November 17 is a date that should live on in the memory of Albany for eons. It was that date, fifty years ago, that the Albany Movement was started. In 1961, the organization formed with help from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It mobilized thousands of citizens and received attention throughout the nation. However, it’s most notable contribution may be that it ultimately failed to accomplish its goals.
The Albany Movement began a broad based attack on the institutions throughout the city. Everything from bus stations, lunch counters and anything else was considered fair game.
On December 15, 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Albany, hoping to stay for a brief visit to offer advice to the movement. The next day, he found himself arrested when he and many other peaceful protestors were swept up in the mass arrests. He declined bail until the city of Albany agreed to concessions.
Unfortunately for the Movement, Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett was a student of the movement. While he too engaged in mass arrests, much like police chiefs in other southern cities embroiled in the civil rights movement, Pritchett made sure that arrests in Albany happened peacefully. This minimized the negative press that many other communities were experiencing with regard to civil unrest.
After a year of activism, the movement was saw few results and began to lose steam.
However, it would be easy to call the Albany Movement a failure because of, well, failure. It wasn’t. Instead, it was an early defeat that helped to shape later victory. It’s reported that after Albany, Dr. King opted to more tightly focus his efforts rather than attack segregation as a whole. While the more narrow focus wouldn’t pay off as handsomely as a victory against an entire city’s institution of segregation, those smaller victories would have a significant impact.
In his autobiography, Dr. King wrote “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 … 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.” (Quote courtesy of Wikipedia).
While Dr. King left Albany and considered it a failure, the Albany Movement itself kept moving along. Shortly afterwards, the Movement received it’s sought after victory when the City of Albany struck down all of its ordinances regarding segregation. In 1976, Charles Sherrod – one of the key members of the movement – was elected to the Albany City Commission.
In a 1961 issue of The Albany Journal, Albany Movement secretary M.S. Page was asked if he believed he would ever see Albany integrated. He said, “Maybe not in our lifetime, but I am confident that it will come to pass.”
Meanwhile, Sherrod came to sit on the City Commission just fifteen years later and the city’s segregation ordinance didn’t even last three more years. Albany elected its first black mayor in 2004. Few failures can hope to have such success as the Albany Movement.
Dr. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy being arrested at Albany City Hall on July 27, 1962.