Albany, GA

Albany, GA is often cited as one of the few places along the Civil Rights trail where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy’s efforts were thwarted. Albany, GA is often cited as one of the few places along the Civil Rights trail where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy’s efforts were thwarted. That perception was formed by King’s inability to provoke authorities to physically react against the nonviolent acts of civil disobedience he helped organize. Police chief Laurie Pritcherd read King’s writings and studied his tactics to the point lawmen under his direction went out of their way to avoid using excessive physical abuse when arresting and jailing protestors. Rather than cram the Albany jail beyond capacity, Pritcherd arranged for the overflow arrestees to be bused to jails in nearby counties. King, it was reported at the time, was "defeated". He and Abernathy returned to Atlanta without the national publicity they sought.

But those who were involved in the protests in this small town in southwest Georgia and in surrounding counties where farming is the engine of local economy will tell you otherwise. No one killed perhaps. But social change did come to Albany.

In 1961, a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee organizer from Richmond, Virginia named Charles Sherrod utilized two churches in the African-American south side of town directly across the street from one another, Shiloh Baptist and Mt. Zion AME, to unite Albany’s African-America community and right historic wrongs cemented by segregation.

Their tool was organized protest marches from Shiloh to city hall. Hundreds of Albany citizens were arrested time and again. Going to jail was a badge of honor. Even the winos from the juke joints in the small area known as Harlem joined in the marches. It became a game of cat and mouse. Chief Pritchard at times seemed to enjoy hearing his name cited in protest songs, and would make requests for those jailed to sing them. Willie Mae Thomas, one of the solo singers who performed during the Voices of Civil Rights bus stop at the old Mount Zion church, which was rededicated as the Albany Civil Rights Museum eight years ago, said, "Pritcherd would release us so we could go home, take a bath, put on clean clothes, and march again until we were arrested."

Albany did eventually generate national and international press coverage when "outside agitator" joined local folks in the marches. One of those outsiders was John Perdew, came down from Harvard University to work for SNCC. Perdew said he realized it took the presence of people like him to get headlines for the Albany Movement. President John F. Kennedy wondered aloud why the city commissioners could not sit down and negotiate with the Albany Movement. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller sent money to bail out protestors. People filtered in from as far away as England, India, and Africa to effect change in the small Georgia town.

Perdew was severely beaten after marching in nearby Americus, where he was jailed for three months. He eventually made it back to Harvard where he graduated. But Albany never left him. He has returned time and again over the ensuing years, eventually making Albany his permanent home. In 2004, he married Patricia Perry, whom he first met marching all those years ago. He continues working for the Albany Movement as a grant writer, doing social work and advisor. His name is etched into one of the four marble columns in the center of Civil Rights Park a block from the churches that tell Albany’s story. Imprints of footsteps have been cemented into the sidewalk that mark the path of the marches, stopping several blocks away at an intersection downtown where the old city hall was located before being relocated.

The Albany Movement was no defeat. The town’s black mayor and mayor pro-tem were both marchers. So was Sam Hall, considered Albany’s most arrested protestor, now wheelchair bound, living next door to Mt. Zion and looked after by Willie Mae Thomas. In most other towns in the South, such people would be considered nice old folks. But behind their sweet smiles and pleasant manners are brave souls who put their lives on the line to make things right. Defeated? Hardly.

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