Sixty years ago, as summer heat began to build in Danville and racial tension sweltered across the nation, several local Black ministers organized peaceful demonstrations against segregation and racial discrimination in the city. On May 31, 1963, the first protest of the summer went off as peacefully as planned.
But the calm wouldn’t last. Like the temperature, tension between the mostly Black demonstrators and the city’s all-white police force continued to rise. The summer of 1963 would go on to be defined by a brutal and pivotal struggle for civil rights nationwide.
Some of the worst violence played out in Danville.
Arrests started in early June, and on June 10 — just 10 days after demonstrations began — violence erupted on what Danvillians now know as Bloody Monday.
“Bloody Monday, it was like a nightmare. It was unbelievable,” said Dorothy Moore-Batson, who is Black and, at 18, had just graduated high school in 1963. She, her sister and her cousin participated in the protests each day.
On the evening of June 10, protesters gathered for an evening prayer vigil outside the city jail to support those who had been arrested earlier that day, when the police turned fire hoses on them, Moore-Batson said.
The police chief at the time, Eugene McCain, also deputized garbage men and other city workers to help police break up the protests. The municipal workers were given nightsticks to wield against the protesters.
At the end of the night, at least 47 people had been injured and 60 arrested, according to a historical marker that now stands outside the courthouse on Patton Street. Most were Black.
This is the story of Bloody Monday and the civil rights movement that surrounded it, told by people who were there.
This is also the story of what Danville looks like today, six decades later.
Danville’s civil rights timeline
In 1960, three years before Bloody Monday, Black residents of Danville began to push back against the segregated norms they had always known.
Danville was a city of 46,577 residents then, almost 25% of whom were Black, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. Despite the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling six years earlier, Danville public schools remained segregated.
“At that time, Blacks were not allowed to ride in the front of the bus,” Moore-Batson said. “If we went to a public facility, we may not be able to use the restroom.”
And even when separate bathrooms for Black folks were available, they weren’t in good condition, she said.
“My mom used to take toilet tissue in her pocketbook in case we needed to go to the restroom,” Moore-Baton said. “Because usually in the colored restroom, there was no toilet tissue. Or they didn’t replace it when it ran out.”
Black people were also prohibited from eating at the lunch counters at places like Woolworth’s, the ubiquitous five-and-dime chain. Moore-Batson remembers being unable to eat at the Woolworth’s in Danville.
“You could smell the hotdogs and hamburgers, but you just did your shopping because you couldn’t sit,” Moore-Batson said.
She doesn’t remember feeling upset about these injustices, she said.
“Somehow, we were not sad,” she said. “You just knew that this is how life is. And you just accepted it. But when the movement came, we decided yeah, we want to participate.”
On April 2, 1960, the first sit-in occurred at the Danville Memorial Library, which was not open to Black residents. Sixteen Black students tried to use the library, which is now the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History on Main Street.
In response, the city closed the library. It reopened in September 1960 after a federal court order, but without any tables or chairs.
This same year, civil rights activists in Danville created the Danville Christian Progressive Association, an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization.
The association petitioned the city council for more Black representation in government and city services, and activists also fought for integration in schools.
But by 1963, Danville still remained largely segregated. Civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, were gaining momentum and publicity during this time, and at the end of May, the association organized similar demonstrations in Danville.
Neal Morris, a 24-year-old motorcycle patrolman, was working the police department’s evening shift from 3:30 to 11:30 p.m. on May 31 when he rode by the city hall steps and saw “a peaceful gathering,” he said.
“Normally, we would be informed of any kind of group activity or gatherings on city property, but no one had said anything about this,” Morris said. “I thought it was a church function, honestly, because they were singing hymns. ‘We Shall Not be Moved,’ that’s what they were singing.”
He called the department and asked what was going on, and nobody knew, he said.
“That’s when we found out that there was a movement beginning,” Morris said. “We didn’t know how long it would last. We didn’t know it wasn’t a one-day event. But it turned out to be practically every day through the entire summer.”
For the first several days of the demonstrations, Morris would ride on his motorcycle ahead of the protesters and stop traffic at the intersections for them so they could cross, he said.
