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Chapter 16: The Albany Movement

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

Why Albany? Because Albany symbolizes the bastions of segregation set upon by the compounded forces of morality and justice.

  • January 30, 1961 Kings' third child, Dexter Scott, is born
  • May 21 After the initial group of Freedom Riders seeking to integrate bus terminals are assaulted irk Alabama, King addresses mass rally pit mob besieged Montgomery church
  • December15 King arrives in Albany in response to telegram from Dr, W. G. Anderson, head of the Albany Movement
  • December 16 Is arrested with more than 700 Albany protesters
  • July 10, 1962 With Ralph Abernathy, is convicted of leading December protest; begins serving a 45-day sentence
  • July 12 Leaves jail after his fine is paid by unidentified person
  • July 26  After outbreak of racial violence in Albany, calls for Day of Penance to atone for violence
  • July 22 Albany city hail prayer vigil ends in arrest
  • August 10 Leaves jail and agrees to halt demonstrations

In 1961 the Kennedy administration waged an essentially cautious and defensive struggle for civil rights against an unyielding adversary. As the year unfolded, executive initiative became increasingly feeble, and the chilling prospect emerged of a general administration retreat. 

Negroes had manifested their faith by racking up a substantial majority of their votes for President Kennedy. They had expected more of him than of the previous administration. His administration appeared to believe it was doing as much as was politically possible and had, by its positive deeds, earned enough credit to coast on civil rights. Politically, perhaps, this was not a surprising conclusion. How many people understood, during the first two years of the Kennedy administration, that the Negroes' "Now" was becoming as militant as the segregationists' "Never"? 

Despite tormenting handicaps, Negroes moved from sporadic, limited actions to broadscale activities different in kind and degree from anything done in the past. A new spirit was manifest in the Negro's willingness to demonstrate in the streets of communities in which, by tradition, he was supposed to step aside when a white man strode toward him. 

Areas such as Mississippi and rural Georgia, hitherto quiescent, were churned into turbulence by registration campaigns and freedom rides. The change in spirit was even more dramatically exemplified by the Negroes' willingness, in communities such as Albany, Georgia, to endure mass jailing. 

Albany, Georgia, was a distillation of the tensions and conflicts straining the social fabric of the contemporary South. On one side were the segregationists who thought granite stubbornness was a policy. On the other side were Negroes marching forward utilizing nonviolence. Discrimination of all kinds had been simultaneously brought under our sights: school segregation, denial of voting rights, segregation in parks, libraries, restaurants, and buses. 

The Negroes of Albany suffered in quiet silence. The throbbing pain of segregation could be felt but not seen. It scarred Negroes in every experience of their lives. They lived in segregation; they ate in segregation; they learned in segregation; they prayed, and rode and worked and died in segregation. And in silence. A corroding loss of self-respect rusted their moral fiber. Their discontent was turned inward on themselves. But an end came with the beginning of protest.

I knew I had to stay

As Rosa Parks triggered the Montgomery bus protest, so the arrival in December 1961 of eleven Freedom Riders had triggered the now historic nonviolent thrust in Albany. This Freedom Ride movement came into being to reveal the indignities and the injustices which Negro people faced as they attempted to do the simple thing of traveling through the South as interstate passengers. The Freedom Rides, which were begun by the young, grew to such proportion that they eventually encompassed people of all ages. As a result of this movement, many achievements had come into being. The Interstate Commerce Commission had said in substance that all bus terminals must be integrated. The dramatic Albany Movement was the climax to this psychological forward thrust. 

The Albany Movement, headed by Dr. W. G. Anderson, was already functional and had developed a year-long history on the part of the Negro community to seek relief of their grievance. The presence of staff and personnel of variegated human relations fields gave rise to the notion that Albany had been made a target city, with the ominous decision having been made months before-probably in a "smoke-filled New York hotel room." The truth is, Albany had become a symbol of segregation's last stand almost by chance. The ferment of a hundred years' frustration had come to the fore. Sociologically, Albany had all the ingredients of a target city, but it could just as easily have been one of a hundred cities throughout the deep and mid South. Twenty-seven thousand Negroes lived in Albany, Georgia, but a hundred years of political, economic, and educational suppression had kept them hopelessly enslaved to a demonic, though sophisticated, system of segregation which sought desperately and ruthlessly to perpetuate these deprivations. 

