Former police chief’s billy club represents struggles of Albany civil rights movement

Former police chief’s billy club represents struggles of Albany civil rights movement

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - There are differing opinions for whether the Albany Movement was a success.

Some say yes, because the protesters straightened out their strategies in Albany, for future use.

Others say no, because of the police chief at the time, Laurie Pritchett.

Today, an item that once belonged to Pritchett, his billy club, now lies inside a wooden coffin of sorts, at the Albany Civil Rights Institute, after more than 50 years of being gone from Albany.

"Not only is it an artifact, it's a painful reminder of what folks endured, just to try to have equality here in Albany, Georgia," explained Frank Wilson, Executive Director of the ACRI. "The billy club was a weapon that was used to keep people from moving forward."

But, Wilson said this one represents more, and there's a story behind it.

It involved a young protester being released from jail in Albany in the early 1960s.

"The billy club was laying on the police chief's desk," said Wilson. "While the chief's back was turned, the young protester took the billy club and stuck it down his pants."

Pritchett, and Army veteran with years of law enforcement service under his belt, was a man with whom some say Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., met his match.

Laurie Pritchett, Albany Chief of Police during the Albany Movement (1961-1962). (Source: WALB/File)
Laurie Pritchett, Albany Chief of Police during the Albany Movement (1961-1962). (Source: WALB/File)

According to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, Pritchett’s aim during the Albany Movement was to respond to non-violent protesters with non-violent law enforcement.

WALB file footage shows Pritchett was vocal in this goal.

"There was no violence on our part whatsoever," Pritchett explained to the media on July 24, 1962, following a march with around 2,000 protesters. "(The officers and troopers) were calm, collect and did the job. That's what we wanted."

When Dr. King and other big names in the Civil Rights Movement made their way to Albany, Pritchett made no exception.

He maintained that his men would act without violence.

Instead, he said they enforced city codes and laws, by arresting those who didn't comply.

"Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. Abernathy, Dr. Anniston and six or seven other negro citizens have been arrested by the Albany Police Department," Pritchett said on July 27, 1962, "for disorderly conduct by creating a general distrubance in the uptown area, congregating on the sidewalk and failing to obey an officer's command."

In place of violence, Pritchett had a record of mass arrests.

"We must be willing to fill up the jails all over the state of Georgia," Dr. King said to an audience in July 1962.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in Albany
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in Albany

But, Pritchett housed most of those protesters he arrested, not in Albany, but elsewhere: surrounding county jails like those in Terrell and Baker Counties.

"He bought jailspace throughout Southwest Georgia where violence did take place," Wilson asserted.

In an interview for the book "Eyes on the Prize" in 1985, Pritchett denied that violence happened in those other jails.

Much of WALB's file footage depicts a calm police force, amidst calm protests.

"There will be allowed two here in this block and the others will move out," Pritchett explained to a crowd of protesters on July 28, 1962.

However, more than two picketers stayed.

"This group of pickets have just been arrested for not dispersing as they were ordered to do so by Chief Laurie Pritchett," explained a reporter that day.

Pritchett and King went on to build a working relationship, though they never quite saw eye to eye on how to handle the civil rights movement.

King took to the streets, while Pritchett believed the movement belonged in the court system.

Their relationship, according to the King Institute, left an "indelible imprint on King."

Many believe because of Pritchett, the movement was unsuccessful. The city of Albany did not integrate public areas immediately following the movement, though protesters said it was promised in return for their cooperation.

Many others believe it was a success, arguing that King and other protesters perfected their approach to their fight for civil rights, leading them to future success in other southern cities.

"When Dr. King came to town, the movement moved from a regional and local affair, to a much more national and international story," Wilson explained.

Following being taken from his desk, Pritchett's billy club made its way to California, where it was in the possession of an attorney who formerly worked in Albany with attorney C.B. King.

About two years ago, however, it was offered to Wilson for display in the ACRI.

Frank Wilson, Executive Director, Albany Civil Rights Institute (Source: WALB)
Frank Wilson, Executive Director, Albany Civil Rights Institute (Source: WALB)

Now, some 50-plus years after a young protester took it, the artifact, a symbol of the violence and non-violence surrounding the Albany Movement, has a final resting place.

"I had a coffin developed for it, because we're burying this sucker forever," said Wilson.

Almost 14 years after Dr. King's second arrest in Albany, Pritchett wrote that he considered him a "close personal friend."

Pritchett died in 2000 at age 73.

You can visit the billy club and many other exhibits at the Albany Civil Rights Institute on West Whitney Avenue in Albany.

It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission is $6 for adults, between $2 and $5 dollars for students, and $5 for those ages 62 and over.

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