Albany's Civil Rights Movement
by LaShayla Waters
The civil rights movement in Albany is perhaps the most famous civil rights episode in South Georgia's history. Years of frustration and treatment as second class citizens prompted blacks in Albany to react. Albany had an ample supply of intelligent, successful, and passionate black leaders who put everything on the line for equality.
C.B. King, a successful black lawyer, and two of his brothers were well known in Albany during the civil rights movement. Clennon King, a professor of philosophy, took a big risk when he applied for admission to the University of Mississippi, a segregated and well known racist institution. This bold and courageous act did not come without a heavy price. In 1958, he was declared insane on the premise that any black person who would apply for admission to the University of Mississippi had to be out of his mind (Branch 524). C.B. King, Clennon's brother, was the lawyer who obtained Clennon's release from Whitefield Asylum in Mississippi.
Perhaps the most famous of the black civil rights leaders in Albany is Charles Sherrod, leader of Albany's Chapter of SNCC. Sherrod's arrival in Albany was not exactly welcomed. Tom Chatman, a supervisor of the local chapter of the NAACP, accused Sherrod of being a communist (Branch 526). Eventually, however, Chatman realized if he was going to make any progress and he would have to negotiate with Sherrod.
Sherrod was extremely ambitious, which is obvious through his plan to end segregation by filling the jails: a process by which waves of protesters would be arrested leading to overcrowded jails, ideally causing local officials to address and change segregation laws in the city. He got his opportunity when a group of twelve Freedom Riders arrived in Albany. They were greeted by several hundred participates in the movement. Laurie Pritchett, the chief of police in Albany, ordered police to patrol the area of demonstration. Chief Pritchett became agitated with the hugs, handshakes, and cheers that flowed throughout the crowd. He then ordered his officers to arrest the Freedom Riders. In the confusion the officers arrested only eleven riders, mistaking an Albany student as the twelfth rider (Branch 534-535). SNCC quickly organized a march to City Hall, since police seemed to be arresting anyone who refused to leave. A total of 267 blacks were arrested; they swamped the thirty-person city jail and the work farm (Branch 536). Pritchett worked through the night to make arrangements with other counties to house the prisoners. The next day the prisoners were moved to rural areas all over southwest Georgia.
As the willingness to go to jail decreased among the citizens of Albany, some leaders decided that they needed the help of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, his presence was not welcomed by all. Some people felt that he would draw big crowds that would disappear after his departure. Despite these objections, King led hundreds of people on a march to City Hall where Pritchett who called for the arrest of all the demonstrators met them. King and hundreds of others went to jail and refused bond. King resigned himself to stay in jail through Christmas and urged others to do the same. King went to trial and was offered a chance for all the prisoners and himself to be set free without bond if he would agree to stop the demonstrations. He turned the offer down and his trial was then postponed for sixty days (Branch 557). In the end, King and the other activist were unable to receive any concessions.
The strain of leading marches and organizing protest was very draining. This effect was evident in Dr. William G. Anderson, a leader of the NAACP. Anderson began having delusions and hallucinations of extraterrestrial events. He also began to believe that King was Jesus and the civil rights activists were saints (Branch 550-551). Anderson was practically a prisoner in his own home. Students who were upset by Anderson's decision to stop marching torpedoed his house with tomatoes.
Despite these set backs, Albany became a training ground for the movement in Birmingham, Alabama. The Civil Rights Movement in Albany was crucial to the success of other movements in the South. With their drive and determination, the leaders of the movement in Albany helped ease the path of future leaders throughout America.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. New York: Touchstone, 1989.
LaShayla Waters, English Honors Student. Valdosta State University, c.2000.