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Peace campaigners act for civil rights in Albany, GA, 1963-1964
In 1963 a long-distance peace march demanding U.S. foreign policy change got caught in the wave of civil rights campaigns in the southern United States. Beginning on May 26, 1963, the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA), a racially integrated group of social activists left Quebec City, Canada on their Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Walk for Peace to protest the United States' policy toward Cuba.
They began their demonstrations with marches first at Griffin Air Force Base in Rome, New York, and then at various locations along the U.S. East Coast.
Upon reaching Georgia in October 1963, the CNVA walkers encountered their first incidents of violence and arrests. The walkers remained steadfast in their commitment to nonviolent discipline and began to emphasize the struggle for racial equality as a main goal.
The city of Albany, south of Atlanta, was particularly sensitive territory. In 1961-62 a major campaign to integrate the city initiated by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was defeated, even though joined by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had no intention of allowing CNVA to conduct a racially integrated march down Oglethorpe Avenue, Albany's main street, when that permission had been denied to the Albany Movement previously (See, “The Albany Movement campaigns for full integration in Georgia (Fall 1961- Summer 1962)")
Despite efforts by the CNVA in December 1963 to negotiate safe passage on Oglethorpe, Chief Pritchett would only allow the walkers to use the “black side” of the segregated road. Chief Pritchett blamed traffic congestion, but the real motive stemmed from the fact that Oglethorpe Avenue was the dividing line between the black and white sections of the city, which had been drawn during the 1962 Albany Movement's campaign. Chief Pritchett refused to allow the integrated group of peace walkers to protest on the “white only” side of the street or north of Oglethorpe Avenue.
When the CNVA proceeded anyway on December 23, 1963, the Albany police responded by arresting thirteen members of the CNVA and one supporter. This sparked the beginning of a long process of nonviolent resistance as twelve of the fourteen walkers needed to be carried to jail as a result of noncooperation. Once in jail, the walkers refused bail, did not cooperate with jail rules, and began fasting. When time for their arraignment in court arrived, eight refused to cooperate and needed to be carried in to the court room. Once in front of the judge, the CNVA members would not sit in a segregated manner.
On January 8, 1964, the fourteen walkers were convicted of parading without a permit, congregating on sidewalks, and refusing to obey the lawful summons of policemen. They were all sentenced to 25 days in jail or a $102 fine. Two walkers paid the fine, while eleven others remained imprisoned and continued fasting.
On January 14, 1964, all of the walkers were released and placed on 30 days probation. Nine walkers had fasted for 24 days, and as a result, three needed medical attention and all received vitamin injections.
Once released, the walkers set out to find a compromise and came up with eight alternative march routes, showing flexibility on dates and times. Each option was rejected by both Chief Pritchett and City Manager Stephen R. Roos.
The walkers took this as an outright challenge, so on January 27, 1964, they marched onto the forbidden streets, leading to the arrests of seventeen walkers.
At this point, as a result of terrible jail conditions and weakness from fasting, the walkers began to get very ill; however, they continued on with the noncooperation and fasting. The Albany city officials increased the punishment. While in jail, the CNVA members were not allowed soap, towels, writing material, napkins, or eyeglasses. The cells were tiny and the male walkers were in ten foot by twelve foot cells; seventeen male inmates shared six beds in constantly damp conditions. Jail authorities also read menus out loud to the fasting inmates, threatened a stop to medical attention, singled out Brad Lyttle (a leader of the CNVA) to threaten a transfer to infamously harsh jails, and secretly taped private walker team meetings.
In court Chief Pritchett often influenced the court proceedings significantly leading to favorable treatment for the city attorney prosecuting the walkers.
While the walkers were trapped inside the jail, other CNVA members outside attempted to support their comrades and combat the Albany city officials’ tactics. Their actions included fasting and keeping a vigil on the steps of city hall, inquiring frequently of authorities concerning the status of the walkers inside the jail, and holding negotiations with city officials (carried out by two CNVA leaders who came to Albany from New York, A.J Muste and Dave Dellinger). Throughout the conflict, the CNVA office in Atlanta publicized the incident and mailed information across Georgia.
As word spread about the suffering of the prisoners, allies showed their support for the walkers as well. The Albany Herald, the Atlanta Constitution, the Atlanta Journal, the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune covered the events unfolding in Albany and published news stories and letters concerning the incidents. Many people and groups from major cities across the US sent letters of support to the walkers in jail. Norman Thomas, Norman Cousins, and New York Congressmen Ryan and Lindsay showed support for the walkers by communicating their concerns to Albany city authorities.
On the international front, the British House of Commons gave the issue attention as the body was angered over the treatment of British walker John Papworth. Also, the British radical pacifist group Committee of 100 protested at the US embassy in London and wired protests over Papworth’s treatment to both Mayor of Albany Jimmy Davis and US President Lyndon B. Johnson. The London Times inquired about the incident and the Toronto Telegram, angry over arrest of three Canadians, sent a telegram to the US State Department. The U.S. federal government became involved when the US Department of Justice sent a representative to investigate the situation; the State Department called Mayor Davis.
In addition, civil liberties lawyers launched a lawsuit against the city while other groups got involved, such as the Florida State University Citizens for Peace Committee, which had ten students travel to provide support. There were support protests in New England, Minnesota, New York, California, and Quebec. Even some white Albany citizens voiced their interest in releasing the prisoners as they worried about the financial weight of paying for the walkers to remain in jail. The Albany Movement, a group that had voiced support for the CNVA, but had not been involved, finally began publishing letters in Albany newspapers and scheduled a voter registration demonstration.
In February, 1964, a turning point occurred when a team of three Quakers (James Bristol, Cal Geiger, and Carl Zeitlow) from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), negotiated with CNVA Walk leaders, city officials, and influential white ministers, exploring a possible compromise.
A loophole in the law was discovered. The compromise allowed the CNVA to walk along the parade route and for an integrated team of five to break off from the group at a certain point to do a four block loop handing out pamphlets in the downtown section. In return the CNVA agreed to halt demonstrations at the Turner Air Force Base and the arrested walkers would sign pleas to city charges. All the imprisoned walkers would be released on February 22, and the newly established walk would occur on February 24, 1964.
The terms of the compromise were accepted and the walkers were released. The Albany courts had issued 41 convictions from the initial arrests on December 23, 1963, onward. Some of the walkers had fasted for 51 days, with only eleven days between the first and second sessions of jail time.
On February 24, 1964, the walkers carried out their march and proved that they could outlast the Albany city officials through their use of nonviolent action.