the cities’ police authority, but "we didn’t trust the (Montgomery) police" after the rioting in Birmingham, Patterson recalls — even though "they’d assured Floyd they’d take care of it."

When Mann went to the terminal with state troopers in tow, the suspicion that Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan would renege on his promise of police presence was confirmed.

"There was no police there," the plain-spoken Mann said in one interview. "I saw this fellow being beaten to death, I thought. And I pulled my gun and walked over to him and put my pistol to that man’s head that was using the bat and told him that, if he swung the bat one more time, I would blow his brains out." ON WEDNESDAY, from his office in the Capitol, John Lewis recalled it: "We were lying there, bloody and semi-conscious, and he came up, and he waved that gun and said, ‘There will be no killing here today. There will be no killing here today.’ He said it loud enough so people in the immediate area could hear, speaking very forcefully. He really intimidated the mob, and they felt they had to move on."

It wasn’t until 1989, when Lewis was in Montgomery for the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial, that the two men met again. "He walked up to me and said, ‘Congressman Lewis, this is Floyd Mann. Do you remember me?’ ’’ Lewis said. "And I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Mann, how can I forget you? You saved my life.’ And we hugged and hugged.

"He was a wonderful human being," Lewis said.

TO SOME Alabamians, Mann was a thorn in their sides. George Wallace managed to oust him from the public safety director job twice — once, when Wallace beat Patterson; the second time, in one of Wallace’s revolving-door returns to office, when he defeated Albert Brewer. But among the state’s best he never wanted for respect or prestigious employment. Courted by the FBI, brought in to run security at the University of Alabama (and made an honorary vice president there), hired in high positions by a number of major industries, including nearby West Point-Pepperell, Mann continued to figure in Alabama law enforcement. His reputation was never tarnished.

EVERY NOW and then, Lane Mann is surprised by a phone call or a letter from someone who wants to know more about his father. Sometimes the request comes from a journalist or a historian; sometimes, someone has stumbled across the story in a book. But he remembers especially the call from a police chief in "some state out West."

"He said he wanted to get some information about my father," says Floyd Mann’s son. "I asked him why. And he said he wanted to hang it up on the wall so his officers could see it. He wanted them to see how a person acted so responsibly, in so irresponsible a time."