Negroes, wielding nonviolent protest in its most creative utilization to date, challenged discrimination in public places, denial of voting rights, school segregation, and the deprivation of free speech and assembly. On that broad front, the Albany Movement used all the methods of nonviolence: direct action expressed through mass demonstrations; jail-ins; sit-ins; wade-ins, and kneel-ins; political action; boycotts and legal actions. In no other city of the deep South had all those methods of nonviolence been simultaneously exercised. 

The city authorities were wrestling with slippery contradictions, seeking to extend municipal growth and expansion while preserving customs suitable only in a backward and semi-feudal society. Confronted by the potency of the nonviolent protest movement, the city fathers sought to project an image of unyielding mastery. But in truth they staggered from blunder to blunder, losing their cocksureness and common sense as they built retaining walls of slippery sand to shore up a crumbling edifice of injustice. 

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference gave full moral and financial support to the Albany Movement and the noble efforts of that community to realize justice, equal rights, and an end to second-class citizenship. 

For us the first stage of victory required that Negroes break the barrier of silence and paralysis which for decades suppressed them and denied them the simplest of improvements. This victory was achieved when nonviolent protest aroused every element of the community: the youth, the elderly, men and women in the tens of thousands. Class distinctions were erased in the streets and in jail as domestics, professionals, workers, businessmen, teachers, and laundresses were united as cellmates, charged together with the crime of seeking human justice. 

On December 16, 1961, the Negro community of that city made its stride toward freedom. Citizens from every quarter of the community made their moral witness against the system of segregation. They willingly went to jail to create an effective protest. 

I too was jailed on charges of parading without a permit, disturbing the peace, and obstructing the sidewalk. I refused to pay the fine and had expected to spend Christmas in jail. I hoped thousands would join me. I didn't come to be arrested. I had planned to stay a day or so and return home after giving counsel. But after seeing negotiations break down, I knew I had to stay. My personal reason for being in Albany was to express a personal witness of a situation I felt was very important to me. As I, accompanied by over one hundred spirited Negroes, voluntarily chose jail to bail, the city officials appeared so hardened to all appeals to conscience that the confidence of some of our supporters was shaken. They nervously counted heads and concluded too hastily that the movement was losing momentum. 

I shall never forget the experience of seeing women over seventy, teenagers, and middle-aged adults-some with professional degrees in medicine, law, and education, some simple housekeepers and laborers-crowding the cells. This development was an indication that the Negro would not rest until all the barriers of segregation were broken down. The South had to decide whether it would comply with the law of the land or drift into chaos and social stagnation. 

One must search for words in an attempt to describe the spirit of enthusiasm and majesty engendered in the next mass meeting, on that night when seven hundred Negro citizens were finally released from prison. Out from the jails came those men and womendoctors, ministers, housewives-all of whom had joined ranks with a gallant student leadership in an exemplary demonstration of nonviolent resistance to segregation. 

Before long the merchants were urging a settlement upon the city officials and an agreement was finally wrung from their unwilling hands. That agreement was dishonored and violated by the city. It was inevitable that the sweep of events would see a resumption of the nonviolent movement, and when cases against the seven hundred odd prisoners were not dropped and when the city council refused to negotiate to end discrimination in public places, actions began again. 

When the Albany Movement, true to its promise, resumed protest activity in July 1962, it invited the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to share leadership with it. As president of the SCLC, I marshaled our staff of personnel experienced in nonviolent action, voter registration, and law. 

Ralph and I had been called to trial along with two other Albany citizens in February. Recorder's Court Judge A. N. Durden deferred judgment until Tuesday, July 10.

Jail Diary for July 10 - July 11

Tuesday, July 10: We left Atlanta in a party of seven via Southern Airlines to attend court trial in Albany, Georgia. The party included Juanita and Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, Ted Brown, Vincent Harding, Coretta, and myself. We left Atlanta around 7:45 A.m. and arrived in Albany promptly at 8:50. We were met at the airport by Andy Young, who had preceded us the night before, Dr. William Anderson, and the two detectives who had been assigned to us by the city. We proceeded directly to Dr. Anderson's residence. There we had breakfast and discussed our possible action in the event we were convicted. Dr. Anderson brought us up to date on the temper of the Negro community. He assured us that the people were generally enthusiastic and determined to stick with us to the end. He mentioned that several people had made it palpably clear that they would go to jail again and stay indefinitely. From all of these words we gradually concluded that we had no alternative but to serve the time if we were sentenced. Considering church and organizational responsibilities we concluded that we could not stay in more than three months. But if the sentence were three months or less we would serve the time. With this decision we left for court.

