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The Bloody Battleground of Albany
by Slater King
(Acting President, Albany Movement)

Originally published Freedomways, 1st Quarter, 1964

Around 1903, Dr. W.E.B Du Bois came to Albany, Dougherty County, Georgia, the heart of the black belt, to do a study on the lives of the Blacks who inhabited the fertile black land. He viewed this study symbolically as applying to Blacks across the whole of America. He further stated, "In these chapters I have studied the struggles of the massed millions of the Black Peasantry."

Since this time, very little has been heard of Albany except that it was the home of a few Negro notables, such as Congressman William Dawson, Ray Charles and Dr. Jeanne Noble. Repeatedly, for seven or eight years, it was also heard of as being one of the ten fastest growing cities in the United States.

Most people were amazed to read in December, 1961 of 700 Albany residents going to jail in protest demonstrations. What made people look at the Albany situation a little closer was that past civil rights demonstrations, such as the sit-ins and freedom rides, had involved mainly college youth, but here the total community was involved, both young and old. Let us look at Albany and see what factors led to the demonstrations. Its population is now approximately 60,000, approximately 40 per cent Negro, or about 24,000. Albany lies in the center of a vast sea of blackness; excluding the northern metropolitan areas, it is estimated that only in Mississippi is there a heavier concentration of Negroes than is found within a 50-mile radius of Albany. This was a vast slave breeding area in the heart of the cotton kingdom. Whenever whites were heavily outnumbered, the severity of the repressive measures used against Negroes increased inversely.

Albany sits in the heart of an area that has a long history of lynchings and horrible police brutality. There is Leesburg, Lee County; Newton, Baker County; Dawson, Terrell County; and Camilla, Mitchell County.

There is no record of any Negro ever having been "officially" lynched in Dougherty County. It has been thought of as a "relatively" good town for Negroes, in comparison to the surrounding towns. Dr. Du Bois stated the following in The Souls of Black Folk, in 1903:

The Black Belt was not, as many assumed, a movement towards fields of labor under more genial climatic conditions; it was primarily a huddling for self-protection, a massing of the black population for mutual defense in order, to secure the peace and tranquility necessary to economic advance: In Daugherty County, Georgia, one can see easily the results of this experiment in huddling for protection. Only 10 per cent of the adult population was born in the county, yet the blacks outnumber the whites four or five to one. There is undoubtedly a security to the blacks in their very number, of personal freedom from arbitrary treatment which make hundreds of laborers cling to Dougherty in spite of low wages and economic distress.

So Albany has been a little more lenient than the surrounding areas and the following factors may have contributed to it.

There has always been a strong Jewish influence, both economic and political.

Early in the history of Albany there was founded an American Missionary Association School which helped to lift the educational and cultural horizon in the community. There has been relatively a little more wealth in Albany among Negroes than you would find in comparative southern towns; i.e., ten Negro families whose wealth exceeds a quarter of a million dollars each. Another instance: one downtown bank which has six million dollars in Negro deposits out of a total deposit of 22 million dollars; a larger number of Negro businesses than would be found in a comparative southern town of similar size.

Approximately one per cent of the Negro population live exceedingly well; ten per cent who exist on a median income-such as teachers, civil service employees at the post office, local marine base and Turner Air Force Base; while the other 89 per cent of the masses live on a bare subsistence level. The persons in the above average and median income groups usually act as a buffer zone to keep the discontent of the masses quiescent.

Other factors were that there had been a strong Negro voters league in Albany after suffrage was granted to Negroes in Georgia. The league was later split by a leadership conflict in Albany. In the meantime, a staunch segregationist who was a native New Englander and a graduate of Dartmouth College purchased the only daily newspaper, a radio station, and put up the only television station in Albany, which gave him a complete monopoly of the news media. Another factor was the conservative leadership that went underground after the 1954 decision. Many of the officers of the local NAACP were even afraid to accept membership after 1954.