In the beginning, the police department and the city had no issue with the demonstrations, he said. They were peaceful protests, and everything was legal.
“Except that the demonstrators didn’t have a permit or anything like that, but we were just going to ignore that,” Morris said. “The discussion was, just let them do what they’re doing. … If you don’t make any arrests, you won’t get any national attention, and this will probably go away soon.”
But that’s not how this story goes. In fact, the exact opposite happened.
In early June, while Morris was stopping traffic, one of the protesters spat in his face, he said.
“That shocked me, because I was trying to protect them,” he said. He tried to arrest her on the spot, but a large group she was with intervened and led her away, he said.
A few moments later, with the help of other officers, he arrested the woman, who was wearing a bright red dress, he remembers.
“That was the first arrest of the summer,” Morris said. “So that kind of broke the agreement.”
This was the same day that protesters marched into City Hall and occupied the city manager’s office, which resulted in more arrests. Morris said the protesters wanted to see the mayor, Julian Stinson, but he was in Richmond that day.
The protesters had filled cigar boxes with soft drink tops, and they were shaking them to make noise, Morris said. “I mean you couldn’t hear anything in that office, they couldn’t do any work,” he said.
After the arrests on June 5, tension rose and the demonstrations became less peaceful, Morris said.
He said protesters began to throw bricks and bottles at police, breaking squad car windows, and even the window of the old Hotel Leeland on Main Street, which caused shattered glass to rain over the officers.
“One of the officers driving up Industrial Avenue, his police car was shot up,” he said. “A bullet came in by his head and lodged in the sun visor.”
But Moore-Batson said she never saw any violence from protesters toward the police. It was always the other way around, she said.
“We were always peaceful,” she said. “[The leaders] had told us that this was a nonviolent movement. And if you can’t be nonviolent, they don’t want you to participate.”
Protesters maintained this directive, even as the city made it more difficult for them to demonstrate, Moore-Batson said.
On June 6, state court Judge Archibald Aiken issued a temporary injunction that later became permanent, drastically limiting protests. He also began to use an 1859 statute to charge and arrest protesters.
The statute, enacted after John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, charged people with “conspiring to incite the colored population of the State to acts of violence and war against the white population.”
This was enforced by the police department, under McCain, the chief.
The DCPA began to seek help from national organizations, like King’s SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These organizations sent people to Danville to assist with the movement.
That’s how Dorothy Zellner found herself in Danville in the summer of 1963.
Zellner, a white Jewish woman from New York, was a 25-year-old member of the SNCC at the time. She traveled to cities across the South to write pamphlets. Though she was not a field organizer, she would soon find herself in the throes of the conflict.
Danville felt like the Deep South, Zellner said.
Aside from Mississippi and Southwest Georgia, Danville was one of the harshest places that Zellner visited, she said. She wrote about her observations of Danville and the events of the summer of 1963 in this contemporaneous pamphlet for her organization.
Zellner wrote that “for its size, [Danville] is running a close race with Birmingham for top honors in police brutality.”
She stayed away from Virginia for decades afterward, not returning until very recently, she said.
“My overall memory, and I certainly hope things have changed, was that [Danville] was a very nasty place. It was very segregated. It was very rigid,” she said. “They acted as if the Black community were their mortal enemies. There was something really fearsome and rigid about this place. … And this was the Upper South. This wasn’t in the heart of Mississippi.”
But it certainly felt that way, Zellner said. Especially on a day like Bloody Monday.
Click a point on the map to learn more about the importance of that location in Danville’s civil right’s history.
The boil-over: Bloody Monday, June 10, 1963
June 10 was the hottest day of the summer of 1963, with a high of 99 degrees in Danville. The daily demonstrations continued despite the heat.
In the evening, a group of protesters held a prayer vigil outside the jail for those who had been arrested earlier in the day.
“At that time, the back of City Hall was the city jail, so there was a sort of alley between the two,” Moore-Batson said. “We were in the alley to sing and pray and tell those who had been arrested, ‘We’re here for you.’”
