The twentieth anniversary of the Albany and Southwest Georgia Movement brought more than 300 people together again in Albany for four days in August of 1981. We came from as far away as New York, Michigan, California and as close by as Newton, Sylvester and Dawson. We came to remember the suffering, the struggling together, the meetings that lasted long into the night, to remember marching and being in jail. We came to sing songs and rekindle the spirit of the Albany Movement. We came to celebrate an important segment of history and to talk about what it meant and what has happened in the 20 years since and to discuss where we are headed now.
There were workshops on voting rights, family life, black literature, civil disobedience, legal rights and the church. There were sessions with black officeholders whose elections came about because of the continuing work of the Movement. There were emotional reunions of people who had not seen each other for years. And there was singing. Great day, was there singing! We joined with the early creators of the “Freedom Songs” — Bertha Gober, Bernice Reagon, Rutha Harris, Charles Sherrod — and raised the roofs of Shiloh, Mount Zion and Union Grove Baptist Churches, where the Albany Movement used to meet to plan and build spirit for the protest marches of 1961 and 1962.
And we told the story of the Movement, in meetings and workshops, and on tape, so that the history could be preserved. We revisited the landmarks of the struggle - the city swimming pool that was sold to the man who is now Albany’s mayor to avoid desegregation; the bus station where the first sit-ins occurred; a church that was burned to the ground by white night-riders and rebuilt through the efforts of Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and sympathetic people across the country.
And we marched. On the last day of our celebration, some 300 people gathered in a driving rain in front of Shiloh Baptist Church as they had 20 years before and retraced the steps of the early marches. This time no one was arrested, and we held a rally calling for renewed dedication to the ideals of the Movement.
The Albany Movement changed people’s lives. In August of 1961, Charles Sherrod, then a recent graduate of Virginia Union University and a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), went to Terrell County, Georgia, to start a voter registration project. The U.S. Justice Department had filed an injunction to stop county officials from segregating the voting and registering process. It was the first such federal action in Georgia. But the climate of fear and repression in “Terrible Terrell” was such that Sherrod decided to move his organizing work to Albany, then a city of 56,000, 40 percent of whom were black. It was the geographic, economic and social center of all of Southwest Georgia.
Cordell Reagon and Charles Jones of SNCC joined Sherrod in Albany and together with local black leaders they laid the groundwork for a mass movement that would capture the imagination of the nation.
Later that year, in a report to SNCC, Sherrod said: “When we first came to Albany, the people were afraid, really afraid. Sometimes we’d walk down the streets and the little kids would call us ‘Freedom Riders’ and the people walking in the same direction would go across the street from us, because they were afraid; they didn’t want to be connected with us anyway. . . . Many of the ministers were afraid that their churches would be bombed, that their homes would be stoned. There was fear in the air, and if we were to progress we knew that we must cut through that fear. We thought and we thought . . . and the students were the answer. We drew young people from the colleges, trade schools, high schools, and from the street. They were searching for a meaning in life.”
They began holding meetings with the young people in church basements, homes or wherever people would let them meet. They talked about their problems, how they felt, what it meant to be black, how they were denied the rights of citizenship and even the basic human dignities. The SNCC workers talked about non-violent action, possibilities of protests and organizing drives. “Every night,” says Sherrod, “we grew larger and larger.” They trained themselves in nonviolent tactics as they prepared to challenge segregation in Albany that fall.
On November 22 the protests began. Bertha Gober and Blanton Hall, students at Albany State College, were arrested at the Trailways bus terminal trying to buy tickets on the “white side” of the ticket counter. They had instructions to remain in jail; others from the NAACP Youth Council and off the street followed, and the number in jail grew. Members of the Criterion Club, NAACP, Baptist Ministerial Alliance, Inter-Denominational Alliance, Masons and other community groups formed a coalition, and that day — November 22 — the Albany Movement was born.
