Martin Luther King was a determined, inspiring man. He was right on the message anytime he was in public. I understood he had a great sense of humor in private, but he was deadly serious in public. I do not remember even seeing him smile.SPECIAL PHOTO: Martin Luther King Mr. led demonstrators through Albany on Dec. 16, 1961. King and many of the protesters were later arrested.
By Jim Pridemore
“Martin Luther King will not die in Albany, Ga.”, stated then-Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett in his and Mayor Asa Kelley’s first press conference at the beginning of what was to be the longest civil rights demonstration (his longest march) in Dr. King’s historic civil rights struggle.
It began with a local effort to desegregate the Albany main library, known as the Albany Movement, headed up by locals, Dr. Anderson and Dr. King, cousin to MLK. When Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) answered the call in December 1961, they brought along three other civil rights groups. It was the first time four major groups participated in a campaign together.
It soon became a contest of wills between Dr. Martin Luther King and Jimmy Gray, owner of the Albany Herald, and WALB-TV, Albany’s only TV station. I almost did not cover this story. I was acting news director for the local TV Station at that time, and the general manager informed me that Mr. Gray had issued an order that “King was to be ignored”.
I was now in a quandary. Here was the biggest story in Albany’s history, and I had to ignore it. I finally came up with a strategy and went to Ray Carow, general manager, and asked if he thought the station was probably worth $12 to 15 million, and he agreed it was.
Then I sprung my trap. “Well, Ray, I think you should advise Mr. Gray that he is risking the FCC license by not covering this story”. He insisted that I go tell Jimmy Gray, who listened, sat there glaring at me, then said, “Cover it”.
Jimmy Gray did exactly what he said he was going to do. For the most part, The Albany Herald ignored Dr. King. We had 300 out-of-town news people there covering this story, all the major news services, the TV networks, the largest papers, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune Washington Post, London Times, and, on most days, nothing appeared in The Herald.
On the biggest events, there might be a single column story, 6 to 8 inches deep, on page 12. He did eventually publish a front page editorial critical of the demonstration, most of which I did not agree with, which he made me read on the air.
The biggest bone of contention was that Albany had a large, well-equipped library the black citizens weren’t allowed to use, and the small library for blacks only was poorly equipped. Thus began months of demonstrations, rallies, and the most attention getting – the marches. Dr. King led these marches out of the black community close to downtown, to the front of City Hall, where they knelt and prayed, until told they were marching without a permit and would have to disperse, and then were arrested if they didn’t.
The most striking thing about this long series of civil rights marches and demonstrations, particularly compared to other campaigns, was its minimal acts of violence. The mayor and police chief said repeatedly that they would not allow any violence on either side, and there were only three incidents during the entire six months.
The first and most serious violent act occurred when Marion King, wife of Dr. Slater King, vice president of the Albany Movement, went to take food to those in the Camilla jail. She was beaten unconscious by jailers because she didn’t move fast enough when told to leave. She was pregnant, and holding a child.
The second occurred the next day, when 2,000 angry people marched, and were met by a large contingent of police, who tried to stop them. There was a barrage of bricks and rocks thrown at the police. There were two columns of police, and I was walking along in the center of the street while filming, and a brick whizzed just past my head and hit a policeman to my right. The police did not respond with violence.
Dr. King immediately shut down all operations for three days, while he talked in churches, schools, on street corners, in pool halls and bars, about non-violence. When he was satisfied his message had been heard, the marches resumed.
The third violent act happened with the Sheriff. The city had kept him isolated from the activities because of a perception that he was somewhat of a hot head, who would not keep his cool, in a City that had determined that they were going to keep their cool, no matter what. On this day, I was the only newsman downtown for some reason.Th
e 300 or so out-of-town news people there were all somewhere else, when local attorney C.B. King, who was defending a freedom rider in jail, got into an argument with the sheriff, who hit him over the head with his walking stick, requiring eight stitches. King was wearing a white shirt and, when he staggered out of the courthouse, his white shirt was drenched in blood, and I got the only film or still pictures of it. When I showed this film to our general manager, he confiscated it, and no one else ever saw it. Lots of network people somehow found I had shot it, offered me large sums for it, but I couldn’t help them.
I lost count of how many times Dr. King was arrested during the six months, but I remember one time, when I was in the jail after his arrest in July 1962, and Bobby Kennedy called to check on him. I was standing by the pay phone when it rang, and when they let Dr. King out of the cell to take the call, I stood my ground and was able to hear most of Kennedy’s end of the conversation.
He inquired a number of times if Dr. King was alright, had there been any violence towards him, did he need to send U.S. marshals to Albany, did he need help in being bailed out, etc.? Throughout the conversation, Dr. King assured the attorney general that he was alright, that he was being treated OK, that he didn’t need help.
The Albany Police Department was strained from the very beginning of these civil rights demonstrations, particularly because they were so determined to keep a lid on it, and keep undesirables out. They imported a large number of police from nearby towns, and highway patrolmen. With these extra forces they were able to man various entrances to the city and turn away undesirables. If a vehicle came through with a large number of white men in it, they stopped it, and turned them around. Obviously some of the policemen on this duty recognized some of these undesirables, because the KKK were turned away times.
After a number of times being turned away at the city limits, the KKK decided to hold a big rally outside of town. We all went. It looked to me that there were more news people there than participants. Herb Kaplow of NBC Television stood at the edge of the stage right in front of the mic the entire time. I assumed that Kaplow was Jewish, so I admired this stance.
None of the KKK members in their robes and tall caps wore a mask. They had these big burly guards in khakis tucked into combat boots, roaming around looking menacing. One stopped and demanded to know who I was and who I was with. He expressed satisfaction with my answers and moved on to my cameraman, Mike Merren, who had hesitated to go because he was Jewish. He demanded his name and Mike responded, Mike Merren. The guard responded, “That’s a good Irish name”, and moved on, much to our relief.
Martin Luther King was a determined, inspiring man. He was right on the message anytime he was in public. I understood he had a great sense of humor in private, but he was deadly serious in public. I do not remember even seeing him smile.
In his speeches, unlike many speakers, he did not use humor; his examples were stories of bravery and heroism, of devotion to the cause. This was serious business and he was serious about it. I was certainly inspired by him, and within two or three months, I knew all the words to “We Shall Overcome” and I was singing along at the rallies, even though it was quietly under my breath.After six months of demonstrations, and m
rches by Dr. King, and still more demonstrations by the Albany Movement, the City of Albany and Daugherty County relented and agreed to desegregate their public buildings, including the main library. In doing so, they made one last statement about the situation, took one last jab at the demonstrators … they removed all seating from the library.
Written by Jim Pridemore. Mr. Pridemore, 85, is a long-time broadcaster and a businessman in Wilmington, N.C., worked for WALB-TV in Albany from 1958 to 1964.