The Albany Movement transfixed national attention on Georgia, and laid the philosophical groundwork for the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Months before local NAACP leaders invited the Reverend Dr. King, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and members of SNCC and the SCLC to their quiet southwest Georgia city, blacks and whites in Albany banded together to dismantle Jim Crow and to press for immediate legal, educational, and political reforms. The Movement was officially activated on November 17, 1961.
Inspired by the success of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, those who joined the Albany Movement determined to end discrimination in all segments of society: in public transportation, schools, and hospitals; in restaurants and other dining establishments; in the public libraries; in business and government. High school students from the city’s segregated schools, youth from the historically black Albany State College, and poor people from town as well as farms in surrounding counties, were the most visible participants. They marched in picket lines, conducted sit-ins and voter registrations, risked expulsion from school and job loss, and endured beatings and starvation in jail.
The process of dismantling Jim Crow also took subtle forms. For example, school teachers would slip students civil rights news from the northern papers to read secretly at home. Maids would attempt to win support from sympathetic white employers.
Perhaps the most striking and memorable aspect of the Albany Movement, and a central catalyst for its longevity, was the religious commitment so clearly at its core. The Albany activists fine-tuned a strategy for confronting police that began with mass meetings at Mt. Zion or Shiloh Baptist Churches. These meetings culminated in speeches by men such as the Rev. Samuel B. Wells, Charles M. Sherrod of SNCC, Dr. William G. Anderson, and brothers Slater King and Chevene Bowers (C. B.) King, who was one of only three black lawyers practicing in the entire state at the time.
Those participating in the meetings sang spirituals and hymns, what they called "freedom songs," to affirm their faith and shore up their courage. The entire congregation would often stand and sing together while a designated group of activists marched out, picket signs in hand, down a few short blocks in the black community, nicknamed Harlem. Their destinations were City Hall, the Greyhound station, and other landmarks in the downtown business district.To come together, sing, and pray at mass meetings was as important a role as marching and going to jail. Those who did not hold leadership positions in the Movement provided crucial support as foot soldiers in these collective moments of inspiration, resolve, and faith. Local youth who later became members of the Freedom Singers—Rutha Harris, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Cordell Reagon, and others—were featured at these gatherings.
Like so much during the Civil Rights years, the Albany Movement was not without controversy. Some wondered about the effectiveness of Dr. King’s involvement. Frustrated by the slow pace of social change, many young black people rejected nonviolence and hurled rocks and bricks at police and national guardsmen. The Movement also reveals the complexities of whites’ responses to Civil Rights. While Mayor Asa Kelley and Police Chief Laurie Pritchett adamantly opposed integration, Pritchett cultivated a polite and composed demeanor in front of the news cameras.
Much has changed in the city since the Albany Movement ended in the spring of 1963 (blacks now occupy influential posts in government and education). Yet, with white flight to the suburbs and to private and religious academies, Albany’s public school system is comprised of a majority of black students.
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Writer: Professor Barbara McCaskill, Dept. of English, The University of Georgia
Editors and Researchers: Lauren Chambers, Aggie Ebrahimi, Courtney Thomas, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems
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