Joshua Lott/Getty Images

From Kent State to Ferguson: The National Guard and civil unrest

A short history of National Guard deployments aimed at controlling civil disturbances

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has called on the state's National Guard to restore calm in Ferguson, as demonstrations and civil unrest continue after the police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen. Nixon said the troops are needed to restore peace.

Each state has its own National Guard, which are composed of members of the military, and can activate their service under emergency circumstances. The ongoing Ferguson crisis is not the first time their services have been requested to calm civil disturbances. Below is a list of notable National Guard deployments throughout U.S. history: 

First Baptist Church siege

National Guardsmen patrol past the Black First Baptist Church on May 21, 1961
Horace Cort/AP

On May 21, 1961, a Montgomery, Alabama church became a refuge for 1,500 black worshippers and Freedom Ride activists — civil rights advocates who rode interstate buses into the segregated South — after an angry mob of pro-segregationists surrounded the black First Baptist Church. Martin Luther King Jr. was among those inside.

The white crowd threw bricks at the windows, and threatened to set the church ablaze. The U.S. Marshals were sent to guard the church, but it was not enough to disperse the 3,000-plus crowd. Alabama Gov. John Malcolm Patterson called the state's National Guard to assist local police in dispersing the threatening mob. Hours after the crowd had been pushed away, the Guardsmen finally transported the worshippers and activists out of the church to safety.

Stand in the schoolhouse door

Alabama Gov. George Wallace makes his stand against desegregation at the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama in 1963.
Montgomery Advertiser/AP

Alabama Gov. George Wallace put his words – “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" – into action in 1963 when he blocked two black students from entering the Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama. Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, both African-American, were attempting to register for classes.

The governor's refusal to step aside and allow the two students to enter propelled President John F. Kennedy to federalize Alabama's National Guard and ordered them to remove Wallace. Wallace eventually stepped aside at the insistence of Henry Graham, National Guard general. "Sir, it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the orders of the President of the United States," Graham told Wallace.

The two students were then allowed into the auditorium and able to register for classes.

Watts riots

Demonstrators push against a police car after rioting erupted in a crowd of 1,500 in the Los Angeles area of Watts, August 12, 1965.

After a California Highway Patrol officer pulled over Marquette Frye, a black 21-year-old, for reckless driving in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles on Aug. 11, 1965, a confrontation ensued between the suspect and police.

Witnesses of the confrontation accused the police officer of excessive force and discrimination. African Americans in the Los Angeles area already felt unfairly targeted by police, and the Frye incident became a tipping point.

Unable to quell the civil unrest, Police Chief William H. Parker called on the state's National Guard to assist in restoring order. Almost 4,000 National Guardsmen were called in during the six days of unrest. Thirty-four people were killed, more than 1,000 injured, and more than 3,400 people were arrested.

Kent State shooting

Ohio National Guard moves in on students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Four people were killed and eleven wounded on May 4, 1970 when National Guardsmen opened fire.

A peaceful protest at Kent State University in Ohio turned deadly when the state’s National Guard opened fire on May 4, 1970. The demonstrators were protesting President Richard Nixon’s April 30 announcement of a U.S. military campaign in Cambodia at a time when the public was already questioning American actions in Vietnam. 

Nixon's announcement had been followed by days of protests in Kent and violent threats to city officials and businesses, which led to the deployment of the National Guards troops.

National Guardsmen were trying to control protesters on May 4, but they refused to disperse and held their ground. Guardsmen alleged that a sniper had shot at them before 29 troops fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds at the protesters. Four people were killed and nine others wounded. The sniper allegation has yet to be proven.

Rodney King riots

A fire burns out of control in South Central Los Angeles April 30, 1992.
Paul Sakuma/AP

The acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King on April 24, 1992 sparked racially fueled riots in Los Angeles. The incident, in which the officers tasered King, kicked him in the head, and beat him for over a minute, was caught on camera and widely covered in national media.

Already angered at the beating of King, the acquittal ignited outrage and civil unrest throughout Los Angeles. The National Guard was called in after the televised civil unrest developed into looting, arson and killings for several days. More than 50 people were killed, up to 2,000 were injured, and property damage was estimated at $1 billion in the largest civil disturbances since the 1960s.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter