Thursday, November 17, 2011

November 17, 1961: The Albany Movement

Fifty years ago today, civil rights activists in Albany, Georgia, aided by national groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and NAACP, formed a coalition known as the Albany Movement to desegregate the city of about 50,000 people. Though voter registration drives and civil rights petitions had spread throughout Albany since at least the 1940s, the arrival of national SNCC voter registration activists Charles Sherrod, Cordell Reagon, and Charles Jones began a new phase in local civil rights activity. With local osteopath William G. Anderson, the Albany Movement’s elected president, these youths initiated a drive to fully and immediately desegregate Albany.

Below: This Clifford Baldowski cartoon, published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1958, depicts Governor Marvin Griffin chasing Martin Luther King in a wheel labeled "Albany Movement" along slats labeled "Incident After Incident--". A man holding a book titled "1955-1958 Graftin' Years" looks on.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the movement on December 15th, nearly a month into its existence, after enduring criticism from groups like the SNCC that he had maintained “a safe distance” from previous on-the-ground activism, including the previous summer’s Freedom Rides. Though he had only planned to stay for a short time, King and scores of other activists were jailed the next day for their peaceful demonstrations at bus stations, libraries, and lunch counters. King refused bail until the city conceded to key desegregation measures. Albany’s police chief, Laurie Pritchett, had carefully studied King’s leadership style and past actions taken by the Civil Rights Movement and hoped to subvert their activities. He ordered police officers to refrain from violence and disperse prisoners among a number of rural jails in southwest Georgia to avoid the national publicity typically connected to urban mass arrests. The Birmingham Post-Herald lauded Pritchett for his approach and stated that “the manner in which Albany’s chief of police has enforced the law and maintained order has won the admiration of … thousands.”

Convinced the city had accepted the movement’s demands, King paid bail and left Albany. Some months later, it became clear that Albany’s white leadership had no intention of repealing its Jim Crow ordinances, and King and fellow Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) officer Ralph Abernathy returned to the city in July 1962 for sentencing related to the December 1961 charge. They were offered a choice: further jail time or a $178 fine. Both opted for incarceration, but an anonymous white attorney paid the men’s fines, prompting their forcible release. King and the SCLC left Albany in August, convinced the movement had failed. Local activists like Sherrod felt differently, however. Black voter registration efforts in Albany proved so successful that an African-American businessman, Thomas Chatmon, forced a runoff election for city council that autumn, and the city repealed all segregation ordinances the following spring. Sherrod would go on to serve on the city council himself from 1976 to 1990, and Reagon made a name for himself in the 1970s as an antiwar and environmental activist.

For King, the Albany Movement’s purported failure reaped dividends in Birmingham, where he and the SCLC would pursue methods similar to those employed in Albany, garnering more national attention than any previous chapter in the civil rights movement had attained.

Thanks to the Civil Rights Digital Library for many of the links provided in this post, especially the WSB newsfilm clips -- amazing to watch. And for one more treat, here is a link to a program hosted on campus called "Beyond the Movement" -- with participants from the Albany Movement reflecting on their experiences:

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