Chapter 16: The Albany Movement
Why Albany? Because Albany symbolizes
the bastions of segregation set upon by the compounded forces of
morality and justice.
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'
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.
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
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.
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.
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 selfimposed 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 arrestedour 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
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
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
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.,
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.
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
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: I
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
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.
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. 1 still think the sentence was unjust
and 1 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.
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 constituional 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.
Our movement aroused the
Negro to a spirited pitch in which
mire ' 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.
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 publicaly 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.
The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.