At 10:00 A.M. Judge Durden called the court to order. He immediately began by reading a prepared statement. It said in short that he had found all four defendants guilty. The four defendants were Ralph Abernathy, Eddie Jackson, Solomon Walker, and myself. Ralph and I were given a fine of $178 or forty-five days on the streets. Jackson and Walker were given lesser fines and days, since, according to the judge, they were not the leaders.

Ralph and I immediately notified the court that we could not in all good conscience pay the fine, and thereby chose to serve the time. Eddie Jackson joined us in this decision. Mr. Walker decided to appeal.

After a brief press conference in the vestibule of the court we were brought immediately to the Albany City Jail which is in the basement of the same building which houses the court and the city hall. This jail is by far the worst I've ever been in. It is a dingy, dirty hole with nothing suggestive of civilized society. The cells are saturated with filth, and what mattresses there are for the bunks are as hard as solid rocks and as nasty as anything that one has ever seen. The companionship of roaches and ants is not at all unusual. In several of the cells there are no mattresses at all. The occupants are compelled to sleep on the bare hard steel.

Message from Jail 

Our course of action was decided after very careful soul searching. There was the consideration of our wives and families, our respective pulpits, our official responsibility as chief officers of SCLC, and many long-standing commitments. However, in the face of all these, we were overwhelmed by some other primary concerns that could be resolved in no other way. 

We chose to serve our time because we feel so deeply about the plight of more than seven hundred others who have yet to be tried. The fine and appeal for this number of people would make the cost astronomical. 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.

July 14, 1962

When we entered our cell-Ralph and I were placed together in a single cell-we found it as filthy as all the rest. However, conscious of the fact that he had some political prisoners on hand who could make these conditions known around the nation, the Chief immediately ordered the entire cell block to be cleaned. So with water, soap, and Lysol the boys got to work and gave the cleaning it so desperately needed.

The rest of the day was spent getting adjusted to our home for the next forty-five days. There is something inherently depressing about jail, especially when one is confined to his cell. We soon discovered that we would not be ordered to work on the streets because, according to the Chief, "it would not be safe." This, to me, was bad news. I wanted to work on the streets at least to give some attention to the daily round. Jail is depressing because it shuts off the world. It leaves one caught in the dull monotony of sameness. It is almost like being dead while one still lives. To adjust to such a meaningless existence is not easy. The only way that I adjust to it is to constantly remind myself that this self-imposed suffering is for a great cause and purpose. This realization takes a little of the agony and a little of the depression away. But, in spite of this, the painfulness of the experience remains. It is something like the mother giving birth to a child. While she is temporarily consoled by the fact that her pain is not just bare meaningless pain, she nevertheless experiences the pain. In spite of the fact that she realizes that beneath her pain is the emergence of life in a radiant infant, she experiences the agony right on. So is the jail experience. It is life without the singing of a bird, without the sight of the sun, moon, and stars, without the felt presence of the fresh air. In short, it is life without the beauties of life; it is bare existence-cold, cruel, and degenerating.

One of the things that takes the monotony out of jail is the visit of a relative or friend. About 1:30-three hours after we were arrested our wives came by to see us. As usual Coretta was calm and sweet, encouraging me at every point. God blessed me with a great and wonderful wife. Without her love, understanding, and courage, 1 would have faltered long ago. I asked about the children. She told me that Yolanda cried when she discovered that her daddy was in jail. Somehow, 1 have never quite adjusted to bringing my children up under such inexplicable conditions. How do you explain to a little child why you have to go to jail? Coretta developed an answer. She told them that daddy has gone to jail to help the people.

The rest of the day was spent sleeping, adjusting to the unbearable heat, and talking with other friends-Wyatt, Dr. Anderson, Andy Young, Ted Brown, Vincent Harding, and Atty. King-who floated in. Around 11:00 P.m. I fell asleep. Never before have I slept under more miserable conditions. My bed was so hard, my back was so sore, and the jail was so ugly.

