MLK, the Albany Movement, and Me
I can often tell who knows their Civil Rights Movement history by how a person reacts when they learn that I'm from Albany, Georgia. Most people respond, "Albany? How far is that from Atlanta?" And I reply that Albany is actually closer to Tallahassee, Florida than Atlanta, at which point, they lose interest. (Really, why shouldn't they?) But people who know their history are at least mildly interested when they hear Albany, Georgia. The first time I met Cornel West, he was downright excited. "Ahhhh.... Albany! The city that tested Brother Martin!" So as we approach the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, while most reflections are trained squarely on Memphis, the sanitation workers' strike, the Lorraine Motel, and even the subsequent riots, it makes sense that I reflect on growing up in the city (town? hamlet?) that "tested Brother Martin."
The Albany Movement officially began in November 1961 when SNCC, the SCLC, and local activists organized efforts to challenge segregation in Albany and the surrounding towns. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Albany in December of that year. Yet, police chief Laurie Pritchett had studied their tactics (even reading Gandhi). He countered the activists' efforts by, among other things, demanding that his officers refrain from violence and planning in advance to disperse the activists in jails throughout the region (so as not to create opportunities for the media to capture any visually striking images of mass arrests and crowded jails). King was determined to refuse bail and remain in jail after his arrests. But Pritchett also wanted to avoid the image of King languishing in jail for days or weeks, and he arranged to have King's bail paid. King later remarked that it was the first time he'd ever been kicked out of jail. By the time King left Albany for good in the summer of 1962, he had come to regard the Albany Movement as a failure. King's lessons learned from the Albany Movement are dramatized in Ava DuVernay's 2014 film Selma. When King attempts to suss out the temperament of the sheriff by asking its African American leaders, "Is your sheriff Bull Connor or is he Laurie Pritchett?" he is pleased that Selma's sheriff is not a Laurie Pritchett.
What did it mean for me to grow up with that history? How was it to grow up in a city that was long regarded as the site of Martin Luther King's greatest Civil Rights Movement failure? I had very little appreciation. Mostly I complained: Do we have to watch Eyes on the Prize again? Why doesn't Mr. Sherrod get tired of telling those civil rights stories? How many times do we have to hear about the time Mrs. King was at a march and got kicked in her pregnant belly? My eyes would glaze over every time my parents would "drag" me to some program where Mrs. Harris or Mrs. Reagon were singing. I was even "over" Dr. King (black folks back home of a certain age always referred to Martin Luther King Jr. as "Dr. King"). I felt trapped in a time warp. Even an offhand remark about it being hot outside was often met with, "Thank goodness Dr. King didn't have to count on you to march!" It was a as though the Civil Rights Movement had never ended. Frankly it hadn't, and I was fortunate that there were committed elders still fighting the fight. I didn't realize in my youthful ignorance just how lucky I was.
It wasn't until I entered Howard University and studied African American history, philosophy, and politics that I began to understand the legacy that the elders in my community were trying to leave for me. It was in one of my courses at Howard that I was assigned Clayborne Carson's In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. When I opened the book there was an entire chapter on the Albany Movement, and when I turned to the chapter, there was the story of Mrs. King and her pregnant belly.* Here I was at the illustrious Howard University, being taught history from a professor when I'd grown up hearing that very history from the people who'd been there. I was proud to be connected to a place where people had laid their bodies (and fetuses) on the line for a freedom that they could only imagine for my generation and ashamed that I had to leave home to appreciate the lessons I'd taken for granted. I was curious when I returned home. I began to seek out and ask people about the Albany Movement and about "Dr. King." It turns out that the activists in Albany didn't see the Albany Movement as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "biggest failure." They were proud of the work they had done and of the doors they'd opened. So in addition to learning history, I learned the importance of not allowing others to define your story. It is also clear that the Albany Movement remained important to King--and not simply as a reminder of failure. In his last sermon, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered 50 years ago today, King preached, "[In 1962,] Negroes in Albany decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it's bent." This is the legacy that Dr. King left for me. This is the legacy that the elders in Albany, Georgia (many of whom have since joined the ancestors) left for me. I've returned to Howard as a faculty member, and I hope that I am leaving a similar legacy for my students.
*Carson renders the story a bit differently than I remember hearing it as a child (I readily admit that I didn't pay careful attention, so I'm likely mis-remembering). On page 61 of In Struggle, Carson writes that "Marion King, Slater King's pregnant wife, was knocked unconscious by a deputy sheriff when she visited demonstrators [at the jail in Camilla, a small town about 30 miles from Albany]." My childhood memory is that it was C.B. (Slater King's brother) King's wife, Carol King, who was kicked in the stomach while pregnant at a march. I'd swear on a stack of Bibles that I heard her tell the version I remember many times, as our families were members of the same church (Bethel A.M.E.). Of course, it's also possible that both incidents happened.