Reference Entry

Albany Movement.

Tia L. Gafford

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Albany Movement.

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The Albany Movement began in Georgia in the fall of 1961 and ended in the summer of 1962. It was considered one of the first mass movements in the twentieth-century civil rights movement whose goal was to desegregate an entire community; the authorities jailed more than one thousand African Americans in Albany, Georgia, and its surrounding counties. In December 1961 Martin Luther King Jr. was drawn into the movement as hundreds of black protesters, including King, were arrested in one week. Eight months later King left Albany, having admitted that he had failed to accomplish the movement's goals. As part of the history of the civil rights movement, Albany was a significant lesson King learned and later applied successfully in Birmingham, Alabama.Albany's Past.As in many southern towns and cities, Albany's civil rights movement started during Reconstruction, when politically active black men elected other African Americans to local and state offices. By the early-twentieth-century Jim Crow era, fewer than thirty African Americans were registered to vote in Albany. At the end of World War I (1918), the war veteran C. W. King founded a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Albany. After having been dormant, it was reignited beginning in the 1940s. The desire to garner control of their lives led middle-class blacks to organize voter registration drives. This resounding activism resulted in blacks petitioning local governments to make needed improvements to the infrastructure of African American neighborhoods. The son of C. W. King, C. B. King, carried on this activism by entering law school and then using his talents on behalf of other blacks in the segregated courtrooms in southwest Georgia.The Albany Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., and SNCC.Albany witnessed the historical intersection of local efforts with those of three young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers—Charles Sherrod, Cordell Reagon, and Charles Jones—whose focus in Albany was to conduct a voter registration drive. These SNCC workers encouraged students and others to challenge traditional policies on segregation. From the outset, they faced strong opposition and resistance from whites and conservative blacks. This division within the black community plagued their efforts for two years, but blacks rose above these divisions at important moments.In mid-November 1961 black improvement organizations formed the Albany Movement and selected William G. Anderson, a young black osteopath, as its president. Mass meetings were called, marches were formed, and by mid-December, more than five hundred marchers and protesters were jailed. Leaders who were not in jail gathered in a private home following the mass meetings. After two consecutive days of mass arrests, the strain was evident: of the three hundred still in jail, each leader knew at least a dozen who desperately needed to be released in order to keep jobs, to keep their sanity, or to maintain the cohesion of their families. Unfortunately, the monies used for the two hundred released on $100 cash bonds each had used up all of the available money in black Albany. No one knew how to get the prisoners out. Under this constant pressure, the Albany Movement politics broke down as James Forman, SNCC executive director and organizer, spoke against inviting King to Albany, saying that they already had a strong “people's movement” that could be weakened by King. On another front, a boycott of the downtown merchants as well as the city bus system was supported by the Albany Movement's demands; unfortunately, the leaders were unsure how to arrange alternative transportation in light of the money shortage. Many of them confessed that because of their lack of experience, they were not sure how to work effectively in the business of protest. Dr. Anderson, seconded by Bernard Lee, suggested asking Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help keep the momentum going and to secure greater publicity. Against SNCC wishes, a telegram was immediately sent and King responded. At the mass meetings of Albany's Shiloh Baptist and Mount Zion Baptist Churches, King admonished parishioners to keep moving together. Afterward, the leaders felt that King's presence would soon produce some kind of settlement, which would make another march unnecessary. Later that night, Anderson sent a telegram to Albany's mayor, Asa Kelley, who with other city officials took offense at Anderson's conduct and addressed a letter not to Anderson but to Marion Page, the movement's secretary. The mayor summoned reporters and announced that Albany was breaking off negotiations. Finding “no common ground,” some 150 marchers agreed to follow King to City Hall.Even though King and others were arrested and jailed, King believed that city officials had agreed to make certain concessions. However, once King accepted bail, he discovered that white leadership had refused to consider any of the movement's demands. King returned to Albany the following summer for sentencing on the convictions related to the December marches. He and his fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy chose jail rather than paying the fine. King, believing that thousands would join him, pledged to remain in jail as long as necessary to force change in Albany's segregation policies, and his SCLC staff remained in the city. But King had an equally forceful opponent in maintaining segregation in the Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett, who ordered his officers to avoid violence, at least when TV cameras and reporters were present. Pritchett was prepared for the thousands of marchers and had them arrested and hauled off to jail. In the end, King ran out of marchers and ran into the failing mental health of Anderson and the in-fighting of SNCC members. King was considered ineffective in bringing about any real changes in Albany.Bernice Johnson Reagon.Among the black civil rights leaders who emerged at this time was Bernice Johnson (b. 4 October 1942), who was a music student at Albany State College when she began participating in demonstrations sponsored by SNCC. As a singer and activist in the Albany Movement, she saw the power of song pull together sections of the black community at a time when other means of communication were ineffective. Johnson, who would marry Cordell Reagon in 1963, formed the SNCC Freedom Singers with Reagon, Rutha Harris, and Charles Neblett. The group traveled the country teaching freedom songs of the movement and songs learned in the churches of Johnson's youth. She would go on to form Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a cappella ensemble of African American women singers.Legacy.From King's perspective the Albany Movement was a failure, but blacks in Albany disagreed. SNCC was successful in registering voters not only in Albany but also in nearby Americus and Moultrie, and African Americans in other southwest Georgia towns and counties were moved to challenge their local white power structures. The civil rights movement went through several changes in Albany once the segregation laws were challenged and overturned. In the late 1960s and 1970s leaders turned to school integration, and King used the lessons he learned in Albany to help in the real challenge of Birmingham, Alabama.

Reference Entry.  1293 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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