AUDIO ONE: Rutha Mae Harris, Emory Harris, Angie Harris Gibson (Freedom Singers)
AUDIO TWO: Glenn Singfield (Contractor and Builder of the Albany Civil Rights Institute)
Seeking a frame of reference
I was 16 years old in 1961 when the Albany Movement began. I have vivid memories of the 60s and the 70s, a time of great and dramatic social upheaval, and a stunning transformation in the body politic of North America. It was a time of reaffirmation of idealism itself, a time for great new ideas, and a soaring sense of personal and collective liberation. And yet, at the time I had little real awareness that citizens of the United States of America were still being denied their fundamental civil rights.
At about the same time, 21-year-old Rutha Mae Harris was crisscrossing the United States singing for freedom; and in the South she was going to jail. And in 1961, Barack Obama was born.
Putting historical events in some kind of comprehensible time frame in the United States, or anywhere for that matter, is not always the easiest thing to do. The year 1961 just wasn’t all that long ago, nor was the year 1870 as Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out in his recent New Yorker article “Family Matters.”
“With just a little effort, most African-Americans can trace at least one line of their family back to the 1870 federal census, which was the first taken after the Civil War and is therefore the first in which all our ancestors appear as citizens with two names, rather than as property.”
Two names. Property. The words speak volumes. Hindsight may be easy, but history still hurts. “The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
The Albany Movement
Whitney Avenue is a quiet street, undistinguished really. In many ways, however, it is a typical street in small town America. At one end, two churches face each other from opposite sides of the street: Old Mt. Zion and Shiloh Baptist. Although unremarkable in one sense, especially if you are just driving by, both churches are laden with meaning.
Next door to Old Mt. Zion is a one-story multi-paned glass and steel building that, quite appropriately, reflects in multiple images the outwardly commonplace look of Whitney Avenue. And when you cross the street to Shiloh Baptist Church, you come upon multiple footprints embedded in the sidewalk. The footprints proceed silently and with deliberation down the street. It becomes clear however that these symbolic steps are not just a casual stroll along Whitney Avenue; they lead instead to a new beginning.
As a visual metaphor, the footsteps are fraught with meaning and a poignant tribute to men and women who came together in a coalition with the intent of desegregating Albany, Georgia; and reclaiming their basic human rights. It was called the Albany Movement and was led by William G. Anderson, a local black physician. The Movement (which my colleague Bijan Bayne refers to as part of the “Moses” phase of the American Civil Rights Movement) mobilized thousands of people and attracted national attention through its voter registration drives, petitions, non-violent passive resistance, its sit-ins and demonstrations, and its erosive effect on the injustices of the old order.
Whitney Avenue does not shout “victory” nor “triumph”; the struggle I suspect was labour-intensive and wearying. But many names that today are synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. were part of the Movement that began on this street; in particular that of Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke to overflowing crowds at Old Mount Zion Church.
And the Albany Movement is notable for the coalition forces that came together here to demand their basic democratic rights. The Movement, under the direction of Georgia’s Colored Ministerial Alliance, actually came into existence on November 17, 1961 in collaboration with organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian leadership Conference (SCLC). Following the examples of the sit-ins of 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Albany Movement also used the methods of nonviolence and passive resistance; the “resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience” strategies of Mohandas Gandhi. But like all dynamic and profound social movements, what began here on Whitney Avenue in Albany, Georgia was as much a process as an event.
The Albany Movement was in every respect a political movement that of course challenged the status quo and the constitutionality of it. For those empowered with maintaining “public order” (and the existing power base), the Movement was therefore a major challenge; and only time would show how much they underestimated this defiance of “authority.”
What the Movement leaders were initially unaware of, however, was that media-wise Police Chief Laurie Pritchett also understood the methods of nonviolence and passive resistance — and how to counter them. Although he ordered the mass arrests that occurred, he very carefully made sure that his officers did not provoke a media frenzy through extreme or overt acts of brutality. He also used the divide and conquer technique of placing many of those arrested in jails spread throughout Georgia, thus inhibiting the flow of communication among its members. He and other powers-that-be also shrewdly entered into a so-called agreement with the Movement’s leaders that if Dr. King (who was arrested but released) left Albany, a biracial committee would be set up and talks would begin in order to desegregate buses, postpone trials, and return bail bond money. When Dr. King left Albany, however, the power brokers reneged on the deal which resulted in a temporary setback for the Movement. But the tide was already turning. A tipping point of American history was imminent.
Initially King and others did not consider the Albany Movement a success as they thought they had bit off more than they could chew. King himself recognized that by trying to desegregate an entire city, as opposed to attempting to desegregate specific elements such as buses or lunch counters, led to a “vague protest” that initially lacked a clear and effective sense of direction. However historians and many involved in the Albany Movement now recognize that it was a success in that it was the testing ground for what the Civil Rights Movement achieved in cities like Selma and Birmingham.
Dr. King himself said afterward, “One victory of this kind would have been symbolic, would have galvanized support and boosted morale … When we planned our strategy for Birmingham months later, we spent many hours assessing Albany and trying to learn from its errors. Our appraisals not only helped to make our subsequent tactics more effective, but revealed that Albany was far from an unqualified failure.”
