This Month in Black History: King, Abernathy tried in Albany

By Kalin Thomas Contributing Writer | 2/22/2013, noon
The year was 1962. President John F. Kennedy had just committed the nation to a war in Vietnam, folk music ...
Photo from the civil rights movement are part of an exhibit called “And the Struggle Continues: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Fight for Social Change,” which opens Feb. 21 at Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library and run through Dec. 1. (Courtesy photo).

The year was 1962. President John F. Kennedy had just committed the nation to a war in Vietnam, folk music was morphing into protest music, and the success of the Freedom Rides – bus rides of mostly black students protesting segregated public transportation – spawned a ban on racial segregation in interstate bus terminals.

As a result, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided it was an opportune time to test segregation policies in southern cities like Albany, Georgia.

SNCC – whose leaders included now U.S. Congressman John Lewis – led workshops on nonviolent tactics in anticipation of a showdown with local police, and sent nine students from Albany State College to conduct a sit-in at the bus terminal.

Although none of them was arrested, their actions inspired local black leaders to join with SNCC in founding the Albany Movement – a campaign to challenge all forms of segregation and discrimination in that city.

The coalition included members from SNCC, the NAACP and the Negro Voters League. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) temporarily joined the coalition, attracting national publicity.

And it was on Feb. 27, 1962 that King and his closest confidante, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, were tried in an Albany recorder’s court following their arrest the previous December while demonstrating on the steps of Albany City Hall.

Albany had experienced little protest activity prior to the Albany Movement, but black residents were dissatisfied at the city commission’s failure to address the community’s grievances.

Throughout the campaign, Albany protesters utilized various methods of nonviolence, including mass demonstrations, jail-ins, sit-ins, boycotts and litigation.

Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett responded to the demonstrations with mass arrests, and by Dec. 1961, more than 500 protestors were jailed.

King was called in by a SNCC official to help reinvigorate the movement, but some SNCC members worried that King’s style of leadership would cause local blacks to “feel that only a particular individual could save them and would not move on their own to fight racism and exploitation.”

Nevertheless, King arrived in Albany on Dec. 15 and spoke at a mass meeting at Shiloh Baptist Church. The next day, King, Abernathy and SNCC officials joined hundreds of black citizens behind bars on charges of parading without a permit and obstructing the sidewalk.

King’s involvement attracted national media attention and inspired more members of the black community to join the protests.

Soon after King’s arrest, city officials and Albany Movement leaders came to an agreement: if King left Albany, the city would comply with a federal ruling banning segregation and release jailed protestors on bail.

After King left Albany, however, the city failed to uphold the agreement, and protests and subsequent arrests continued into 1962. And on July 10 of that year, King and Abernathy were found guilty of having paraded without a permit in Dec. 1961. They were ordered to pay $178 or serve 45 days in jail. They chose the latter.

In a letter from an Albany jail, King said: “We chose to serve our time because we feel so deeply about the plight of more than 700 others who have yet to be tried… We have experienced the racist tactics of attempting to bankrupt the movement in the South through excessive bail and extended court fights.”

With King in jail, demonstrations and arrests increased. On July 12, Pritchett notified King and Abernathy that their bail had been paid by an unidentified black man, and they were released.

After his release, Abernathy joked: “I’ve been thrown out of lots of places in my day, but never before have I been thrown out of jail.”

Although the Albany Movement was successful in mobilizing massive protests, it secured few concrete gains and was reported by much of the national media as “one of the most stunning defeats” in King’s career.

Some believe reports of organizational conflict between SCLC and SNCC may have marred the campaign. However, King concluded that the experiences in Albany helped set the strategy for more successful campaigns in Birmingham and other southern cities.