The Birth of the Albany Movement

The City Commission had a policy of denying all Negro requests. There was also the continuation of white men constantly invading the privacy of Albany State College, while the President of the College would not allow any action to be taken by the more militant faculty members and students against the guilty parties; the continued affronts and approaches made to Negro women attending Albany State College by whites bred discontent. There were windows broken out of ministers' homes because they dared request the only local daily, the Albany Herald to discontinue its abusive treatment of Negroes in the news. The catalytic agents who helped to channel this discontent were two student field directors from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Atlanta Office; these were Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon. They held mass meetings with the youth and finally some of this feeling of great discontent under the repressive system channeled over into the older people. The Albany Movement was founded because of the rivalry between some of the existing civil rights organizations, and it was a feeling that if all of the activities were put under the aegis of one head then the program could be carried on much more effectively. Therefore, on November 17,1961, The Albany Movement was founded. Dr. W.G. Anderson was elected president, M.S. Paige, secretary, and I, Slater King, vice president.

The aim of the organization is to totally desegregate all city facilities and secure equal educational and economic opportunities for every citizen. In an attempt to effect the aims of the organization, the Albany Movement has petitioned, attempted to negotiate and protested.

These protest demonstrations involved the whole of the Negro community and in the summer of 1962, they began anew, and approximately 2,000 people had been jailed.

After the dust had settled, many people began evaluating the situation. The whites said that nothing had been gained and that the Negroes were now further behind than they had ever been. I think that the immediate reaction of most Negroes, right after the demonstrations, was the feeling of being let down. For most expected out of the great emotionalism and drama that was a part of the first stage of the demonstrations-that these few days of jailing would act as penance to force the whites to accord to Negroes the privileges that they had withheld so long. There are very few visible gains; the municipal buses agreed to desegregate after the Negroes refused to ride, but the city stubbornly refused to give any written assurances to the Albany Movement that it would not harass and intimidate Negro passengers, so the bus line withdrew and Albany now has no municipal transit system.

The library has been integrated. The city has struck down all of its statutes involving segregation (this was done to give the individual businesses a stronger legal basis for the maintenance of segregation). The public schools have been ordered to desegregate, by a court order, in September of 1964. Negroes gained the right to use the interstate bus station waiting rooms and restaurants without being harassed and intimidated by the local police.

These tangible gains (if they can be called gains) are negligible and hardly worth mentioning. The main gains that I see are those that have internally shaken the Negro community.

There is more of a sense of community and identity in the Negro community than ever before. Crime among Negroes has dropped considerably.

There has been a tremendous number of self-help organizations arising in the Negro community-such as, the teachers volunteering to teach night classes to the old and to those who were not able to receive education in the past; the Albany Movement has acted as the organization to see that to those Negroes who are without, charity is extended in the form of clothes and food. It has also attempted to see that for those Negroes who have good minds and have been unable, because of economic reasons, to secure an education, some way be found to help them scholastically to further their education. This has been done in attempting to propagate many of the policies of Dr. Du Bois, who felt that the Negro could never advance as long as he allowed his best minds to wither and atrophy.

Another gain is the breaking down of the snobbishness with which professional Negroes formerly looked at the Negro masses. Out of the downtown boycott, the existing Negro businesses have been strengthened and new ones have been added.

The Movement Educates the Masses

For two years the Movement has been the place where the Negroes have come for inspiration, to learn Negro history, and to further the strong feeling of identity, to know that they are not alone, to learn how politics work, and how they have been taken advantage of. They have heard speakers with opinions ranging from Dr. Lonnie X. Cross, representative of the Black Muslims to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., representing the integrationist. This has been a tremendous educative process for the masses.

In the liability ledger, I would state the following items:

In the Albany area, there are so many areas where Negroes need help and yet there are so few trained people to work. I feel that we have not brought a wide enough spectrum of speakers before the people in our meetings; I feel that the socialist should have been represented by speakers such as Norman Thomas, the Communist by speakers such as Benjamin Davis, the Black Muslims by such speakers as Malcolm X and others.

