Albany Movement formed
In October 1961, SNCC field secretaries Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon, later joined by Charles Jones, traveled to Albany, Georgia where local citizens, especially students at Albany State College (today Albany State University), an HBCU, were heating up the civil rights struggle. They had come to conduct workshops on nonviolence and to initiate voter registration efforts. At the time, although Albany’s population was was 40 percent Black, few were registered to vote. The city itself was completely segregated. Recalled Sherrod, “When we first came to Albany, the people were afraid, really afraid…” Locals were scared of white retaliation due to the culture of fear created by Police Chief Laurie Pritchett.
In order to “cut through that fear,” as Sherrod put it, the SNCC organizers turned to local students for assistance. They began working with students at Albany State College, Monroe High and Carver Junior High Schools. Some of these students were members of the NAACP youth chapter. The first community meeting was held the same month as their arrival in the basement of Bethel A.M.E. Church, where Rev. Ben Gay was pastor. The two SNCC workers taught the locals freedom songs and talked about conditions in Albany. Soon they began conducting small group meetings and workshops on direct action, boycotts, sit-ins, and other nonviolent methods of direct action resistance.
On November 1, 1961, students decided to test an Interstate Commerce Commission ruling that no bus facility, bus, or driver could deny access to its facilities based on race. NAACP leaders were uncomfortable with the decision to test this ruling but went along with it, fearing that they would lose influence with local students to SNCC.
At approximately 3:00 p.m. that afternoon, as Black community members came out to watch from the lunchrooms, pool rooms, and other public facilities, nine students went to the bus station. According to Sherrod, “The bus station was full of men in blue [Georgia’s state police] but up through the mass of people, past the men with guns and billies ready, into the terminal they marched quietly and clean.” As planned, when ordered out by the police, the students left the station without being arrested and then filed an immediate complaint with the ICC under the new ruling.
Following this act of defiance, a coalition was formed between the Ministerial Alliance, NAACP, Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Negro Voters League, and SNCC. It was referred to as the Albany Movement, and its goal was to end all forms of segregation and discrimination in the region.
On November 22, just a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday, three young people from the NAACP youth council and two SNCC volunteers from Albany State were arrested in the Trailways terminal. The NAACP youth council members were released on bond immediately after their arrest. However, SNCC volunteers Bertha Gober and Blanton Hall declined bail and chose to remain in jail over the holidays to dramatize their demand for justice.
After the holiday, more than 100 Albany State students marched from campus to the courthouse where they protested the arrest of Gober and Hall. A mass meeting–the first in Albany’s history–occurred at Mt. Zion Baptist church to protest the arrests, segregation, and decades of racial discrimination. The music, especially, was powerful, mirroring the Movement that had begun to emerge. Reflecting on this this moment, Bernice Johnson Reagon said, “When I opened my mouth and began to sing, there was a force and power within myself I had never heard before. Somehow this music … released a kind of power and required a level of concentrated energy I did not know I had.”
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).
Charles E. Cobb, Jr, On the Road To Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008).
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972).
Faith Holsaert, et al., eds., Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).
Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).