Formed on 17 November 1961 by representatives from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Ministerial Alliance, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Negro Voters League, the Albany Movement conducted a broad campaign in Albany, Georgia, that challenged all forms of segregation and discrimination. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) temporarily joined the coalition, attracting national publicity to Albany. Although the Albany Movement was successful in mobilizing massive protests during December 1961 and the following summer, it secured few concrete gains.
SNCC members Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon traveled to Albany in October 1961 to galvanize the black community into direct action protests against institutionalized segregation. Albany had experienced little protest activity prior to SNCC’s arrival; however, black residents were dissatisfied with the city commission’s failure to address the community’s grievances. Sherrod and Reagon led workshops on nonviolent tactics for Albany residents in anticipation of a showdown with local police. On 1 November, the Interstate Commerce Commission’s (ICC) ban of racial segregation in interstate bus terminals went into effect. This was an opportune time for Sherrod and Reagon to test segregation policies in the city. They sent nine students from Albany State College to conduct a sit-in at the bus terminal. Although none of them were arrested, their actions inspired local black leaders to found the Albany Movement. William G. Anderson, a local doctor, and Slater King, a realtor, were elected president and vice president, respectively.
The Albany Movement aimed to end all forms of racial segregation in the city, focusing initially on desegregating travel facilities, forming a permanent biracial committee to discuss further desegregation, and the release of those jailed in segregation protests. Through the course of the campaign, Albany protesters utilized various methods of nonviolence, including mass demonstrations, jail-ins, sit-ins, boycotts, and litigation. Notably, in addition to student activists, the campaign involved large numbers of black adults of varied class backgrounds.
Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett responded to the demonstrations with mass arrests, but refrained from public brutality and thereby minimized negative publicity. By December 1961 more than 500 protesters were jailed, and negotiations with city officials began. Anderson called on King to help reinvigorate the movement. Anderson’s decision to involve King caused some consternation with SNCC members who worried that King’s style of leadership would cause local blacks to “feel that only a particular individual could save them and would not move on their own to fight racism and exploitation” (Forman, 255). Nevertheless, King arrived in Albany on 15 December and spoke at a mass meeting at Shiloh Baptist Church. The following day King, Anderson, and Ralph Abernathy joined hundreds of black citizens behind bars on charges of parading without a permit and obstructing the sidewalk. King’s involvement attracted national media attention and inspired more members of the black community to join the protests. This did not go unnoticed by city government, and soon after King’s arrest city officials and Albany Movement leaders came to an agreement: if King left Albany the city would comply with the ICC ruling, and release jailed protesters on bail. However, after King left Albany the city failed to uphold the agreement, and protests and subsequent arrests continued into 1962. News reports across the country portrayed the failure of early Albany protests as “one of the most stunning defeats” in King’s career (Miller, “A Loss for Dr. King”).
Behind the scenes, reports of organizational conflict between SCLC and SNCC may have marred the campaign. A New York Times article published two days after King’s 16 December arrest claimed that the growing break between SCLC and SNCC was due to “competition for financial support and power,” and that this would have “important implications for the future of the civil rights movement throughout the South” (Sitton, “Negro Groups Split”). Another article noted that King’s organization “took steps that seemed to indicate they were assuming control. But the student group moved immediately to recapture its dominant position on the scene.” The article predicted “tragic consequences” if the differences between the organizations were not curbed (Sitton, “Rivalries Beset Integration Campaigns”). Responding to the reports of disunity in the campaign, King said, “If there was an indication of division, it grew out of a breakdown of communications. The unity is far greater than our inevitable points of disagreement” (“Dr. King Is Freed”).
Six months later, on 10 July 1962, King and Abernathy were found guilty of having paraded without a permit in December 1961. They were ordered to pay $178 or serve 45 days in jail. They chose to serve the time. As King explained from jail, “We chose to serve our time because we feel so deeply about the plight of more than 700 others who have yet to be tried…. We have experienced the racist tactics of attempting to bankrupt the movement in the South through excessive bail and extended court fights. The time has now come when we must practice civil disobedience in a true sense or delay our freedom thrust for long years” (King, “A Message from Jail”). With King in jail, demonstrations and arrests increased. On 12 July, Chief Pritchett notified King and Abernathy that their bail had been paid by an unidentified black man, and they were released. After his release, Abernathy joked, “I’ve been thrown out of lots of places in my day, but never before have I been thrown out of jail” (Lewis, 159).
Following his third Albany arrest on 27 July, King agreed on 10 August 1962 to leave Albany and announce a halt to demonstrations, effectively ending his involvement in the Albany Movement. Although local efforts continued in conjunction with SNCC, the ultimate goals of the Movement were not met by the time of King’s departure. King blamed much of the failure on the campaign’s wide scope, stating in a 1965 interview, “The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair” (“Martin Luther King: A Candid Conversation”). The experiences in Albany, however, helped inform the strategy for the Birmingham Campaign that followed less than a year later. King acknowledged that “what we learned from our mistakes in Albany helped our later campaigns in other cities to be more effective” (“Martin Luther King: A Candid Conversation”).
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
Carson, In Struggle, 1981.
“Dr. King Is Freed,” New York Times, 19 December 1961.
Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 1972.
King, “A Message from Jail,” New York Amsterdam News, 14 July 1962.
Lewis, King, 1970.
“Martin Luther King: A Candid Conversation with the Nobel Prize-Winning Leader of the Civil Rights Movement,” Playboy12 (January 1965): 65–68, 70–74, 76–78.
David Miller, “A Loss for Dr. King—New Negro Roundup: They Yield,” New York Herald Tribune, 19 December 1961.
Claude Sitton, “Negro Groups Split on Georgia Protest,” New York Times, 18 December 1961.
Claude Sitton, “Rivalries Beset Integration Campaigns,” New York Times, 24 December 1961.