I feel that the masses should be educated by being exposed to all of the political ideologies and let them decide what assets they wish to accept or reject in making a new and more workable system.

We have aroused emotions of the people and whetted their desire for freedom but we have not done the thorough organizational work which I think is essential to the success of any movement. You have to have emotion, but you also have to have discipline, well-thought-out plans that our best minds must help draft, and army-like discipline. Most civil rights movements, including ours, have lacked these.

In my opinion, we have attacked segregation too broadly. We have really attacked too many areas to do an effective job on anyone of them. We must now put all of our energies behind one project at one time, and then move on to another; e.g., in Savannah, Birmingham, and Albany, all three cities have had tremendous demonstrations. Savannah has desegregated its hotels, motels, and movie theaters. Birmingham and Albany desegregated little or none. The difference is that in Savannah, before beginning demonstrations, Mr. Hosea Williams, the chairman of the Chatham County Crusade for Voters, had thoroughly organized the Negroes in his total Congressional District and had a large disciplined political machine that moved instantaneously and with unity. Because of this concentration on the political area in Savannah, the Negroes had been the balance of power which had elected the sheriff and mayor.

This is no attempt to state a panacea, but to really be effective in our Movements across the country, we must unite these three ingredients: Protest, Political Mobilization, and Economic Unity.

I recently ran for mayor of the city of Albany. The masses of the Negroes were very enthusiastic towards the candidacy of a Negro for mayor. It was only among some of the older and professional Negroes that it was felt that we were moving too rapidly, that a Negro should not run for the highest office in the city. However, the candidacy accomplished the following: "

It consolidated the Negro vote" and formed one bloc unit where Negroes voted 90 per cent together on all of the candidates.

It brought an end to a few Negro ministers and businessmen being able to sell out the Negro vote for money.

The racists have a monopoly of the news, but through paid television appearances, we were able to tell the other half of the story. I stated the Negro demands unequivocally) which opened many eyes and gained some white supporters.

We created a new image for Negro boys and girls, a quickening interest in the political, and a desire to take part in the political sphere.

My candidacy further served as a vehicle to teach Negroes how politics work. Heretofore, the candidates have come into the Negro community to pay the Negroes to vote for them. Negroes must learn that they must support financially the candidate most interested in their welfare. All expenses for my campaign were paid for out of the Albany Negro community.

One of the items that we spoke against in the campaign was the lack of a Negro truant officer in Albany. Now, a trained truant officer, a college graduate, has been hired.

The massed and unified black voting power frightens many of the white politicians and will make them grant concessions according to the number and unanimity of that vote.

It has greatly increased voter registration among Negroes, and many are continuing to register.

The Federal Government Indicts the Victims

At the beginning of the Movement, we felt that we were not alone and that the power of the federal government was with us in our efforts. Though this feeling was rapidly washed away, as many Negroes began to feel that the FBI was as prejudiced as the local police, we still were shocked by the series of events that took place.

On April 8th, there was a trial in Albany, Georgia, of Ware vs Johnson, involving a Negro, Charlie Ware, who charged that Baker County sheriff L. Warren Johnson shot and beat him.

On April l2th, a federal jury decided in favor of the sheriff. Carl Smith, a white grocer, whose store received 99 per cent Negro patronage, was a juror.

It is alleged by the Justice Department that at the Monday night meeting on April l5th, Dr. W.G. Anderson, President of the Albany Movement, mentioned Carl Smith in the course of his remarks. Saturday, April 20th, some high school students set up a picket line at the smith store. They demanded that Smith upgrade Negro employees to responsible positions, such as cashiers. All Negro employees at the store held menial jobs. Similar campaigns had been started against employers throughout Albany during the previous eighteen months.