Soon a mass meeting was held at Shiloh and Mount Zion Baptist Churches, which were across the street from each other. Sherrod says, “The church was packed before eight o’clock. People were everywhere, in the aisles, sitting and standing in the choir loft, hanging over the railing of the balcony, sitting in trees outside the windows. . . . When the last speaker among the students, Bertha Gober, had finished, there was nothing left to say. Tears filled the eyes of hard, grown men who had seen with their own eyes merciless atrocities committed. . . . Bertha told of spending Thanksgiving in jail . . . and when we rose to sing ‘We Shall Overcome!’ nobody imagined what kept the church on four corners.”
There were more protest marches, and literally thousands of people went to jail, over 750 at one time. Albany’s jail couldn’t hold them all, and had to send people away; the jails of nearby counties — Baker, Lee, Terrell, Worth and Mitchell — filled to capacity and beyond. For 10 weeks the Albany crisis made the headlines of every major newspaper and wire service in the country.
The mass activity and energy in Albany spawned smaller movements and organizations in the surrounding rural counties as people, hearing the news of Albany, came together with the help of SNCC workers to confront their own particular problems. Groups sprang up in Worth, Terrell, Sumter, Crisp, Lee, Baker, Mitchell — virtually all the surrounding counties. Voter registration drives began in earnest, and the Southwest Georgia Project of SNCC expanded its activities to a 20-county area encompassing the Second Congressional District.
The Albany Movement grew famous for its singing. The struggle to bring together people of varying background and to break through the barriers of fear could not have been won without the spiritual uplift supplied by the music of the Movement. Folks sang the old spirituals and gospel hymns and made up freedom songs as they marched downtown to where they knew Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett would be waiting to arrest them and haul them off to jail. Their voices filled the churches and the streets with a spiritual power unsurpassed in the history of the Movement.
Anne Braden, writing in 1965, described another way that Albany was a boost to the Southern Freedom Movement: “Southern Negro leaders said the Albany Movement was an advance over the Montgomery movement of six years before because, whereas Montgomery had been a mass withdrawal (in that Negroes stayed off the buses), Albany was an aggressive movement in which Negroes used mass marches, demonstrations, etc., to take the offensive against segregation. Furthermore, whereas Montgomery had focused on a single identity, Albany was an assault on the total pattern of segregation.”
One more significant development in Albany was that people came together from all strata of black society. The entire community was involved. The marches and demonstrations cut across class lines in a way that did not happen in everyday life. Ministers and maids marched together. Doctors and deacons went to jail. Teachers and taxi drivers, lawyers and laborers, nurses, students and people who were just hanging out in the streets — they all moved together. And for a time their movement broke through the fear that white society had held over them for so long. Together they held the attention of the nation and of Third World people who had struggles of their own.
Addressing the twentieth-anniversary celebration, Vincent Harding listed dozens of these people who had come together and asked us all to remember them and hold them dear. And he said: “What I’d like to make sure that we understand is that the struggle that is known as the Albany Movement was a part of something much, much larger than any of us. One of the fantastic things about the Albany Movement was that we here in what was supposed to be this little town, that we here were part of a world-wide movement of people transforming their lives and transforming this world. That we were a part of something far, far greater than anyone ever dreamed, far greater than Chief Pritchett or Mayor Kelly ever knew, that we were part of the non-white people of the globe standing up as never before saying, ‘We shall not continue to bow down to the world of the white West.’”
So the significance of the Albany Movement was not that it failed to desegregate public facilities in Albany. Nor was it that Martin Luther King had been asked in to help publicize the fact that hundreds of people were going to jail at the risk of losing their jobs and livelihoods. Nor was it that Chief Pritchett arrested every man, woman and child who disagreed with him and ran the town, as Howard Zinn once noted, “with the quiet efficiency of a police state.” Rather the significance was that in Albany people showed the world that it was possible to break through the bonds of class differences and band together to take direct action on a massive scale, and in so doing they discovered the power within themselves to say “no” to oppression and began to determine their own lives.
