In February 2017 SNCC veterans Faith Holsaert, Janie Culbreth Rambeau, Larry Rubin, Shirley Sherrod, and Annette Jones White came together to discuss their work in the Southwest Georgia Movement during the 1960s and beyond. The story that follows includes recorded clips from their conversation, highlighting their personal experiences as well as that of the many strong local people who built and sustained the Movement.
Born Into the Movement
Albany, Georgia was the economic hub of Southwest Georgia, located nearly two hundred miles south of Atlanta. “A great fertile land, luxuriant with forests of pine, oak, ash, hickory, and poplar, hot with the sun and damp with the rich black swampland,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote at the turn of the century. Here, he claimed, “the cornerstone of the Cotton Kingdom was laid.” On the plantations of Southwest Georgia, Black residents tended the crops, first as slaves and later as sharecroppers. By the 1930s, cotton was replaced by peanuts, pecans, and livestock, but segregation continued to be the law of the land.
By the early 1960s, Albany had 60,000 residents, 40 percent of whom were Black. Like the rest of the rural South, rules of racial etiquette, disenfranchisement, and violence kept Black people in their place. Parents taught their children not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and not to look a white person in the eye. Black residents were confined to work as day laborers, domestic workers, and in other menial jobs, although the all-Black Albany State College supported a small Black middle class.
Annette Jones and Janie Culbreth grew up on Albany’s southside–the Black section of town–and were friends since they were in strollers. In the fall 1961, the two were students at Albany State. They became some of the first people to join forces with SNCC field secretaries, Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon, when they arrived in Albany to begin organizing around voter registration. But for Jones and Culbreth, their movement involvement was nothing new. As Jones put it, “I was born into the Movement.”
Janie Culbreth “This Cannot Be the Way God Intended Life to Be”
Shirley Miller (Sherrod) grew up in “Bad Baker” County, one of the black majority counties that surrounded Albany and were notorious for their violence against Black people. This violence indelibly marked her life. In 1965, her father was murdered by a white man, and she committed herself to a lifetime of working in the South to bring about change.
When SNCC’s field secretaries walked onto Albany State’s campus in 1961, they found students, like Annette Jones and Janie Culbreth, who were ready. Some had been involved in the NAACP Youth Council. On campus, Black female students were being targeted and molested by white men, but the administration–whose jobs were dependent on white support–did nothing about it. Students who spoke out against the administration found themselves kicked out of school or that they’d lost their scholarships. With the daily injustices of segregation piling on top of the tensions on campus, as Janie Culbreth explained, they were “ripe for the picking.”
Janie Culbreth “Get You Ripe for the Picking”
One thing Charles Sherrod talked to the students about was the importance of the vote. In the workshops he was running on nonviolent direct action, he explained that the ballot was a nonviolent weapon to change the inequities that Black people faced.
Annette Jones “One Nonviolent Weapon was the Ballot”
On November 22, 1961, five students were arrested for attempting to desegregate the local Trailways bus terminal. Bertha Gober and Blanton Hall, both Albany State students who had been working with SNCC, declined bail to dramatize their demands for justice. Following the Thanksgiving Holiday, Albany State students marched from the campus to the courthouse in protest of the arrest, and local leaders organized Albany’s first mass meeting.
I like to tell people you haven’t been to a prayer meeting until you have been to a prayer meeting in Dougherty County Jail. You have to know what it’s like to hold a prayer meeting in jail, and police were walking around with billy clubs, banging against the bars, saying shut up. We said, ‘What are you going to do? Put us in jail? Of course we were scared, but we did not shut up. We would not shut up. – Janie Culbreth
By December 1961, the Albany Movement, made up of coalition of local organizations and students, was organizing marches, facing mass arrests, and holding mass meetings. Local leaders decided to invite Dr. King to Albany in an attempt to draw national attention to their struggle. Dr. King often received credit for starting the movement in Albany, a claim that Annette Jones and Janie Culbreth soundly rejected.
Janie Culbreth “The Movement Was Going Strong when Martin Came to Albany”
Annette Jones “I Was Already in Jail”
1961 was only the beginning of the Southwest Georgia Movement. Long after Martin Luther King Jr. left town–misleadingly declaring the Albany Movement a failure–SNCC’s voter registration work grew. As Shirley Miller Sherrod recalled, “The movement would have been just Albany, you know, but it spread out into all of those counties in Southwest Georgia: Terrell, Baker, Sumter, Worth, Lee.” By the next summer, Charles Sherrod recruited white volunteers to expand voter registration efforts into nearby Lee and Terrell Counties.