One day in the summer of 1962, as a thirty-nine-year-old professor of history who had begun to wander out of the classroom to see some history, I walked into the office of Sheriff Cull Campbell of Daugherty County, in the city of Albany, a city surrounded by the cotton and pecan land of southwest Georgia.
I was visiting Sheriff Campbell as part of an assignment I had undertaken for the Southern Regional Council, a liberal research group in Atlanta. In the winter of 1961 and the spring and summer of 1962, the black population of Albany, surprising itself and the world, rose up in rebellion against racial segregation. I was asked to look into the turmoil in Albany and write a report.
I wanted to talk with the sheriff because of something that had recently happened in his jurisdiction. A white civil rights worker named Bill Hansen, jailed with sixteen other people for praying in front of City Hall and refusing to move, had been put into a cell with a white prisoner who was given meaningful instructions: “This is one of those guys who came down here to straighten us out.” As Hansen sat on the cell floor reading a newspaper he was attacked and beaten into unconsciousness, his jaw broken, his lip split, a number of ribs broken.
That same afternoon, a young lawyer, C. B. King, a native of Albany and the first black attorney in the history of the city, went into Sheriff Campbell’s office to ask about what had happened to Bill Hansen. The sheriff was clearly infuriated by the sight of a black man, indeed a hometown “boy” who had grown up, gone to law school, and now appeared in suit and tie like any white lawyer, asking about a client. He said, “Nigger, haven’t I told you to wait outside?” He then pulled a walking stick out of a basket and brought it down with all his force on King’s head. The attorney staggered from the office, blood streaming down his face and onto his clothes, and made his way across the street to police chief Pritchett, who called for medical aid.
Sheriff Campbell, inviting me into his office a few weeks after that happened, turned and said, “You’re not with the goddam niggers, are you?” I chose not to answer, but asked him about what happened to King. He stared at me. “Yeah, I knocked hell out of the son-of-a-bitch, and I’ll do it again. I wanted to let him know … I’m a white man and he’s a damn nigger.”
As I listened to the sheriff I saw the basket of walking sticks near his desk. On it was a sign saying they were made by the blind and sold for fifty cents. I had a quick macabre vision of a black man in the county home for the blind making the cane that was used to beat C. B. King.
I walked across the street to Chief Pritchett’s office. Pritchett had been hailed in newspapers all over the country for maintaining “order” in Albany. A reporter for the New York Herald Tribune said Pritchett “brought to Albany a standard of professional achievement that would be difficult to emulate in a situation so made to order for violence.”
Pritchett earned this praise from the establishment press by simply putting into prison (“nonviolently,” as he boasted) every man, woman, and child in the city of Albany who tried to exercise their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly. He and Sheriff Campbell were the classic bad cop–good cop team: Campbell would beat someone bloody and Pritchett would call for an ambulance.
I asked Pritchett why he did not arrest Sheriff Campbell, who was clearly guilty of assault. He smiled and said nothing. His secretary walked in. “Your next appointment is here.” Pritchett stood up and shook my hand. I started to leave. His next appointment walked in: it was Dr. Martin Luther King. We greeted one another (we had met a number of times in Atlanta) and I left just as Pritchett—the good cop—shook hands cordially with King.
Back in my Albany motel room, starting to put together my report, I thought about all that had happened in the eight months since December of 1961:
Pritchett’s arrest of SNCC workers who took the train to Albany from Atlanta and on arrival sat in the “white” waiting room. SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the newly formed organization composed mostly of young black college students who had been in the sit-ins all over the South the year before and now had decided to challenge racial segregation in the toughest, most violent regions of the country: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi.
The arrest of four hundred black high school and college students who marched and sang downtown to protest the arrest of those SNCC “Freedom Riders.”
The arrest of seventy more Albany blacks who knelt and prayed at City Hall.
