The winding road of the freedom movement: A time for remembrance (Part 1)

(Part of a continuing series that commemorates the opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, 2014)

By Jamil Zainaldin

“It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come” — Sam Cooke

A trio of military, judicial, and legislative anniversaries coincides with the opening of the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the city of one of history’s foremost human rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Union troops destroying railroad tracks in Atlanta, 1864. Photograph by George N. Barnard

Union troops destroying railroad tracks in Atlanta, 1864. Photograph by George N. Barnard

One hundred and fifty years ago this summer, the Battle of Atlanta raged in what would become the final year of the Civil War. The fall and virtual destruction of the city ensured the reelection of Abraham Lincoln and made possible the enactment of the 12th, 13th, and 14th amendments, which promised equal rights, civil liberties, and the vote for the new freedmen. Then, with Reconstruction‘s official end in 1877, the nation abandoned the freedmen to their own fate.

Sixty years ago, in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court rocked the nation when it ruled that separate educational facilities for black and white children violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Exactly fifty years ago this month, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the U.S. Congress, followed one year later by the Voting Rights Act. Both statutes, together with Brown, sought to implement through law — finally —the full promise of freedom and equality for the formerly enslaved and now free.

Thus, the year 2014 offers us a rare moment to consider the “long civil rights movement,” especially from the bloody ground of the Civil War up to our contemporary struggles for equality.

Many of us are familiar with the broad outlines of the modern story of the civil rights movement, but an important chapter in this 150-year history, one sometimes overlooked, is the Albany Movement of 1961-62, a remarkable story that takes its name from the city in Dougherty County, in southwest Georgia. To appreciate Albany’s contribution, we need first to place it in time.

President Lyndon B. Johnson hands his pen to Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

President Lyndon B. Johnson hands his pen to Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The long civil rights movement gained energy in the New Deal era of the 1930s as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), private foundations, a few federal programs, writers, intellectuals, and education leaders chiseled away at a pervasive brand of racism that was one of America’s defining features. Eleanor Roosevelt became a “voice of conscience” against discrimination. In the South, matters of race took on the particularly ugly form of a legally enforced separation and the deprivation of legal and human rights.

Though progress was slow, there were victories in this civil rights struggle, and especially during World War II. The GI Bill gave 125,000 returning black veterans access to college education. A potent sign of change in the wind was the 1948 executive order from President Harry Truman, a southerner, that desegregated the armed services — and a beacon was lit. (The 1946 lynching of four African Americans at Moore’s Ford, on the Apalachee River in northeast Georgia, influenced Truman’s decision to act. George Dorsey, one of the victims, was a WWII veteran who had served four years in the Pacific.)

Then, incremental change transformed into the sudden victory of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). When much is at stake, however, nothing is easy. Enforcement of the law in so vast and diverse a nation with its own federal, state, and local jurisdictions and legislative bodies required a national political will that, at best, was not uniform in its vibrancy and at worst, noticeably absent. Still, progress was tangible, even sudden and breathtakingly so.

Another beacon was posted.

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.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

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