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The Albany Movement campaigns for full integration in Georgia (Fall 1961- Summer 1962)
Up until 1961, the extent of the civil rights movement in Albany, Georgia had been limited to small student groups refusing to obey segregation laws; however, with the arrival of a prominent civil rights group the community would be energized. Albany, Georgia was chosen by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to conduct voter registration drives and SNCC arrived in September 1961 to begin the challenging process of mobilizing support and excitement around their cause. They began signing up voters and encouraged the students, who had previously led the movement on their own, to challenge the current administration in Albany and segregation in general.
In mid-November 1961, the campaign officially began when the Albany Movement was formed with the stated goals of enfranchisement of the black voter and full integration of all public facilities. This group, comprised of SNCC members, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) members, Albany State College students, local ministers, and other Black leaders, would elect William J. Anderson, a young black physician, as their president. The Albany Movement held mass meetings and organized demonstrations and marches. By mid-December 1961, about 500 demonstrators had been arrested by Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett and the Albany authorities.
At this juncture, the Albany Movement called on Martin Luther King Jr. to capitalize on the current momentum created by the surge in arrests and to form wider media exposure for the campaign in Albany. In December, King spoke at a mass meeting and then, on the following day, he was arrested by the Albany authorities during a march. The movement suffered a major blow, though, when King, who thought that the Albany officials had agreed to a set of terms, posted bail and was released; however, upon release he discovered that the city authorities would not take into consideration anything the Albany Movement was demanding.
After this setback, King decided to commit to the effort of desegregation in Albany and he brought in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help organize the campaign. The campaign had a major obstacle to deal with in the form of Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett, who had mastered the art of appearing nonviolent. The police chief preached about his use of nonviolence with a focus on mass arrests instead of mass beatings and was very conscious to appear nonviolent when the TV cameras and reporters were around. Pritchett kept up with the overwhelming amount of arrests by using the jails in surrounding counties (Baker, Mitchell, and Lee Counties).
The movement came to end in late summer of 1962, when the Albany Movement lost momentum in the face of Pritchett’s seemingly inexhaustible ability to arrest and jail all demonstrators the campaign threw at him. King got himself arrested a second time but was also released again. By late August, the campaign had fizzled completely and the civil rights coalition had to admit defeat; however, the tactics and lessons they learned would be transferable to a later success in Birmingham, Alabama.
Over the year long campaign, with high points of action occurring in December 1961 and the summer of 1962, demonstrations led to the arrests of more than 2,000 local black residents. Several nonviolent tactics were employed by the Albany Movement over the course of the movement including: protest marches, mass meetings, petitions, speeches, prayer, boycotts, and sit-ins. However, maybe the most unique nonviolent tactic implemented during this movement was singing. During the mass meetings, song would prove to be a very effective tool to rally and energize the demonstrators. After the Albany Movement, SNCC formed the “Freedom Singers” to utilize this powerful tactic.
King and the civil rights movement were not the only ones to come out of Albany with lessons learned. The stubborn Albany Police Chief had taught the rest of the South how to successfully stave off the mighty nonviolence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Pritchett proved that if one commits to appearing to be nonviolent in front of the cameras one can use repressive violence behind the scenes and still exude an image of nonviolence. Emphasizing his use of mass arrests as a tactic instead of mass beatings, Pritchett preached to the nation how one can use nonviolence to combat nonviolence. However, his misleading commitment to “nonviolence” faltered in 1963-1964, when another campaign ended up defeating the formidable police chief partly by exposing the cleverly hidden violence that took place in the jails (see “Peace campaigners fight for civil liberties in Albany, GA, 1963-1964”).
One of the major issues surrounding the Albany Movement’s 1961-1962 campaign was the lack of aid from the federal government. President John F. Kennedy and his administration promised that they were watching the situation in Albany closely; however, because of Pritchett’s use of arrests and avoidance of public violence, the federal government never felt enough pressure from American citizens to intervene. The lack of intervention by the Kennedy administration in this case reinforced the frustration and distrust that many civil rights demonstrators had for the federal government.