Wednesday, July 11: I awoke bright and early. It was around 6:00 to be exact. My back was still sore. Around 8:00 breakfast came. We had fasted all day Tuesday in order to prepare ourselves, spiritually, for the ordeals ahead. We broke the fast by eating breakfast. The food is generally good in this jail. This may be due to the fact that the food is cooked, not in the jail itself, but in a cafe, adjacent to the jail. For breakfast we had link sausage, eggs, and grits. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the coffee had cream and sugar. In all the jails that I have inhabited we were not permitted to have sugar or cream in the coffee.

At 10:00 we had a visit from C. K. Steele, Andy Young, and Henry Elkins, my summer assistant pastor. He had brought me some articles that my wife sent from Atlanta. They told us about the mass meeting. It was lively and extremely well attended. They whispered to us that a group was planning to march to the city hall around noon.

Around noon the group did march. They were led by C. K. Steele. All were arrested-about fifty. They were first brought to the city jails. We heard them as they approached singing freedom songs. Naturally this was a big lift for us.

As the group neared the jail, two of the jailers came over and ordered Ralph and I to move over to what is known as the bull pen. This is a dark and desolate cell that holds nine persons. It is unbelievable that such a cell could exist in a supposedly civilized society.

About seven-thirty on the morning of July 13, we were called and notified that Chief Pritchett wanted to see us. They asked us to dress in our civilian clothes. We did that and went to see Chief Pritchett at about nine o'clock. At which time, the Chief said to us that we had been released, in other words that our fine had been paid. I said, "Well, Chief, we want to serve this time, we feel that we owe it to ourselves and the seven hundred and some-odd people of this community who still have these cases hanging over them." His only response then was, "God knows, Reverend, I don't want you in my jail." This was one time that I was out of jail and I was not happy to be out. Not that I particularly enjoyed the inconveniences and the discomforts of jail, but I did not appreciate the subtle and conniving tactics used to get us out of jail. We had witnessed persons being kicked off lunch counter stools during the sit-ins, ejected from churches during the kneel-ins, and thrown into jail during the Freedom Rides. But for the first time, we witnessed being kicked out of jail. 

On July 24, officials unleashed force against our peaceful demonstration, brutally beating a pregnant woman and caning one of our lawyers. Some of the Negro onlookers, not our demonstrators, seething with resentment, hurled bottles and stones at the police. At that point, I temporarily halted mass demonstrations, and for several days, I visited homes, clubs, and pool rooms, urging that no retaliation be tolerated, and even the angriest of men acceded.

Day of Penance

While we are certain that neither the peaceful demonstrators nor persons active in the Albany Movement were involved in the violence that erupted last night, we abhor violence so much that when it occurs in the ranks of the Negro community, we assume part of the responsibility for it.

In order to demonstrate our commitment to nonviolence and our determination to keep our protest peaceful, we declare a "Day of Penance" beginning at 12 noon today. We are calling upon all members and supporters of the Albany Movement to pray for their brothers in the Negro community who have not yet found their way to the nonviolent discipline during this Day of Penance. We feel that as we observe this Day of Penance, the City Commission and white people of goodwill should seriously examine the problems and conditions existing in Albany. We must honestly say that the City Commission's arrogant refusal to talk with the leaders of the Albany Movement, the continued suppression of the Negro's aspiration for freedom, and the tragic attempt on the part of the Albany police officials to maintain segregation at any cost, all serve to create the atmosphere for violence and bitterness.

While we will preach and teach nonviolence to our people with every ounce of energy in our bodies, we fear that these admonitions will fall on some deaf ears if Albany does not engage in good faith negotiations.

Albany city officials were quick to recognize that the watching and concerned millions across the nation would sense the moral righteousness of our conduct. Quickly, they became converted to nonviolence, and without embarrassment, Sheriff Pritchett declared to the press that he too was an advocate of nonviolence. An equilibrium, in which the external use of force was excluded, settled over the troubled city.,

Jail Diary for July 27 - August 10

Friday, July 27: Ralph Abernathy and I were arrested again in Albany at 3:15 P.m. (for the second time in July and the third time since last December). We were accompanied by Dr. W. G. Anderson, Slater King, the Rev. Ben Gay, and seven ladies. This group held a prayer vigil in front of City Hall, seeking to appeal to the City Commission to negotiate with leaders of the Albany Movement. When we arrived at the city hall, the press was on hand in large numbers and Police Chief Laurie Pritchett came directly over to us and invited us into his office. When we declined, he immediately ordered us arrested.

