(Part of a continuing series that commemorates the opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, 2014)
By Jamil Zainaldin
Earlier I wrote of the anniversaries this year of some significant events in the American civil rights story, moments that bear discussing as we welcome the long-awaited opening of the Center for Civil and Human Rights here in Atlanta. And I began describing how small victories in the civil rights struggle led to real change and to more struggle, paving the way for a remarkable moment in the history of the movement as well as the state: that of the Albany Movement.
Two years after the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision by the Supreme Court (which made the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional), the surprise victory of the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott catapulted into international notoriety Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the icon of a community deep in the South whose courage in the face of threats to life and limb radiated commitment and strong leadership.
This courage was not in vain, receiving the support (again) of a federal court, in this case a district court, ruling that separate seating for whites and blacks on city busses (the object of the boycott) violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Nobody at the time, anywhere, doubted federal authority to regulate interstate commerce. But a single community’s bus line? Black boycotts of segregated city bus lines soon spread to other cities. New beacons were lit.
Out of the Montgomery bus boycott came the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, an entirely new kind of organization on the freedom movement scene that held its first organizing meeting at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Marrying a faith-based tradition’s prophetic vision with the undeniable urgency of the moment, SCLC’s moment of creation harnessed a founding leadership core that was about to become one of the movement’s compasses: King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Charles Steele, Joseph Lowery, and others.
Which way was the wind blowing? Six years later (1960) came a new sign, as students took to conducting peaceful “sit-ins” at white-only lunch counters in stores like Woolworth and Kress. Though not entirely new, the movement grew and spread quickly to Baltimore, Durham, Miami, Nashville, Kansas City, Tallahassee, Richmond, Orangeburg, Charlotte, and other towns and cities.
In “the city too busy to hate,” formidable and longstanding challenges made Atlanta a special case.
There already existed in the city an informal leadership structure, an old guard, symbolically defined by a the color line “where Peachtree meets Sweet Auburn.” Each side of that line was working to maintain community harmony while also promoting and defending their complex political, social, and economic interests in a modernizing city, region, and nation.
And into this carefully moderated urban sphere burst — unannounced and uninvited — Atlanta University Center students Lonnie King, Julian Bond, Joseph Pierce, and Herschelle Sullivan, forming an organization called “COAHR,” or the Committee on Appeal of Human Rights. The city’s 1960 student leaders would ignite the Atlanta freedom movement in a battle that proved, nonetheless, surprisingly uphill (103 southern cities had desegregated their lunch counters before Atlanta).
Guided by training and a carefully practiced philosophy of nonviolence (protestors endured every indignity and assault), the student sit-in movement clearly and publically began wringing concessions in major towns and cities. In close alliance with the Atlanta-based SCLC and its director, Ella Baker, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or “SNCC”), which John Lewis soon would lead as its national director, posed in 1960 an entirely new kind of challenge to the southern establishment — and to the leaders of the movement, too. SNCC was another beacon lit, this one brightly youthful, courageous, energized, grassroots, and very direct.
Success breeds challenges. Serious reaction was setting in among desperate local, state, and governing authorities, signified by “massive resistance,” Klan violence, and even the splintering of the nation’s political party system that impacted Congress and the presidents’ (Eisenhower and Kennedy) ability and willingness to act.
The proliferation of civil rights advocates and organizational missions also raised urgent questions of methods and priorities. The potential of splintering always poses serious challenges for leaders who struggle to preserve unity in a crisis time, and also time of opportunity. Was it to be litigation or voter registration? Direct action and political education, or the gradualism of working through establishment channels? What role should churches play? Where did students fit in? What about federal courts? The White House?
Not all agreed of course, nor could they. The evolving freedom movement was like a patchwork quilt spread over a vast geography. And on top of this sat a new cadre of regional and national journalists whose coverage of the 1957 Little Rock crisis at Central High School reached a national audience hungry for information about the depth of the country’s divisions.
In the summer of 1961 SNCC representatives arrived in Albany, Georgia. What transpired became “the first mass movement in the modern civil rights era to have as its goal the desegregation of an entire community.” A lesser-known but pivotal chapter in the freedom movement narrative, the Albany Movement itself is a powerful story, and deserves a column all its own.
To be continued.
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.