SNCC organizes Atlanta to Albany Freedom Ride
On Sunday December 10th, 1961 SNCC Freedom Riders in Atlanta boarded a central Georgia passenger train en route to Albany, Georgia. Charles Sherrod had been organizing there for several months, tapping into the strong community networks to advance voter registration and desegregation in Southwest Georgia.
This “Freedom Ride” was a test of recent court orders desegregating interstate travel that completed the abolition of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1896 case that had upheld segregation on interstate transit as legal for over half a century. The Albany Freedom Ride came seven months after CORE Freedom Riders traveled through the South by bus, and came under repeated attack by white mobs in Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama where their bus was set ablaze.
Jim Forman, then executive secretary of SNCC, wanted an equal split of Black and white riders as a model of the integrated society they were fighting for. Several allies of SNCC stepped up to join the ride; among them Bernard Lee from SCLC; Per Laursen, a Danish journalist writing about the U.S.; and Tom Hayden, a SDS co-founder. Within SNCC, the riders who volunteered were Lenora Taitt, a graduate student from Atlanta University; Norma Collins, SNCC’s office secretary in its Atlanta headquarters; Alabama native Bob Zellner, who was SNCC’s first white field secretary; Joan Browning, a white SNCC volunteer from Georgia; and Forman. Casey Hayden, who was then working with Ella Baker on a southwide YWCA project, was set to be the watchdog for the group, recording any incidents and arrests so that she could report to the press and back to the national office.
The Freedom Riders sat together in the “whites only” car of the train. Unlike the spring 1961 Freedom Rides, where the riders had been beaten by mobs and their bus firebombed by white agitators, the Georgia riders did not come under attack between Atlanta and Albany. S.C. Searles, editor of the black weekly newspaper, the Southwest Georgian, commented, “Things had gone so smoothly I think it infuriated [Albany police] chief [Laurie Pritchett]. There was a good feeling in the group. They wanted to stop this.”
It didn’t take long for Chief Pritchett, to disturb the riders’ “good feeling”. Just minutes after their arrival at the Albany train station, all eight riders, along with three SNCC supporters from the crowd: Bertha Gober, Charles Jones, and Willie Mae Jones, were handcuffed and taken to jail. “We will not stand for these troublemakers coming into our city for the sole purpose of disturbing the peace and quiet of the city of Albany,” declared Pritchett.
Nonetheless, the Albany movement was strengthened by the energy and spirit of the ride. The Freedom Riders’ arrival in Albany triggered a series of mass meetings, demonstrations, and mass arrests.
For their part, after a night in jail, the Freedom Riders were out on bail, just in time for Albany’s mass meeting a few days later. Casey Hayden remembered, “with chills to this day the mass meeting in the Old Mount Zion Church, just before the local people began to fill the jails. The music washed over us as we walked up to seats of honor at the front, the Riders fresh out of jail, the crowds singing “Guide My Feet, While I Run This Race” and rising as one body in an ovation for us.”
During the day-long trial on Tuesday, Forman heard Charles Sherrod shout, “We are going to stay in jail. We Shall Overcome!” Still without a verdict on Wednesday afternoon, 85 people kneeled on the wet concrete and began to sing. Forman remembered, “it was moving to know that a community had people, rich people, and poor were able to unite to protest injustice, an awareness that made the community feel what affected one affected all.”
Joan Browning, “Shiloh Witness,” Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement, edited by Constance Curry, et al. (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2000), 66.
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1997), 252-3.
Casey Hayden, “Fields of Blue,” Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement, edited by Constance Curry, et al. (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2000), 347.
Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 1964).
Oral history interview with Joan Browning, Freedom Riders 40th Anniversary Oral History Project, 2001.