Sunday, May 04, 2008

More about the turmoil

This post follows up on a previous post about Albany, GA, the turmoil of race relations in the 60s and the struggle toward civil rights.

In the racially segregated caste system of the south, blacks felt isolated from the mainstream. A separate African American culture complete with its own schools, churches, and fraternal organizations co-existed with white society. Three young civil rights workers who were members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)came to Southwest Georgia to conduct a voter registration drive, raise the consciousness of its black community and encourage them to challenge the established policies of segregation. They met with resistance from not only the white community, but also from conservative blacks. At times division in the black community lessened and organizations worked together under the banner of the "Albany Movement." Some of the mass meetings that were called took place at Mt. Zion Baptist in the room we are touring. As I look around I imagine the faces and voices that were raised in unity in speech and music. In an effort to gain national publicity for the protests, Dr. King was asked to come and speak. There is a large black and white photo of him behind the pulpit, standing with other movement leaders in front of the painted white lattice work on the back wall. It echoes the reality of the events that took place here over 46 years ago. It is moving for me to look at the picture and see that I am standing only a few feet away from that stage and the white lattice still on the wall. The quiet of this day strikingly contrasts with the packed house I see in other photos and the energy and noise that would have been part of those gatherings.

King ended up not just speaking here, but marching and getting arrested. After King had accepted bail, he discovered that the white establishment really hadn't conceded to any of the movement's demands. He returned to Albany and chose a jail sentence of 45 days rather than pay a fine on charges from the previous incident. Against their will, he and Ralph Abernathy were released - fines paid anonymously. King brought in the Southern Christian Leadership Council staff to coordinate efforts in the city. Their opponent, Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had read King's writings and used non-violence against the marchers. He forbade his officers to be brutal as they dealt with and arrested protesters. He filled the jails of all the out-lying areas until King ran out of willing marchers. King again was arrested and again let go.

Though these efforts failed to desegregate the Albany area, King learned valuable lessons which would help in Birmingham. Local workers continued with black voter registration, had success with an African American businessman getting enough votes to be in a run-off election, and within a year the city commission removed segregationist statutes from its books. Change rippled through other counties at different rates, depending on leadership present as well as numbers of middle class blacks involved in boycotts, marches and sit-ins.

Part of our museum experience is to watch the Albany segment in the Eyes on the Prize series (PBS.) It is a little eerie to watch it in this now-quiet room where some of the events actually took place. The large TV screen stands on the front of the stage instead of fiery orators. My heart is too full to chat with this stranger, this young African American woman with braids, who is our tour guide. She notices that something is wrong and asks me about it, but I don't know how to tell her exactly what I am feeling. I reply that I would like to just look around and read the rest of the exhibits.

Before we left we did find out more about her and how she got involved with the museum. She got a brief version of why I came to see it. She seemed to warm to us finally and wished us a good visit and trip back.


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