REVEREND SAMUEL WELLS
Reverend Samuel Wells was born in Lee County, Georgia, in 1916 and has lived mostly in Albany since 1932. He was one of the early Albany Movement leaders and has remained active over the past 20 years. He has been on the staff of SCLC and the Southern Rural Advancement Fund. He now lives with his wife in Atlanta, where he worked on Andrew Young’s successful campaign for mayor. He occupies his time doing maintenance work in an apartment complex, where he “fools with folks’ washing machines. ’’He still pastors Blue Spring Baptist Church in Southwest Georgia near Warwick.
One of the important things to come out of the Albany Movement celebration was an attempt to tape record the story of each participant. What follows are excerpts from Reverend Wells’ taped story along with excerpts from a workshop on civil disobedience which he led.
I just don’t see how blacks made it. I was inducted into the Army on August 22 in 1942, and shipped from Fort Benning to Greenville to Fort Dix, New Jersey. After being away from the South for 12 months, I came back home on furlough and the bus stopped at Dawson, Georgia. I went into a music store in my uniform, fully dressed as a soldier, and a white lady walked up to me and said, “Boy, what do you want?” It choked me so bad, I could not answer the woman. I politely, without parting my lips, turned and walked out of the store.
Life was almost unbearable. The jobs that we had to do were the poorest jobs with the worst pay and the longest hours and no benefits, no unions, no protection. We were at the mercy of cruel bosses in the community. This was a rough and tough life to live in Albany, Georgia.
I’ve always kept a job. I worked at the Cutty-Heap Packing Company for 13 years and I stayed in the Army for four years and six months, and I had 13 years seniority in government service at the Marine base when they saw fit to fire me in 1963. In 1963, the beginning of the end of my career with the civil service started when I was in Jackson, Mississippi, to a NAACP convention. I got back about an hour and 30 minutes late. I drove into the city and went straight to the job without any sleep or anything — I went straight to the job to work. They nagged, and I did not see fit to lie about where I had been. I didn’t feel like I had to hide the fact that I had been to a meeting of the NAACP, but my supervisor nagged me and stayed on me day and night until he got me fired in 1963.
In 1962, we took part in a boycott and demonstration against a merchant in the city by the name of Smith. He had a grocery store in the black neighborhood, and he got his money and his livelihood from black people. We had asked him to make some jobs available to some black cashiers and to upgrade employment in his store, and we were picketing him because of that. During that particular period, a group of white commissioners beat a man half to death and threw him in the yard. They carried him to the hospital, and the hospital refused to wait on him, carried him back home and threw him in the yard. The man lived and was suing them for what had happened to him. And in this particular court case, this white merchant Smith was a juror. They twisted our efforts in boycotting and picketing the Smith grocery into being caused by his decision on the government jury. And there is a penalty for anyone who harms any federal juror because of his decision. The leaders of the bar of this city and state called Washington, DC, and FBI men about 30 or 40 strong came swarming down over town like a hive of bees the very next day.
We had been calling on Washington night and day. I personally had taken two trips to Washington with a delegation to ask Washington to do something about our right to express ourselves. Whether it was in picketing or protesting or any other legal way under the constitution, we had a right to protest peacefully. And the assistant attorney general in Washington, John Doar, gave us an audience one evening. He said that if it was a voting right he could do something about it because the voting rights program is spelled out in detail. But picketing and protesting were not spelled out very clear, and there was nothing he could do. Now this is Washington, DC, telling its black citizens under the Constitution of the United States that they can’t protect my rights. I asked John Doar what is meant by the “guaranteed rights of the citizens of the United States,” and he mumbled something without even answering my question.