The arrest of three hundred more who marched to City Hall; and two hundred and fifty more (this time including the recently arrived Martin Luther King, Jr.) who marched, singing, through downtown.
The arrest of even more people for sitting at lunch counters and refusing to leave until they were served.
Pritchett told reporters, “We can’t tolerate the NAACP or the SNCC or any other nigger organization to take over this town with mass demonstrations.”
In my report for the Southern Regional Council, I was searching for a central focus. Here, in concentrated form, was the racism, the brutality, of the segregated South. Just one instance: Mrs. Slater King (C. B. King’s sister-in-law), with her three children and in her sixth month of pregnancy, tried to bring food to someone in jail. She was kicked and knocked to the ground by a deputy sheriff. She lost consciousness. Months later she lost her baby.
A question kept nagging at me: Where was the government of the United States in all this?
I taught courses in constitutional law, but that expertise was not necessary for a person to see that the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights in the United States Constitution were being violated in Albany again and again—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the equal protection of the law—I could count at least thirty such violations. Yet the president—sworn to uphold the Constitution—and all the agencies of the United States government at his disposal were nowhere to be seen. Was Albany, Georgia, was all of the South, outside the jurisdiction of the United States? Had the Confederacy really won the Civil War and morally, effectively seceded?
I knew that a post–Civil War law passed to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment made it a federal crime for any official to violate any citizen’s constitutional rights. In the nation’s capital a liberal Democratic administration had recently taken office. John F. Kennedy was president; Robert F. Kennedy was attorney general, head of the Justice Department, and therefore in charge of enforcing federal law. But this was not being done in Albany, Georgia.
My report to the Southern Regional Council became a front-page story in the New York Times. In it, I pointed to the failure of the national government in protecting constitutional rights. I.F. Stone’s Weekly carried excerpts, and The Nation published an article of mine on the Albany events, entitled, “Kennedy, the Reluctant Emancipator.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., was asked by the press if he agreed with the report. He said he did, pointing to racism in the FBI. This comment apparently enraged J. Edgar Hoover, the self-appointed “white knight” of patriotism, the anti-crime and anti-Communist “hero” of America, who was not accustomed to criticism. The press contributed to Hoover’s fury by playing up the criticism of the FBI, but confined itself to that issue, while my report went beyond the FBI to the Justice Department and the White House. It was an example of a common phenomenon in American journalism (perhaps in social criticism in general), the shallow focusing on agents or on individuals, thus concealing what a deeper analysis would reveal—the failure of the government itself, indeed, of the political system.
At the great March on Washington of 1963, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis, speaking to the same enormous crowd that heard Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” was prepared to ask the right question: “Which side is the federal government on?” That sentence was eliminated from his speech by organizers of the march to avoid offending the Kennedy administration, but Lewis and his fellow SNCC workers had experienced, again and again, the strange passivity of the national government in the face of Southern violence—strange, considering how often this same government had been willing to intervene outside the country, often with overwhelming force.
John Lewis and SNCC had reason to be angry. John had been beaten bloody by a white mob in Montgomery as a Freedom Rider in the spring of 1961. The federal government had trusted the notoriously racist Alabama police to protect the riders, but done nothing itself except to have FBI agents take notes. Instead of insisting that blacks and whites had a right to ride the buses together, the Kennedy administration called for a “cooling-off period,” a moratorium on Freedom Rides.
When the movement people insisted on continuing the rides into Mississippi, Attorney General Kennedy made a deal with the governor of Mississippi: the Freedom Riders would not be beaten, but they would be arrested. Some three hundred were, by the end of that summer, and spent hard time in Mississippi jails because the government of the United States did not see fit to protect their rights.
The Freedom Rides pushed the Justice Department into getting the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue regulations barring racial segregation on trains and in terminals, effective November 1, 1961. It was that order that SNCC people decided to test in the train terminal of Albany, Georgia. They were arrested and notified the Department of Justice, which, by its silence, then failed the test.