Around 9 P.M., one of the officers came to the cell and said Chief Pritchett wanted to see me in his office. I responded suspiciously, remembering that two weeks ago, we were summoned to Pritchett's office, only to discover that we were being tricked out of jail. (A mysterious donor paid the fine, $178 for each of us.) Today, we were determined that this would not happen again. So, I told the officer that Pritchett would have to step back to our cell. The officer reacted very bitterly, but he apparently got the message to Pritchett because the Chief came immediately and said: "Come on, Doctor. I am not trying to get you to leave. There is a long-distance call for you from a man named Spivak."

The call turned out to be Lawrence Spivak from the Meet the Press TV program. I was scheduled to be on the program, Sunday, July 29. He was very upset and literally begged me to come out on bond. I immediately called Atty. (C. B.) King and the Rev. Wyatt Walker, my assistant, to the jail and sought their advice. We all agreed that I should not leave and suggested that Dr. Anderson, president of the Albany Movement, get out on bond and substitute for me. Dr. Anderson agreed and I decided to remain in jail.

Saturday, July 28: was able to arrange with Chief Pritchett for members of my staff to consult with me at any time. We held our staff meetings right there in jail. My wife, Coretta, also came to see me twice today before returning to Atlanta.

When Wyatt came to the jail, I emphasized that more demonstrations must be held with smaller numbers in front of the city hall instead of large marches because there is so much tension in the town.

A little while after I talked with Wyatt, fifteen more demonstrators were arrested as they appeared before City Hall and they all came in the jail singing loudly. This was a big lift for us. This group was immediately shipped out to another jail in the state.

Later that day. Pritchett came and asked me to leave jail for good. He said that someone had actually sent the cash money for my bond

and technically he could make me leave. I told him I certainly did not want to be put in the position of being dragged out of jail, but that I had no intention of leaving because I wanted to serve my sentence.

Prichett told us: "You don't know how tense things are, do you? Do you know what happened?" When we said no, he replied: "Somebody almost busted C. B. King's head wide open." It sounded horrible and we became excited. I asked him who and he said calmly: "The sheriff over in the County Jail." I immediately sent for Wyatt and asked him to send a telegram to the President and to call Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy and Burke Marshall of the Justice Dept. I told them I was very much concerned about this kind of brutality by law enforcement agencies and that something had to be done.

Sunday, July 29: Everything was rather quiet this morning. We had our regular devotional services among all the prisoners. I read from the Book of Job. We hold services every morning and evening and sing whenever we feel like it. Since only Ralph and 1 are in a cell together, we can't see the other prisoners, but we can always hear them. Slater is two cells away. Marvin Rich, Ed Dickenson, and Earl Gorden (some white demonstrators) are across the hall in another cell block but they join us in services. After devotion, 1 started reading some of the books I had with me.

They brought us the usual breakfast at 8 o'clock. It was one link sausage, one egg and some grits, two pieces of bread on a tin plate with a tin cup of coffee. We were astonished when the jailer returned at ten minutes after 10 this morning with a plate of hash, peas and rice and corn bread. He said it was supper and the last meal we were going to get that day because the cook was getting off early. Soon, the Rev. Mr. Walker came over with Dr. Roy C. Bell from Atlanta and Larry Still, a writer from Jet. Roy inspected Ralph's teeth and said he would arrange with Chief Pritchett to get us some "food packages." I told him this was needed because we would starve on the jail house food. The Albany Jail is dirty, filthy, and ill-equipped. I have been in many jails and it is really the worst I have ever seen.

Monday, July 30: I spent most of the day reading and writing my book on Negro sermons before our hearing in federal court started. The heat was so unbearable, I could hardly get anything done. I think we had the hottest cell in the jail because it is back in a corner. There are four bunks in our cell, but for some reason, they never put anybody in with us. Ralph says every time we go to the wash bowl we bump into each other. He is a wonderful friend and really keeps our spirits going. The food seemed to be worse than usual today. 1 could only drink the coffee.