That’s when the police started using the fire hoses, she said.
“The people were sandwiched in this alley, and they were washing us up against cars, up against buildings,” she said. “I didn’t get beaten that night. I just got bruises and scratches from running down the steps trying to get away.”
Women didn’t wear pants back then, Moore-Batson said. Only skirts and blouses. “Your legs and arms were always scratched up and bruised,” she said.
Zellner was also there. She was knocked down by a fire hose, which washed away her shoes and purse, and then she was struck on the back of the head by a police officer with a nightstick.
“This was gratuitous violence,” Zellner said. “There was a meanness about it, a meanness. This was completely unnecessary.”
And police officers weren’t the only ones wielding nightsticks. The police department had deputized others, like garbage men and municipal workers.
“This was a very, very nasty technique,” Zellner said. “You deputize any white man who is walking and talking. You could deputize a drunk lying on the street, and then that person has almost the power of life and death over people.”
Morris said that police officers are trained how to wield nightsticks. “You don’t hit people in the head,” he said. But the municipal workers were not trained.
“I’m not saying there were no policemen that did things wrong, but I think that’s where most of the injury came from,” he said.
At the end of the conflict, 47 people were injured and 60 were arrested, according to the historical marker in Danville.
Morris was not there on the evening of Bloody Monday, but he said the number of injuries recorded on the marker does not match his memories of that evening.
“Thank goodness I was not there,” Morris said. He was back on the day shift by that point in the summer, he said, and his shift had been relieved early. When he got home, “my wife told me that they had called us back, but I didn’t know why.”
By the time he arrived, the conflict was over, though there was still water running in the streets, he said.
“I don’t know how they defined injury on the plaque that’s downtown,” Morris said. “I know that I was sent to Winslow Hospital, a Black hospital back in those days, and there were only 13 people treated at the hospital. Most of them were minor injuries. There were two people who were kept overnight, complaining of back injuries. I don’t know if that was the firehose, or what caused those injuries. But that’s a far cry from the numbers on the plaque.”
He said he was told that other demonstrators were treated for injuries at churches like High Street Baptist Church and Bibleway Cathedral.
“I don’t know what kind of injuries those were, but I’m just speaking from my own experience and what I saw,” Morris said.
Moore-Batson said she remembers seeing people bleeding from the head, people with broken arms and legs, and one woman who had to be rushed to a hospital in Richmond because “she was beaten so bad, one of her breasts looked like hamburger.”
Most of the injured were tended to at Winslow Hospital because they weren’t allowed at the main hospital.
Mary Barnes, who was about 10 years old at the time, remembers her father helping take the injured to Winslow.
Barnes was in the car with her family, driving on Loyal Street toward their home in the Almagro community in Danville, one of the first planned all-Black communities in the country.
“We saw water hoses watering people, and people running from police or deputized garbage men with billy sticks,” Barnes said. “People were running toward our car, and my dad stopped and told them to get in the car.”
Her father drove the injured to Winslow Hospital, dropped his family off at home, and then returned to pick up more injured people, Barnes said.
“Wherever he saw people falling down or running, he would get them and take them back and forth to the hospital,” she said. “That’s what he told us later on. … My dad had courage to take people back and forth and still shield his family from most of it.”
The events of Bloody Monday attracted national attention. King condemned the police actions, and McCain, the police chief, came under heavy scrutiny.
Morris, who became police chief himself in 1971, said hindsight is 20/20, but he would’ve handled things differently than McCain.
“If you look at what happened that night, as police chief, I wouldn’t have handled it that way,” he said. “I just think there was a better way to handle it. And I never did anything like that in my 32 years as police chief.”
The aftermath: Mid-summer 1963 to today
Despite the horrific events of June 10, the summer continued, and so did the demonstrations.
Trials began under Aiken on June 17. The judge — after whom a bridge is named in Danville today — excluded the public from courtroom procedures, required all defendants to attend daily roll call and banned any discussion of the constitutionality of the injunction. He was also known to wear a gun to the courthouse, though he said he never wore it in the courtroom.