Yet when the young blacks became impatient and began to throw rocks and bricks in the street, they found a way to charge me with insurrection. They found a way to arrest me because of the violence, which I had nothing to do with. As they rocked the city and as they bricked the city and as they burned the city, I went across town, stretched out on the lawn out in the yard and rested in peace. I didn’t feel like going out there trying to stop those young people who were throwing rocks or breaking the law since the government should have protected me in rightfully protesting the grievances I had. So I did not go out and try to stop it. And I won’t try to stop them the next time. All my energy is put in effecting prevention. If the white power structure hears us, they won’t have the riots, and there won’t have to be anybody out there to protest and to stop the people from burning-baby-burn.
Some people have trouble with ideas that are strange, that even give the white power structure a chance to criticize us. But I don’t have any regard for the criticism that comes from the man who puts me in the lake to drown and who is going to criticize me for reaching for a stick in an effort to save my life. He’s going to be the one throwing me in the lake. So I count as okay anything that I can do to bring to the attention of the people in power that I’m being mistreated. That is my philosophy. I don’t care if you pee in the street. The rule is that you shouldn’t pee in the street. But the first priority is that I’m hurting. Come see about me! If a little pee on the street will get him to look, I’ll pee. So this is my philosophy, this is civil disobedience. If you believe that the Bible is a dead weight on civil rights, you have misinterpreted the Bible. You have interpreted the Bible as the system interprets the Constitution of the United States. They can mess with that Constitution, yes sir! I was in New York when a black boy got shot to death because he stole a loaf of bread. He stole a loaf of bread and they shot him down like a dog. The system interprets the law in that fashion.
Some of my black ministers make me sick. They interpret the Bible and they preach it just like the system gives it to them: “It ain’t no sin in the world but getting in bed with a woman; that’s a sin. You drink a little liquor, that’s a sin. If you dance and hang around with the boys, that’s a sin. That’s the only sin.” But that’s misinterpreting the Bible. To cut out the food stamps is more immoral than getting in bed with a woman. So I don’t care nothing about no rule.
Now in Albany, I was one of those that lived from one pay period to another. I was working in civil service for the government. Thirteen years seniority . . . good nigger . . . plenty of sick leave. I never lay off the job. But I heard voices. And the first time Albany State went to jail, I went right there with them. I told my boss, I wanted to get off. Got off the job to go to jail. All I’m saying is that you got to be willing to pay the price. If you think you can figure out how you’re coming out, you’re in trouble. You’re always going to be a good nigger cause you got to be a good nigger for the system to hand you a few crumbs every now and then.
I have heard an automobile driving up on a child, and a woman picking up the automobile off the child. You can’t sit back in no conference room and figure out how no woman is going to pick up no automobile. You can plan, but you can’t figure out. The black leadership in this town met in a meeting when things were beginning to surface — Dr. Hamilton, A.C. Searls, C.W. King, Marion King, Dr. Anderson, Marion Page — they came together and started talking. If there was jail, they asked, what about bail. Who was going to pay the bond if there was marching. Here they are wondering. We didn’t have nothing, but finally we had to go. Because in civil disobedience, you have to be ready to pay the price. And the bond money did come! It came from the NAACP, private concerns, white America, Jewish America, all in sympathy with the Albany story as it was told. It struck a nerve and they went in their pocketbooks. But we didn’t figure it was going to happen. We didn’t sit back and say I’m going to start demonstrations because I got it figured out how I’m coming out. You have to be willing to pay the price.
White demonstrates the art of caning a wicker chair as part of a cultural heritage show held during the anniversary celebration. Annette Jones White Annette Jones White grew up in Albany and was a student at Albany State College when the Movement began. She now lives in East Point, Georgia, with her husband and two daughters, and works for Spelman College in a Title XX day care center and is in the graduate education program of Georgia State College. She is a member of the NAACP.
I was born in a particular time in the United States in Albany, Georgia, and that to me set the stage for my formative years, which were filled with incidents designed to humiliate me. That means, “Nigger, you stay in your place.” But even as a child, I didn’t seem to fit in the place that was set aside for me. It pinched and cramped, and every now and then I would break out and try to create my own space by doing things like tasting the water from the white water fountain in Kress’s department store.
