Conflicting Memories of the Albany Freedom Ride and Albany Movement
An excerpt from: Who, What, When, Where? — Success or Failure?
Joan C. Browning

An Address given to Mt. Zion Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum, Georgia Association of Historians, April 15, 2000

See Albany GA, Movement for background & more information.
See also Albany, Americus, & SW Georgia Freedom Movements 1961-1964 for web links.

Was the Albany Movement a failure?

I will try to be both brief and kind in my response to some historians on the question, was the Albany Movement a failure? Historians including those I mentioned earlier —; Eskew, Payne, Dittmer, Curry —; are already, community by community, showing that the freedom movement, looking through the eyes of the "mass" of the mass movement, was a different creature than the one seen through the lens of heroes and villains. All the King's historians report that the Albany Movement was a failure. Most of the sports writers and war correspondents made daily tallies of campaigns and body counts, and most reported a failure. The claim is made that the Albany Movement was about tearing down Jim Crow segregation on city and interstate busses, public libraries, other public facilities, and employment. Since Jim Crow still ruled supreme, as symbolized by the city's raising the Confederate battle flag on the city flag post when Dr. King left town in August 1962, then the movement must be a failure. Even Dr. King said so.

I disagree even with Dr. King. I believe the Albany Movement was the best thing that ever happened to Dr. King and SCLC. Look at where SCLC was in December 1961: it had been organized for five years to replicate the Montgomery bus boycott, and had yet to find another Montgomery. The student sit-in movement was begun completely outside SCLC. The students had decided to form their own temporary coordinating committee rather than become SCLC's youth wing. SNCC and CORE had the lion's share of work, and notoriety, for two years, first with sit-ins and then with the Freedom Rides. Now, SNCC was moving into rural communities such as Albany to conduct voter registration, SCLC's only program, and that adopted complete from Highlander Center. With the national media attention Dr. King received in Albany, SCLC recovered ilan, contributions (though not as many as we in SNCC thought) and mission.

So I think the Albany Movement was a success for Dr. King and SCLC. What about local people?

Before one can address the success/failure dialectic, one needs to know what the movement's goals were. If historians moved away from exclusive use of reports of, by, and about, charismatic male leaders, what would the evidence show? In a mass movement, of course many people described their goals differently. Here is one way [Charles] Sherrod articulated the movement's goals in Albany.

The threads of freedom form the basic pattern in man's struggle to know himself and to live in the assurance that other men will recognize this self. The ache of every man to touch his potential is the throb that beats out the truth of the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. America was founded because men were seeking room to become.

We again are seeking that room. We want room to recognize our potential. ...

The movement is a protest and it is an affirmation. We protest and take direct action against conditions of discrimination. We affirm equality and brotherhood of all men, the tents of American democracy as set forth in the Constitution, and the traditions of social justice which permeate our Judaic- Christian heritage — thus, we came to Albany, the Egypt of Southwest Georgia.[1]

Don Harris, SNCC field secretary in Southwest Georgia, in a 1967 interview by Emily Stoper, was asked to evaluate the Albany movement. Listen to this exchange:

ES: What were the achievements of the Albany movement?

DH: The achievements or goals?

ES: Well, the achievements.

DH: When? Now?

ES: Over all. Over the whole time it's been in existence. It didn't desegregate the buses. What did it do?

DH: I think the goals and therefore the achievements have changed over the four or five-year period. I think initially the goals were to desegregate the city buses, to desegregate public facilities and accommodations, to desegregate public schools, and voter registration. Although, the gamut was probably as wide as you can go, the immediate goal in late '61, beginning of '62, was to desegregate the buses. At this point I think the goals have changed to the extent that they are just to build up a strong community-wide organization that can meet, discuss, decide and ultimately act on problems and situations that are of interest and concern to the black community. This would run from block voting for a particular candidate and running their own candidates to establishing a black-owned bank, to acquiring real estate, to build up the economic strength of the community.

ES: How would you evaluate the success in achieving both of these types of goals that you mentioned?