A legal and historical context
Enacted between 1876 and 1965, they were known as the Jim Crow Laws; and in effect they mandated legal segregation in all public facilities in the South, giving black Americans and members of other non-white groups a “separate but equal” status, which of course would prove eventually to be not only divisive in terms of the United States of America as a nation but also contradictory and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the founding of the nation.
Various sources attribute the term Jim Crow in different ways; some suggesting a “Jump Jim Crow” caricature in song and dance of African Americans (stereotypical images that much later even Hollywood would perpetuate). Another source suggests that a white actor in blackface played a slave called Jim Crow in the mid-1800s.
To understand the full implications of the Jim Crow Laws one has to study the Civil War, especially the Reconstruction period of 1865-1877 (a complex and daunting historical task) during which white Democrats in the “defeated” Confederacy regained their power base and instituted laws that maintained the social and economic divisions between blacks and whites, thus also perpetuating the disparity in civil rights between the two. Although Blacks were elected to local offices during the 1880s, the overall social matrix severely reduced the real involvement of African-Americans in the functioning of the State, not to mention its electoral process. Effectively disenfranchised again, African-Americans were therefore also deprived of full participation in the affairs of state; a second-class “apartheid” status which had a direct effect as well on their ability to advance economically and politically. Jim Crow laws also created such inequalities as the separate use of public facilities, most notably accommodations, trains, buses, restaurants, and of course schools.
Catalysts to freedom
Historically, one can point to numerous catalytic events that gave impetus to the Civil Rights Movement. For example, there were several successful bus boycotts that began the process of breaking through the racial barriers, but the one that many remember especially was that of Rosa Parks) who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Many such individual acts of courage and determination were also part of the social-political movement which transformed a nation.
And Canadians, especially those with Montréal roots, will remember Jackie Robinson who was the first major sports figure to break through the colour barrier when he played for the Montréal Royals (a Dodger farm team) in the 1946 season; and subsequently for Daytona Beach, the first U.S. city in which an African American played in the (until then) white-only professional league. As my colleague Bijan Bayne, a sports travel journalist, points out, “The most celebrated integration test case before Parks or Obama was baseball’s Jackie Robinson. Martin Luther King and Parks both said they thought of him, and what he endured as the first national guinea pig, when they themselves were thrust into the limelight eight years after he broke the major league color barrier.”
The Freedom Singers
Sitting in the front pew of Old Mount Zion Church, we listen to Rutha Mae Harris sing once again the freedom songs of her youth. And then with Emory Harris, Angie Harris Gibson, we hear the harmonization of voices a cappella that as the term suggests (in the style of church or chapel music) sing the songs that relentlessly claimed the “sacred” right to full and equal participation in human society.
Formed originally in 1962 to raise funds for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the songs of the Freedom Singers played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement; and as Rutha Mae told us, music (especially the folk music and reworking of spirituals of the times, multidimensional cultural expressions) was another language through which people heard the truth. The group travelled over 100,000 miles singing about freedom at universities, colleges, and churches. A joint appearance with Pete Seeger was especially instrumental in taking their message nationwide. And they did this in an old Buick station wagon.
A visit to the Civil Rights Institute is a theatrical experience. The Institute or museum (it is difficult to categorize it) has all the components of good theatre: historical context, character, characterization, setting, a plot line/sequences of dramatic events, precipitating factors, rising and falling action, a crisis or climax, a dénouement — and most importantly a universal message. But this is not just “play acting”; the archival material and voices that you see and hear in the Institute collectively present an historical record that is intrinsic to American society and its values.
Located next door to the landmark Old Mount Zion Church (a worship place for former slaves at the end of the Civil War), the Institute has been conceived and designed so that it blends well with the neighbourhood. But that artful blend is not just architectural; it is also conceptual.
The Foot Soldiers of Civil Rights
My visit to Albany came shortly after the Obama victory in the United States, and in many respects it was the most opportune and symbolic time to visit this historic community. As David Remnick, Editor of the New Yorker commented in his editorial “The Joshua Generation,” “Obama made his biracial ancestry a metaphor for his ambition to create a broad coalition of support, to rally Americans behind a narrative of moral and political progress. He was not its hero, but he just might be the culmination.”
These words resonated throughout my visit to Albany, a city of momentous metaphor and courageous action. And if Obama is the culmination of Martin Luther King’s dream — as well as of the moral narrative implicit in the Civil Rights Movement — Albany, Georgia is very much where many individual and collective beliefs and actions engendered the transformation of a nation.
Albany today: an inspiring, grassroots travel destination
Founded in 1836 by land speculator Nelson Tift, Albany, Georgia was a fortuitous choice for a settlement because it lies on the banks of the Flint River. The Flint proved to be the major transportation route for the cotton market; one can imagine the many barges transporting enormous bales of cotton down the Flint to Apalachiola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. The industry would become integral to the economy of the area when plantation owners and their black slaves moved into this fertile and water-rich land. (Deep aquifers abound in Southwest Georgia.) The region became so successful that by 1840, cotton farmers were actually outnumbered by their black slaves who had been brought to the region to work the plantations. The city has retained its position as the commercial and cultural hub of the region, and by the 20th century cotton as an agricultural product would be replaced by more profitable crops such as pecan trees.
