(Part of a continuing series that commemorates the opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, 2014)
By Jamil Zainaldin
In an earlier column about the Albany Movement, I talked about the efforts of SNCC Freedom Riders to conduct a voter registration drive and to instruct locals in direct nonviolent action in southwest Georgia’s commercial hub, Albany.
The 1961 campaign, which in the beginning involved two local black churches, began with 9 students who attempted to integrate the Trailways bus terminal on November 1, 1961, and were warned away by police. A week later a core of black civic organizations, including the local NAACP chapter, met and agreed upon a campaign whose goal was nothing less than integrating the entire community.
Aware that nothing like this had ever been attempted in the South or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter, they dubbed their campaign the “Albany Movement.” William Anderson, an osteopath who was elected as the movement’s president said, “Those kids [college students] were going to do it anyway. We didn’t want them to have to do it alone.”
During Albany State University’s Thanksgiving recess, students once again attempted to sit in the white-only section of the Trailways terminal. This time they refused to leave, and were arrested. Over the next three weeks there would be nearly 500 arrests as demonstrators peacefully protested segregation and the arrests of peaceful demonstrators (the charge typically was “disturbing the peace” or “disorderly conduct” rather than violation of local segregation ordinances, which would have invited federal intervention).
Quickly running out of space in the city lock-up, police chief Laurie Pritchett hastily arranged for their transfer to stockades and cells in outlying counties.
Sensing a deadlock — or worse, a spinning out of control with massive jailing — Albany Movement leaders invited Martin Luther King Jr. to come and speak. On the evening of December 15, he addressed mass meetings at a packed Shiloh Baptist Church and, across the street, a packed Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Deeply moved by the chants, prayer, freedom songs, and the singing of southwest Georgia Baptist hymns a cappella (accompanied by foot-stomping), he agreed to join the marchers the next day.
Up to this point, a very wily chief of police who avoided violence (Pritchett), the arch-segregationist editor of the Albany Herald (James H. Gray), and a cagy mayor (Asa D. Kelley) and city had worked hard to keep a lid on media publicity (although the New York Times was already on the story). King’s presence upped the story’s national profile when he and 266 others marched toward city hall to kneel and pray on the steps as a sign of solidarity for those arrested. Pritchett arrested the marchers before they got to city hall for demonstrating without a license. Albany was becoming the nation’s newest symbol of the civil rights movement.
“We will wear them down with our capacity to suffer,” King said, so imbued was he in the righteousness of their cause.
But there were human limits, too. The arrests, the unreasonable bail rates, the days of missed work, the expulsions of students and their leaders from the college, the prospect of trials and fines in the winter, and the stark reality of what could happen in those outlying jails and stockades far removed from public sight extracted a heavy toll. (King described his jailer in Sumter County as “the meanest man in the world.”)
A week before Christmas, individuals purporting to represent the city made a verbal peace offering to movement leaders. There appeared to be agreement to negotiate their demands, including also the airing of the community’s complaints about city services and protection.
King, released from jail as part of the agreement, was now preparing for the return trip home. Having come to the city from afar to offer praise and encouragement, he was leaving as one with a legal and personal stake in the outcome. And he had fair reason to think that victory was within arm’s reach, one whose headlines might one day read: “a determined community peacefully rose up, and in the glare of the national spotlight, overturned a century of Jim Crow injustice.” Or so it seemed.
Next week: A surprising outcome.
Update: Looking Back, Moving Forward: The Southwest Georgia Freedom Struggle, 1814-2014, by Lee Formwalt, was published in August 2014. The book is a co-publication of the Albany Civil Rights Institute and the Georgia Humanities Council.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.