DH: Well, it's difficult to evaluate a community kind of organization because you can say if it didn't meet each and every one of its aforestated goals that it in some measure failed. I don't think this is necessarily true.

ES: And if it met some you could say it succeeded?

DH: Yes, right. I think it has met some. It has failed in a great number, but the effort generally did a tremendous amount for the city of Albany, especially for the black citizens. I think the attitude of people, probably not the entire black community (and certainly not the entire white community) but their attitude toward whites has changed significantly.

ES: In what way?

DH: The black community can and does, as a community and as individuals, respect themselves more. They are less frightened individually and community- wise of intimidation and retaliation from the white community. The white community at the same time is more respectful of the black community in terms of anything they do. ...

DH: I think the power, latent or in fact, that was created by the formation and relative stable organization of the Albany movement contributed to a significant extent of change in Albany.[2]

James Monsonis, National Secretary of the Students for a Democratic Society, prepared a report for the Liberal Study Group of the National Student Association Congress, August 1962. Here are excerpts from that report on the goals and evaluation of the Albany movement:

Much has been said on civil rights in the South. Article after article, book after book is written. The words come in chorus: economic deprivations; police brutality' total segregation' wretched school systems and tokenism; lack of the vote; slums and disease. Recently, a counterpoint has emerged: sit-ins and freedom rides; nonviolent direct action; voter registration; the student movement; SNCC and SCLC and CORE and the Albany Movement and the Nashville Movement and the Jackson Nonviolent Movement and the host of other local and national organizations. The rhythm is the same, thought he lyrics differ from story to story. It all adds up to one simple fact: Negroes have been slaves, and now are struggling to be free. ...

Charles Sherrod ... slowly gained the confidence of the people by living with them, working in the community, and giving voice to the aspirations of the people. His work there, along with Charles Jones and Cordell Reagon, was a model of the way an "outside" group works with a community anywhere in the South. Never in a hurry, the task was to lift fear that engulfed the Albany Negroes, continue the momentum of the previous spring, and teach the people what their rights and potentialities might be. The leadership was one of encouragement from the middle, rather than a take charge one. When developing a mass movement, a leader can lead only if the people follow.

... Was it a defeat? The answer can only be an ambiguous yes and no. In terms of concrete results, this, the largest civil rights protest featuring the most important "names" in the civil rights movement accomplished no more than a short-lived demonstration undertaken by a group of teenagers or college students. The terminals were desegregated, yes — officially. But then, this was now Federal orders. In a larger sense, though the movement was a success. For never again with the city of Albany be "peaceful" as long as discrimination exists. There is a new spirit in the Negro community. The words of the leaders have taken root. There is the fervent belief in the heart of the members of the Negro community that "we shall overcome —; someday."[3]

Did the black community of find Sherrod's room to become? Did the Albany Movement overcome —; someday?

Remember that before 1960, Albany was completely racially segregated. Then consider these changes, just a handful picked from Everybody's Grandmother and Nobody's Fool:[4]

Is Albany, Georgia, a better place for black citizens, and whites who resist racial barriers, than it was in 1960? At what time did a change occur? Should historians credit the Albany Movement for the change?

When The Albany Freedom Riders were invited back here two years ago and given the key to the city and an official apology for our 1961 arrests, I was struck by a symbol on the city police cars. The SNCC symbol, a black hand clasping a white hand, joins with others as an official symbol of the city. I believe that the thousands of people who were the Albany Movement succeeded.


1. Charles Sherrod. Untitled report, page 1. From Ella Baker papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library. Copy in author's possession courtesy of Joanne Grant.

2. Stoper, pp. 148-153.

3. James Monsonis. "The Albany Movement: an example of the civil rights movement." Prepared for Students for a Democratic Society for The Liberal Study Group, NSA Congress, August 19-30, 1962. Pp. 3-4. Photocopy in author's possession.

4. Kathryn L. Nasstrom. Everybody's Grandmother and Nobody's Fool: Frances Freeborn Pauley and the Struggle for Social Justice. Cornell University Press, 2000.

Copyright © Joan Browning


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