SNCC (known to its friends as “Snick”) had been formed in the spring of 1960, when veterans of the recent sit-ins got together in Raleigh, North Carolina. Inspiring and overseeing its beginning was the extraordinary Ella Baker, veteran of struggles in Harlem and elsewhere. When Albany blacks turned out in the streets by the hundreds to protest the arrests of the Albany Freedom Riders, and were arrested themselves, Ella Baker was there. Months later, when SNCC asked me to join their executive committee as one of their two “adult advisers,” along with Miss Baker (that’s how movement people referred to her), I felt honored.
When I first arrived in Albany in December of 1961, hundreds of people were coming out of jail. Many of them had been fired by their white employers, and they gathered in the Shiloh Baptist Church for help. Ella Baker sat in a corner of the church, pen and paper in hand. She was a middle-aged, handsome woman with the resonant voice of a stage actress, who moved silently through the protest movements in the South, doing the things the famous men didn’t have time to do. Now, hour after hour, she sat there as people lined up before her, patiently taking down names, addresses, occupations, immediate money needs.
I spoke to those sitting on a bench waiting to see Miss Baker. They described their prison experiences. One woman said, “We were eighty-eight in one room with twenty steel bunks and no mattresses. Sheriff took us to Camilla. On the bus he told us, ‘We don’t have no singin’, no prayin’, and no handclappin’ here.’ ” A young married woman who was a student at Albany State College said, “I didn’t expect to go to jail for kneeling and praying at City Hall.”
The people I encountered in Albany in those days made me think of what stored-up courage and self-sacrifice one finds in so many people who never make the headlines but represent millions.
I think of Ola Mae Quarterman, eighteen years old, who took a front seat on a city bus and refused to move. She said, in language that was apparently new to the black-white culture of Albany, “I paid my damn twenty cents and I can sit where I want.” She was arrested for “obscenity.”
I think of Charles Sherrod. He was a SNCC “field secretary” and one of those young people who went into the toughest towns in the deep South to set up Freedom Houses and help local folk organize to change their lives. Sherrod was a Freedom Rider, jailed in Mississippi. Now he and Cordell Reagon, another SNCC fellow, went into Albany to see what they could do. (Yes, they were “outside agitators”—what great social movement ever did without such people?) Sherrod told me, “I remembered walking dusty roads for weeks without food. I remembered staying up all night for two and three nights in succession writing and cutting stencils and mimeographing and wondering, How long?” Sherrod was one of those just out of jail when I arrived in Albany. When he told the sheriff, “We may be in jail, but we’re still human beings,” the sheriff hit him in the face. (Twenty five years later the sheriff was gone, but Sherrod was still in Albany, organizing farming cooperatives.)
I think of Lenore Taitt, one of the eight Freedom Riders into Albany whose arrest had sparked all the demonstrations. She was one of my students at Spelman—a delightful young woman, far from the sober agitator of myth—a happy Freedom Rider of unquenchable spirit. I walked downtown to the county jail, a small stone building surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and asked to see her. Can’t be done, said the deputy sheriff on duty. “You can holler through the fence like everyone else does.” I shouted Lenore’s name at a thick steel mesh window, impossible to see through, and then I heard Lenore’s voice, incredibly hoarse. She explained that she’d lost it yelling all night to get help for a woman in her cell who was sick.
I think of Bob Zellner, one of the few white field secretaries in SNCC, from the Gulf coast of Alabama, who was arrested with Lenore Taitt and the other Freedom Riders. I was with the crowd waiting to greet them when they all came out of jail, but as Bob emerged with them, the sheriff grabbed him. “We’ve got another charge against you.” Bob flashed his indomitable grin and waved to his friends as he was taken away.
Bob told me later that he’d had two books with him in jail. One was Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which the sheriff glanced at and let him keep; the other was Lillian Smith’s novel about a black man and a white woman, and the sheriff took it away, saying, “This is obscene.”