The U.S. Department of Justice “issued a brief that strongly criticized [Aiken’s] courtroom procedures,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia.
On July 10, the city enacted another ordinance that further cracked down on demonstrations.
The next day, July 11, King came to Danville to speak for the second time that year. During his previous visit, in March, he’d addressed a crowd of about 2,500 at an event organized by the DCPA and held at the City Auditorium.
In July, he spoke at High Street Baptist Church, condemning the actions of the local police.
King said he had “seen some brutal things on the part of policemen all across the South, but very seldom, if ever, have I heard of a police force being as brutal and vicious as the police have been here in Danville, Virginia,” adding that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
King would return twice more to Danville in November that year, for a total of four visits in 1963.
DCPA, SCLC and SNCC efforts continued in Danville, with the organizations sending more representatives, leading campaigns and continuing to organize demonstrations.
“By summer’s end, however, arrests, high bail, restrictive injunctions and ordinances had worn down and frustrated the Danville community,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia.
But as summer turned to fall, some of the protesters’ demands were finally met. In August, the Danville School Board voted to accept a six-year plan to integrate schools.
And on Oct. 16, McCain announced the hiring of the first ever Black police officer in Danville, William T. Terry, which protesters had been calling for.
The city council met another demand on Nov. 12, when it agreed to implement fair employment policies after meeting with Black leaders in town.
Voter registration efforts continued, and activists like Moore-Batson taught other Black residents how to read and write so that they could register to vote.
She said she didn’t realize the impact that this summer would have on Danville decades in the future.
“We never thought, ‘This is making history,’” she said. “We never thought of any of that. We just knew that we had to do this now. We can’t wait any longer, it has to be done now. And I guess that’s how everybody felt throughout the South.”
Zellner hasn’t been back to Danville since 1963, she said.
“I lost track of what happened,” she said. “I assume that Danville ceased to be segregated some years after that. For all I know, the chief of police is Black now, and maybe the mayor is, too.”
Danville does have a Black mayor today, and a majority Black city council, which is something that many residents point to when talking about the strides that the city has made.
“That says a lot about the citizens in the community,” said Karice Luck-Brimmer, a local historian and genealogist, who is Black. “The citizens are the ones that put them in office. And there was a time when you could hardly find a white person that would vote for a Black person.”
The changes that started in the 1960s helped create the success that Danville has seen today, Morris said. There’s been a “tremendous change” in the attitudes of people, he said, and Danvillians are now accepting of each other.
“I think we’ve learned the lesson that you can’t have this bitter division between people and have a successful city, and we have a successful city,” he said. “That’s because of what started back in ’63. And we’ve been building on that. People saw the mistakes. … I guess you’re always going to make mistakes, but you don’t want to make the same one twice.”
In 2019, the Danville Police Department made a public apology to the community for the actions of the police on Bloody Monday.
Scott Booth, the current police chief, said that Bloody Monday was a community trauma that inhibited the police from forming a strong relationship with the community for many years.
“I’ve worked in larger cities, and I never could remember one incident really having a hold on a city like Bloody Monday did in Danville,” Booth said.
Moore-Batson said Danville has come a long way, but there’s still more work to be done. She said she feels more comfortable going about her day-to-day life, and enjoys being able to do mundane things like ride elevators and eat at any restaurant she wants.
“God made us all. We’re just different colors, but we’re still people,” she said. “I think we have learned that over these 60 years.”
More stories from this project
60 years after Bloody Monday, Danville’s civil rights protesters “tell their own stories” in new documentary
Jonathan Parker, a white producer, had to build trust within Danville’s Black community for a project that would showcase their firsthand accounts of the summer of 1963. He also had to race against the clock, working to preserve these stories while people are still around to tell them.
For nearly six decades, police photos of Danville’s 1963 civil rights protests were boxed up and had only been viewed by a handful of people. Now these photos and the accompanying notes from the city attorney are seeing the light of day.
For decades, the city did not acknowledge Danville’s civil rights movement or the police response to it in a meaningful way. Now residents are working to ensure that Danville’s history is remembered by the entire city.