Recalling the history of the Albany Movement

Before Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior dreamed of the March on Washington, before he faced down Billy clubs in Birmingham, before he marched on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, he came to Albany to help lead a group of locals and college students and visiting activists in the Albany Movement.

A movement that began 50-years ago tonight. On November 17, 1961. A group of local black leaders met in the home of an Albany dentist and officially formed the Albany Movement. There were many important leaders of the movement. But no one is more responsible for getting it started than Rev. Charles Sherrod.

During a stroll through the civil rights park that bears his name, Rev. Charles Sherrod is recognized by a couple of men who left Albany years ago but who recognize his legacy.

"Cause I used to do Dr. King's clothes." Stories come easily among men with shared struggles.  "I wouldn't be a snake and be caught up there at that time."

South Georgia was not an easy place for a black man in 1961, especially an outsider. "Many times I would walk down this street here, and people would see me coming and would walk on the other side of the street. Talking about black people now."

Charles Sherrod arrived in Albany from Virginia that October. "This was the heartbeat of southwest Georgia."

A 22-year-old field representative for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee charged mainly with helping black folks register to vote.  "Had to convince the older people we were harmless."

Within weeks, he led the first Freedom Ride into Albany to challenge the federally outlawed segregation of the Trailways bus station.  "We had to fight against segregation everywhere in town, and it was everywhere." That ride spurred the organization of the Albany movement and soon after, the arrests of Albany State College students for sitting in the white waiting room at the station.

"The movement was a response to segregation to racism to inequality to hurt." Mass meetings began springing up in churches. Nat-march And marchers poured into the streets.

Pritchett--"I'm asking you to disperse in the name of decency. All right, put them in jail."

Soon, hundreds of people were in jail for peacefully demonstrating.  "The fear of jail was real. They'd heard of people being shot in jail, taken out of the jail and hanged, lynched. But they were willing to go to jail."

And Albany Movement leaders called on the leading voice in the national civil rights movement for help. "We must be willing to fill up the jails all over the state of Georgia," said King.

"The King strategy was basically to overwhelm the system like Ghandi did in India. To fill up the jail cells to a point where they couldn't arrest any more people because the jails were full."

But Mayor Asa Kelly and city commissioners refused to negotiate with movement leaders. "We pride ourselves in Albany as peace loving people."

And Police Chief Laurie Pritchett worked out deals with every nearby jail to handle his overflow of inmates. "So they ran out of willing marchers before they ran out of jail space."

Dr. King focused national attention on the Albany movement. "In a sense, I'm living in Albany now."

He left Albany in the summer of 62 largely unsuccessful in integrating the city. but he carried the lessons he learned here with him.

"So in their next campaign in B'ham, they ended up targeting different stores and institutions and moving against those one at a time, having a series of small victories that ultimately led to a much larger victory."

The year after King left Albany. the city removed all segregation laws from the books and African Americans continued to register to vote in large numbers. nat-Charles But the man who as much as anybody got the movement moving says it's greatest success was instilling pride in a people.

"As many people as I know who now believe in themselves, who look at their children and see genius. They are no longer afraid to speak face to face with a white man or a white woman and look them dead in the eye like I'm looking at you as a human being."

Human beings with equal rights because of the strength and sacrifice of those brave members of the Albany Movement.

Rev. Sherrod is proud of how far we've come in Albany. But he calls one thing his Waterloo. He says black and white people still don't care enough about each other or work enough together to solve Albany's problems.

Copyright 2011 WALB.  All rights reserved.