No picket sign made reference to Smith's service on the jury. The line lasted about an hour, during which time, several pickets were arrested, effectively breaking the picket line. The line was never renewed. Monday, April 22nd, Smith began to move out of the store, contending that he had been driven out of business by the boycott. It is alleged that his attorney, B.C. Gardner, member of the legal firm of Smith, Gardner, Kelley, and Wiggins (Asa Kelley is Albany's mayor), requested immediate investigation. The Justice Department conducted the most vigorous prosecution yet seen in the history of the civil rights movement.

On August 9th, nine Albany leaders were indicted. Anderson, Luther Woodall, and Robert Colbert were charged with conspiracy to injure a juror because of his assent to a verdict in clearing the sheriff in a federal case.

Mrs. Goldie Jackson, Rev. Samuel Wells, Thomas Chatmon, and Robert Thomas and I were charged with perjury before the grand jury. The charges state that they either denied having been at a lawyer's meeting during the week of July 29th or denied remembering having been there.

Joni Rabinowitl, a white field worker with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, working in the- area of voter registration in Albany was charged with perjury because she said that she was not at the scene of the picketing.

I am now acting president of the Albany Movement. Mrs. Jackson is recording secretary and full time employee of the Movement. Rev. Wells is one of the most active voter registration workers and led a protest march last July. Chatmon works in the area of voter registration and was a recent candidate for city commissioner of the city of Albany. The youth, Robert Colbert, pleaded guilty in New York and was sentenced to 18 months on a suspended sentence. Dr. Anderson and Luther Woodall were tried in Albany. There was a mistrial, and it is alleged that three jurors on the all-white jury voted for acquittal" The Justice Department has announced that they will try the Anderson and Woodall cases again in Albany in April.

In the other charges, all defendants were held guilty of perjury except Mrs. Ella (Goldie) Jackson, whose trial will come up the :second Monday in January. The five of us who had been found guilty are Rev. Samuel B. Wells, Joni Rabinowitz, Robert Thomas, Thomas Chatmon and myself.

As I write this, John L.S. Barnum, treasurer of the Sumter County Movement in neighboring Americus, Georgia, has also been charged on two counts of perjury by the grand jury there.

Disillusionment With the Federal Role

As one observes this, one wonders if these perjury cases are precedents that may be used to stifle civil rights leaders throughout the south.

This is very hard for us to understand, since the government has never taken any affirmative action resulting in relief in Albany where there have been clear violations of Negroes' civil rights. Examples of such cases are: Walter Harris was shot down in cold blood on the streets of Albany by the police, Attorney C.B. King was caned over the head by Dougherty County Sheriff D.C. Campbell, and required many stitches; William (Bill) Hansen's jaw was broken and several ribs cracked; my wife, Marion, of Albany, was beaten and kicked by police, causing the death of our unborn child; over 100 cases of police brutality have been reported to the Justice Department. Out of all these cases reported, there have been no indictments.

From my observations the majority of the black people of Albany are disillusioned, frightened, and bitter. The faith that they had in the mighty white federal government has dwindled. They now seem to feel that they are on their own.

It is reported that the sales of guns and rifles among whites and blacks is at an all-time high.

There are two growing forces. There is a white opposition that says, "never" and the ever-growing number of Negroes who say "NOW!"

When two determined forces meet, there can only be a great conflagration. If the government continues its policy of evasiveness and its constant attempts to appease the segregationists who are in high places all over the country, these two forces will meet in what I am afraid will be a bloody battleground. I surely do not want to see this, because I feel that it may spell more loss for the Negroes than for the whites, but unless the government takes decisive action, all of America can be hurt.

When Du Bois wrote The Soul of Black Folk, in reference to this area and Dougherty County, Georgia, he stated that it had implications for millions of black people. We, too, in Albany, sixty years later, feel that what has taken place here in the past, and what takes place in the future will have heavy implications for twenty million blacks in America.

Copyright © Slater King, 1964.


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