I talked with Wyatt and he told me the demonstrations were still going as planned. We soon heard about them because they brought in about fifteen more they had arrested. We were then told to get ready to go to court to begin the hearing on the city's request for a federal injunction against the demonstrations. l was informed that Atty. Connie Motley was here from the New York office of the NAACP and I was very happy. Lawyers King and Donald L. Hollowell of Atlanta came to see me before the hearing started. We discussed how the Albany battle must be waged on all four fronts. A legal battle in the courts; with demonstrations and kneel-ins and sit-ins; with an economic boycott; and, finally, with an intense voter registration campaign. This is going to be a long summer.

Tuesday, July 31: I was very glad to get to court today because I had a chance to see my wife and my friends and associates who are keeping the Albany Movement going. I also had a chance to consult with Wyatt during the recesses. He told us demonstrations were going on while we were in court and that some of the youth groups led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were testing places like drugstores and drive-ins and motels.

Later, my father came to me with the Rev. Allen Middleton, head of Atlanta's SCLC chapter. I was happy to hear that my mother has adjusted to my role in the Albany Movement. She understood that I still had to remain in jail as long as necessary. I told Dad to invite some preachers in to help him carry on the church, but he told me, "As long as you carry on in jail, I'll carry on outside."

Wednesday, August 1: My father and Dr. Middleton came to see me again this morning and told me they spoke at the mass meeting last night at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. The crowd was so large they overflowed into Shiloh Baptist across the street, where nightly mass meetings are usually held. Dad said he would remain through today's hearing and listen to Chief Pritchett's testimony about how he had to arrest Negroes to protect the white people from beating them. Dad said he told the people I didn't come to Albany on my own but I was invited thee by the city officials to visit their jail.

Thursday, August 2: I learned about President Kennedy saying that the commissioners of Albany ought to talk to the Negro leaders. I felt this was a very forthright statement and immediately dictated a statement to the President commending him on his action.

Friday, August 3: They recessed the court bearing until Tuesday. I still have the feeling it is too long and drawn out and that the people should keep demonstrating no matter what happens.

Saturday, August 4: More demonstrators were arrested all day today and later on Pritchett came back and asked them to sing for him. "Sing that song about 'Ain't Going to Let Chief Pritchett Turn Me Around,'" he asked. I think he really enjoyed hearing it. The other jailers would just stare and listen.

Sunday, August 5: Today was a big day for me, because my children - Yolanda, Martin Luther III, and Dexter - came to see me. I had not seen them for five weeks. We had about twenty-five minutes together. They certainly gave me a lift.

Monday, August 6: I saw Coretta again before she left to take the children back to Atlanta. I devoted most of the day to reading newspapers and letters from all over the world. Some of htem were just addressed to "Nation's No. 1 Troublemaker, Albany," without any state. I got a few bad ones like this, but most of them were good letters of encouragement from Negroes and whites. After dinner and devotional period I continued writing on my book. I had planned to finish it this summer, but I have only written eleven of eighteen sermons to be included. I have written three sermons in jail. They all deal with how to make the Christian gospel relevant to the social and economic life of man. This means how the Christian should deal with race relations, war and peace, and economic injustices. They are all based on sermons I have preached. The sermons I wrote in jail are called "A Tender Heart and A Tough Mind," "Love in Action," and "Loving Your Enemies." I think I will name the book Loving Your Enemies. 

Tuesday, August 7: We went back to court today. As I listened to the testimony of the State's witnesses about how they were trying to prevent violence and protect the people, I told Ralph it was very depressing to see city officials make a farce of the court.

Wednesday, August 8: Today was the last day of the hearing and Ralph and I testified. Although the federal court hearing offered some relief from the hot jail, I was glad the hearings were over. It was always miserable going back to the hot cell from the air-conditioned courtroom. I was so exhausted and sick that Dr. Anderson had to come and treat me for the second time.

Thursday, August 9: Even though we decided to remain in jail, "We Woke Up This Morning with Our Mind on Freedom." Everyone appeared to be in good spirits and we had an exceptionally good devotional program and sang all of our freedom songs.

Later, Wyatt and Dr. Anderson came and told me that two marches were being planned if Ralph and I were sentenced to jail tomorrow. All of the mothers of many prisoners agreed to join their families in jail including my wife, Mrs. Anderson, Wyatt's wife, Young's wife, Ralph's wife, and the wife of Atty. William Kunstler.

Friday, August 10: The suspended sentence today did not come as a complete surprise to me. I still think the sentence was unjust and I want to appeal but our lawyers have not decided. Ralph and I agreed to call off the marches and return to our churches in Atlanta to give the Commission a chance to "save face" and demonstrate good faith with the Albany Movement.