Then one day the Ku Klux Klan had a meeting in Albany and they drove from the airport. I lived on their route. They were in black limousines, and on the hood of each car sat two Klansmen in full regalia. And they drove through our neighborhood honking and yelling threats. I’d never seen anything like it before. You couldn’t see their eyes, you couldn’t see their mouths, you just saw black holes. And I felt the tension that hung in my house, in my space. And I knew my father was worried, and that worried me because at that time I didn’t think that anything ever worried my father.
I would be hard put to name in particular one thing that brought about my active involvement in the Movement. It could have been the Klan incident; it could have been the time I was run away from the water fountain. Or it could have been when I was in the fifth grade, and all the school children were told to bring a nickel to help buy a buffalo for the zoo. So I brought the money and then the teachers took us to the zoo. There was a white class there also, and they looked at us and we looked at them because we didn’t see each other much. They walked in front and we walked behind. And we never passed them. I don’t know if it was designed that way or if it just happened. Their teacher bought peanuts and gave them to them. Our teacher bought peanuts and gave them to us. They fed their peanuts to the monkeys and we ate ours. They laughed at us. But who would give food to the monkeys? Peanuts were to be eaten by children.
Or perhaps it was in 1958, when having never heard of the sit-ins, I suggested to Yvonne Taylor and Calilla Bailey that we sit on the benches at the Arctic Bear with our hamburgers. And Camilla said, “Oh, you know we can’t do that.” I said, “No, I don’t.” But we knew that this was one of the invisible signs that nobody mentioned. They didn’t have a sign telling you to go to your relegated space and eat in your car. But this day we sat there and we ate and nothing happened until a black car circled the block several times. And then it drove up to the Arctic bear and the driver talked to the manager, and two minutes later he came out and told us he was sorry but we would have to leave.
Now when I was at Albany State College a lot of things happened to us. White youths would drive through the campus and throw eggs and bags of urine at us. One out-of-state student was hit in the leg by a car. She got the license number, but officials at Albany State refused to press charges, and nothing was done.
We also met with resistance when we tried to get simple things like locks for the dormitories or when we tried to straighten out a situation where if you bought your milk ticket but missed breakfast, at lunch or dinner you couldn’t get the milk you had paid for. We felt if you were a student in a college, you deserved protection and a decent meal. So, the things we were trying to get for students were things we should already have had.
So, now this is the kind of climate there was at Albany State College when Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon arrived. In the meantime, the NAACP Youth Council was active. We were also discussing the things that were going on in the rest of Georgia and around us. So that when they came in, they got with the leaders of the student government and the presidents of the sororities and fraternities. And they talked. And we were able to tell them our problems on campus as we discussed what was going on in the world around us.
We started out with small meetings. One in particular was at Bethel AME Church in the basement. Everyone there, Sherrod and Cordell, a small group of Albany State students and a few ministers, knew that there was one person who was there for another reason. That was proven true when each of the students who went to the meeting were called in and given a little talk by Dean Minor and Reverend Brown. I was told I had been seen on campus talking to these strange people, and that I was headed in the wrong direction, that I was endangering the lives of my fellow students, that some of them could get killed. I was told that, if I did not tell them what went on at the meeting, I would not be crowned Miss Albany State.
I did not tell them, but I was crowned, and a few weeks after my coronation the students from the NAACP Youth Council, Evelyn Tony, Eddie Wilson and Julian Carswell, were arrested trying to purchase tickets on the so-called white side [of the bus terminal]. And then they went to jail and were released. Later that day two other students from Albany State College, Bertha Gober and Blanton Hall, also went down to purchase tickets. They were arrested, but elected to remain in jail.
When the day for their trials rolled around, the students of Albany State College marched en masse to that trial. We went to the city hall, and we weren’t arrested. They sent fire engines out to frighten us, but we weren’t afraid of fire engines. So we sang and made our witness. All of us couldn’t get in the courthouse, so we went back across the river after Chief of Police Pritchett asked us to disperse, and we came to Union Baptist Church and discussed what future actions we should take. Then we marched back down to the campus and had a small demonstration in the library and in some of the classrooms trying to get the students involved who might not be.