Today Albany is a city of quiet energy — and a city of vision. As a family travel destination especially, it is the kind of city that functions on a real human scale. And it is also the kind of American city where community activism continues to play a very positive role. Led by a municipal government and other agencies that value renewal, people-friendly attractions, and common sense, the people of Albany whom I met have a clear sense of what they want their city to be.
Ironically the day after I arrived for a media tour of Albany and region, the front page of the local Albany Herald featured a story titled “Travel writers key to tourism,” a story that gave a glimpse of this city’s proactive self-determination in the tourism sector. In the story, Catherine Glover, the new president of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce sums up the gutsy and very focused tourism development that is happening in Albany and so many other relatively undiscovered tourism destinations like it in the U.S. Putting the emphasis on local businesses (and of course that’s where the traveller really interacts on a community level in their destination of choice), she preps her community by saying, “We are going to be out meeting with you day in and day out. That’s our mission.” And therein lies an important element to the grassroots culture of Albany.
Albany today is also the kind of subtle but eclectic destination with which the traveller can easily identify. As the central urban hub of Southwest Georgia, Albany in many ways epitomizes this part of the state, especially topographically and culturally. It is a city in motion both from an urban development point of view and conceptually.
To see images of some of my favourite moments in Albany, click on the link below.
Recommended Albany attractions
It is more than a zoo. The Chehaw Wild Animal Park is also a mini-ecotourism destination that is wonderfully integrated into the natural environment of Southwest Georgia. One of only two zoos in Georgia accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, this zoological park is also a walk through the flora and fauna of this part of the state.
In the distinct style and architecture (and cultural purpose) that Carnegie envisioned, Albany’s neo-classical Carnegie Library is also on the National Register of Historic Places and today serves as multi-purpose community centre, especially for the arts. During my visit I was especially taken with the exhibit of the works of portrait painter, and native of Albany, Frances Piel
A fully accredited museum, this local arts institution exemplifies the intellectual and artistic courage that seems to have become part of the Albany character. The museum’s stunning Subsaharan African Art exhibit is a travel “event” unto itself; and an exhibit that clearly demonstrates the presence in the human psyche of a universal notion of spirituality.
In the downtown area of Albany, above the banks of the very photogenic Flint River, is the Ray Charles Plaza. This tribute to a native son, and a musician whose works are now “classics” in the musical heritage of the South and of the broader world of music, will get you humming “Georgia On My Mind.” (And if you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend the film Ray.)
Increasingly travellers are rediscovering the natural and indigenous treasures of destinations they visit. The Flint RiverQuarium and Imagination Theater (what a combination!) is one of the best examples I have seen of an urban ecotourism experience that not only entertains the visitor visually but educates. Don’t worry, this is not the school field trip where you are required to “pay attention” at all times. On the contrary, this architecturally innovative facility will engage you on many levels.
Thronateeska is the name the Creeks who lived along its banks gave to the Flint River. As part of the urban renewal of downtown Albany, it is the kind of family destination-within-a-destination that deserves at least a full day’s visit. During my visit, I got a sneak peek at the new Planetarium which is part of the Center. You may have seen planetarium “sound and light shows” but wait until you see the high definition “visualizations” currently being prepared for Albany’s new planetarium by the creative folks at Spitzinc
She was new to me (I live north of the 49th parallel) but Albany native Paula Deen (cook, restauranteur, television cook show host) would also appear to embody the grit and southern values of Southwest Georgia.
(h) Speaking of food, check out the Corner Café, River Front BBQ, Plantation Grille, Pearly’s Famous Country Cooking, Blackbeard’s Restaurant, and Bo Henry’s The Catch and Harvest Moon.
And for a little music on the side, visit The Bo Henry Band.
During my stay in Albany, I was the guest of the recently renovated Albany best Western.
Not to be missed day trips from Albany
Not only is Plains High School now Georgia’s Official State School (what a concept!), it is also a kind of touchstone for democratic principles. And although it is named for an actual person, as a travel destination The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site is social history at a fundamental and grassroots level.
You should also stop by The Plains Historic Inn and Antique Mall . Because the Carters and others in the community actually contributed their labour and their vision to this historic hotel, it also embodies the principles of “Main Street” in a world in which hyperconsumerism and materialism may just be getting a touch out of hand.
A visit to this international organization which began in the nearby town of Americus (and a visit to its Global Village and Discovery Center, whether in person or virtually) will once again give you a frame of reference in which you will understand the social and personal values of Southwest Georgia.
A highly poignant, sometimes painful, but very cognitive travel experience, the National Prisoner of War Museum which preserves the American Civil War site of Camp Sumter (Andersonville prison); and manages Andersonville National Cemetery, is not be missed in Southwest Georgia. To listen to my chat with Fred Sanchez, click here.
My thanks to Bijan Bayne who served as consultant on this project.
To visit the Institute online, click here.