Telegram to President Kennedy


August 2, 1962

I thought the federal government could do more, because basic constitutional rights were being denied. The persons who were protesting in Albany, Georgia, were merely seeking to exercise constitutional rights through peaceful protest, nonviolent protest. I thought that the people in Albany were being denied their rights on the basis of the first amendment of the Constitution. I thought it would be a very good thing for the federal government to take a definite stand on that issue, even if it meant joining with Negro attorneys who were working on the situation.

The people of Albany had straightened their backs

Our movement aroused the Negro to a spirited pitch in which more than 5 percent of the Negro population voluntarily went to jail. At the same time, about 95 percent of the Negro population boycotted buses, and shops where humiliation, not service, was offered. Those boycotts were remarkably effective. The buses were off the streets and rusting in garages, and the line went out of business. Other merchants watched the sales of their goods decline week by week. National concerns even changed plans to open branches in Albany because the city was too unstable to encourage business to invest there. To thwart us, the opposition had closed parks and libraries, but in the process, they closed them for white people as well, thus they had made their modern city little better than a rural village without recreational and cultural facilities. 

When months of demonstrations and failings failed to accomplish the goals of the movement, reports in the press and elsewhere pronounced nonviolent resistance a dead issue.

There were weaknesses in Albany, and a share of the responsibility belongs to each of us who participated. There is no tactical theory so neat that a revolutionary struggle for a share of power can be won merely by pressing a row of buttons. Human beings with all their faults and strengths constitute the mechanism of a social movement. They must make mistakes and learn from them, make more mistakes and learn anew. They must taste defeat as well as success, and discover how to live with each. Looking back over it, I'm sorry I was bailed out. I didn't understand at the time what was happening. We lost an initiative that we never regained. We attacked the political power structure instead of the economic power structure. You don't win against a political power structure where you don't have the votes.

If I had that to do again, I would guide that community's Negro leadership differently than I did. 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. It would have been much better to have concentrated upon integrating the buses or the lunch counters. One victory of this kind would have been symbolic, would have galvanized support and boosted morale. But I don't mean that our work in Albany ended in failure. And what we learned from our mistakes in Albany helped our later campaigns in other cities to be more effective. We never since scattered our efforts in a general attack on segregation, but focused upon specific, symbolic objectives. 

Yet, the repeal of Albany's segregation laws indicated clearly that the city fathers were realistically facing the legal death of segregation. After the "jail-ins," the City Commission repealed the entire section of the city code that carried segregation ordinances. The public library was opened on a thirty-day "trial" basis-integrated! To be sure, neither of these events could be measured as a full victory, but neither did they smack of defeat. 

When we planned our strategy for Birmingham months later, we spent many hours assessing Albany and trying to learn from its errors. Our appraisals not only helped to make our subsequent tactics more effective, but revealed that Albany was far from an unqualified failure. Though lunch counters remained segregated, thousands of Negroes were added to the voting registration rolls. In the gubernatorial elections that followed our summer there, a moderate candidate confronted a rabid segregationist. By reason of the expanded Negro vote, the moderate defeated the segregationist in the city of Albany, which in turn contributed to his victory in the state. As a result, Georgia elected its first governor pledged to respect and enforce the law equally. 

In short, our movement had taken the moral offensive, enriching our people with a spirit of strength to fight for equality and freedom even if the struggle is to be long and arduous. The people of Albany had straightened their backs, and, as Gandhi had said, no one can ride on the back of a man unless it is bent.

  1. The atmosphere of despair and defeat was replaced by the surging sense of strength of people who had dared defy tyrants, and had discovered that tyrants could be defeated. To the Negro, in the South, staggering under a burden of centuries of inferiority, to have faced his oppressor squarely, absorbed his violence, filled the jails, driven his segregated buses off the streets, worshipped in a few white churches, rendered inoperative parks, libraries, and pools, shrunken his trade, revealed his inhumanity to the nation and the world, and sung, lectured, and prayed publicly for freedom and equality - these were the deeds of a giant. No one would silence him up again. That was the victory which could not be undone. Albany would never be the same again. We had won a partial victory in Albany, and a partial victory to us was not an end but a beginning.

NEXT: Chapter 18: The Birmingham Campaign