And there was Stokely Carmichael, whom I first met in Albany on a steamy-hot night, sitting on the steps outside a church where a meeting was going on, a small group of neighborhood kids gathered around him. He gave the impression he would stride cool and smiling through hell, philosophizing all the way. He had left Howard University to join the Freedom Rides and was jailed on arrival in Jackson, Mississippi, making his way past a mob of howling, cursing people who threw lighted cigarettes at him. In Parchman State Prison he drove his captors crazy with his defiance, and they were relieved when after forty-nine days he was out. Now he was in Albany for SNCC.
And Bernice Johnson, who organized the Albany Freedom Singers and was expelled from Albany State College for her determined involvement in the movement. I helped her get into Spelman College, but both the college and its famous glee club were too narrow to contain her spirit and her voice. She sat in our living room one day to tell us this, and then sang, with that magnificent deep voice. (Later, she would get a Ph.D. in history, but that does not begin to suggest her power. She would become an indefatigable curator of oral history at the Smithsonian, inspire countless audiences, and sing at Carnegie Hall and all over the country with her group Sweet Honey in the Rock.)
There was the Albany youngster who was in the line of black people being booked at the City Hall after a protest parade.
“How old are you?” Chief Pritchett asked.
“What is your name?” asked the chief.
The boy answered. “Freedom. Freedom.”
The chief said, “Go home, Freedom.”
IT HAS OFTEN BEEN SAID, by journalists, by scholars, that Albany, Georgia, was a defeat for the movement, because there was no immediate victory over racial segregation in the city. That always seemed to me a superficial assessment, a mistake often made in evaluating protest movements. Social movements may have many “defeats”—failing to achieve objectives in the short run—but in the course of the struggle the strength of the old order begins to erode, the minds of people begin to change; the protesters are momentarily defeated but not crushed, and have been lifted, heartened, by their ability to fight back. The boy may have been sent home by Chief Pritchett, but he was a different boy than he had been a month before. Albany was changed forever by the tumultuous events of 1961 and 1962, however much things looked the same when the situation quieted down.
The white population could not possibly be unaffected by those events—some whites perhaps more stubborn in their defense of segregation, but others beginning to think in different ways. And the black population was certainly transformed, having risen up in mass action for the first time, feeling its power, knowing that if the old order could be shaken, it could be toppled.
Indeed, in 1976, fifteen years after he arrived and was arrested, Charles Sherrod was elected to the Albany city commission. He responded to the pessimists, “Some people talk about failure. Where’s the failure? Are we not integrated in every facet? Did we stop at any time? Did any injunction stop us? Did any white man stop us? Did any black man stop us? Nothing stopped us in Albany, Georgia. We showed the world.”
What black men, women, children did in Albany at that time was heroic. They overcame a century of passivity, and they did it without the help of the national government. They learned that despite the Constitution, despite the promises, despite the political rhetoric of the government, whatever they accomplished in the future would have to come from them.
One day I drove out of Albany, from dirt road onto dirt road, deep into Lee County to talk to James Mays, a teacher and a farmer. The night before, thirty bullets had been fired into his house, crashing into the walls and barely missing the sleeping children inside.
He knew there was no point in making a call to the Department of Justice. Many, many calls had been made. When dawn came he lettered a sign of protest and stood with it, alone, on the main road to the county seat. It was clear that although he was a citizen of a nation whose power stretched around the globe and into space, that power was absent for him. He and his people were on their own.
For an aggrieved group to learn that it must rely on itself, even if the learning is accompanied by bitter losses in the immediate sense, is to strengthen itself for future struggles. The spirit of defiance that appeared in Albany in that time of turmoil was to outlast the momentary “defeat” that the press and the pundits lamented so myopically.
That spirit is epitomized by eighteen-year-old Ola Mae Quarterman: “I paid my damn twenty cents and I’ll sit where I please.”