In December, after the Albany Movement was formed as an official organization, some students came by train to Albany. Prior to that, Bertha and Blanton had been released from jail, and they went down to welcome the new group. Chief Pritchett arrested them all for trying to use the white waiting room and locked them up.
This time we couldn’t get the Albany State students to turn out for the trials. We felt bad about it; we felt like we were alone. They had been told not to talk with me, and they would see a school official and just walk away. We couldn’t congregate in groups of more than three on campus, but we marched again anyway. This time I was arrested with the rest of the group. I was told to go in the alley [Freedom Alley], and I went in the alley and looked around and I saw all these people. I said, my goodness, there is no way in the world they can get all these people in this jail, so I started to cut in line because I wanted to go. So I was booked early in the morning.
When I came in they cheered and said, “It’s Miss Albany State.” The officers heard that, so they called Albany State College and told them that they had Miss Albany State in jail. And I was put in a cell with 24 other people. The last one to come in had to be lifted up over heads, and she stood on the commode. That was the only space there was. The men were on the floor. They were really packed in. I heard a voice calling and I couldn’t see anyone. It was Cordell Reagon. He was on the floor underneath a bunk.
The oldest person was 72. She was in my cell and I gave her my coat because we had no mattress, just the steel bunks. There was no privacy. Directly in front of our commode was the officers’ shoe shine, and they kept shining shoes.
At 5:00 the next morning, 40 women were taken out of the jail and put on a city bus. And they didn’t tell us where we were going until we got on the bus and they said they were going to take us to this jail in Newton. And we knew nobody would know where we were so we saw a fellow on the street and we rolled down the window and told him to tell Attorney [C.B.] King we were going to Newton. So we went there, and they were waiting for us. There were all these men saying we were Freedom Riders. Of course we weren’t, but one thing about the cells in Newton, they were cleaner.
They gave us grits and grease for breakfast and blackeyed peas and cornbread and water. They put it in a box and kicked it in and said we could eat it if we wanted. But we didn’t eat it.
After I got out of jail, I had a hearing with the college. My adviser could not be present, nor could I have legal counsel. And it was tape recorded. I was told that I had done something very bad. It was not that I was working for civil rights that they objected to, it was the fact that I had been arrested. Two faculty members had also been arrested, and one of the football players, I believe, had been arrested for a crime. They were still there. But nothing I said mattered because I received a letter saying I had been suspended from school. Forty-nine students were suspended. More than that went to jail, but some were locked in the National Guard Armory, and they got out through the bathroom window, went home and got provisions and came back. And some gave middle names as last names so that they were not ever officially on the books. So those students were not hounded.
After I got out of jail I went to Dorchester [South Carolina] and studied how to conduct citizenship schools so I could come back and try to help people who couldn’t read and write to pass whatever test they had to register to vote. You can’t measure success in quantity, but one day I was walking down the street. I met an old lady — I didn’t remember her — but she started yelling. She said, “I’ve done it, I’ve done it. I done redished.” She was one of the ladies I had worked with and I felt very good about that.
I continued to work with the Movement at SNCC’s office trying to desegregate the library and the lunch counter at the bus station. At the SNCC office I typed newsletters and was on the program committee of the Albany newsletter. I tried to sing songs with Bernice and Rutha at the meetings, and I made speeches and worked on voter registration with SNCC and SCLC. Spelman College offered a scholarship to Bernice and me, and I went to Spelman. But every chance we got we came back to Albany to work with the Movement, and I worked between semesters. And when all the students came from the Northern cities to help us, I was cooking for some every morning and then going out to work on voter registration.
I think it was Alice Walker who said that she worked in the Civil Rights Movement and she never wanted it to be the only thing that she did. Well, neither do I. But if by some chance it is, then I don’t think I have anything to apologize for.