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Honoring Albany's history

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

ALBANY -- Monday marks the day the nation pauses to remember the late Martin Luther King Jr., a key player in the struggle for civil rights in the United States.

But Southwest Georgians can look back on the region's part of the movement that changed the country's history any time by visiting the Albany Civil Rights Institute.

Located at 326 Whitney Ave., the museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. each Tuesday-Saturday. Admission is $6 for adults; $5 for fifth- through 12th-grade students, active military with identification, college students with identification and senior citizens; $3 for students in first-fourth grade; and $2 for preschoolers. However, children under 4 accompanying a parent are admitted free, as are Institute members providing membership card.

According to Institute Executive Director Lee Forwmalt, two docents are always on hand to guide visitors through the almost hour-long tour of the museum.

"But they don't have to take the tour," he said in a recent interview at the Institute.

Patrons also have the option to walk through the facility on their own.

Either way, it's a tour that begins with a display dedicated to the freedom riders movement in the summer of 1961.

"Some would argue that it was the opening chapter of the civil rights movement," Formwalt said.

Visible when patrons enter the museum doors, the display features a bus protruding from a collage of images from the civil rights movement. The bus, Formwalt explained, represents the one that James Farmer and other civil rights activists took from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in 1961 to test the newly passed desegregation law of interstate travel.

"They only made it to Jackson, Miss.," Formwalt said.

That's because, as visitors learn on the tour, black passengers were either attacked or arrested along the way.

Following the introduction to the freedom riders exhibit, visitors then watch a video on the civil rights movement, titled "Eyes on the Prize."

"It's a 25-minute account of 1961-1962 in Albany," Formwalt said.

Next, visitors continue the tour by walking into the facade of a restaurant from the early-mid 20th century, which contains two separate entrances.

"Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the color of your skin determined which door you went into," Formwalt said.

Inside the "restaurant" houses the majority of the museum, which is divided into six sections.

"Before 1961, 1961, the role of churches in the civil rights movement, 1962, 1963 and afterward," Formwalt said.

The first section looks at life before 1961, beginning with Albany's founding in 1820.

"The purpose of Albany was to take advantage of the cotton market," Formwalt said, explaining that slave labor was heavily used to do so.

This portion of the tour takes visitors through the Civil War, Reconstruction of the 1860s-70s and the subsequent era of Jim Crow laws and their negative impact on the Good Life City.

"Several thousand African American men were registered to vote in Albany in the 1870s," Formwalt said. "In 1915, there were 28 registered black voters in Albany. That shows you the success of Jim Crow."

Despite suppression, the exhibit depicts that life went on for the black community in Albany, with key points being the founding of Albany State College and the Criterion Club. The Good Life City even produced a history-making black Olympic champion when high jumper Alice Coachman became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal at the 1948 games in London.

The second exhibit, which is alluded to at the beginning of the tour, focuses on the year 1961, in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., came to Albany to motivate area civil rights activists by speaking at both Shiloh Baptist Church and Mount Zion Baptist Church, as well as other pivotal moments the year brought.

The third exhibit focuses on Southwest Georgia churches involved in the civil rights movement.

"The church was essential," Formwalt said.

That's because civil rights activists often met at the houses of worship for motivation and to strategize. Plus, out of those meetings came a distinct form of music, with "We Shall Overcome" being one of the most recognizable tunes, going on to be sung at the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the anti-apartheid movement in Johannesburg.

"The music was so important," Formwalt said.

So much so that a familiar music group was formed during that time.

"The SNCC Freedom Singers came here," Formwalt said of a musical group of black college students formed from the Student Nonviolent College Committee.

From that, the executive director explained, came today's Albany Civil Rights Institute Freedom Singers, led by original Freedom Singer Rutha Harris.

The exhibit also depicts that for their support of the civil rights movement, several Southwest Georgia churches were burned, including Bethel A.M.E., Beulah Baptist and Arcadia Baptist.

The fourth exhibit follows the year 1962, in which Albany State University student Ola Mae Quarterman was arrested for refusing to give up her own seat on a bus.

"Instead of complying with the federal law, they just shut down the bus system," Formwalt said.

The same exhibit also introduces visitors to the incident in which black lawyer C.B. King was beaten with a cane by Dougherty County Sheriff Cull Campbell while checking on white civil rights protester Bill Hansen.

The next exhibit focuses on 1963 and tells the story of the "Lost Girls."

"A group of girls were arrested in 1963 in Americus," Formwalt said.

The girls' parents knew nothing of what had happened to them, he explained. It turned out that they had been shipped to the Leesburg stockade and held in squalid conditions.

"It got national attention, and they were released two months later," Formwalt said.

The final exhibit, deemed "Afterward," is dedicated to post-1963. It features the accomplishments of Southwest Georgia's black community in the last four decades, including a collage of elected public officials.

"There's a sense of triumph as you go through this," Formwalt said. "The very fact that we can celebrate this shows just how far we have come."

Visitors shouldn't leave before heading next door to old Mount Zion Church, which has been restored to give patrons a taste of what it was like to take part in those civil rights meetings of the early 1960s.

"The church is our most valuable artifact," Formwalt said.

Those who head to the church are treated to another short film, which culminates the tour.

Formwalt encourages Southwest Georgians to visit the museum and learn more about Albany's struggle for civil rights.

"It's an amazing story," he said.