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In the shadow of Jim Crow

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- In the post-Civil War era, before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the American South was governed by a set of laws based on the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that legalized segregation.

Southern states, enraged by the perceived meddling of an "unholy triumvirate" of northern carpetbaggers, traitorous scalawags and suddenly freed Negroes, were given the power to enact a code of laws, known as the Jim Crow laws, that for more than half a century made advancement by blacks in the South an impossibility.

The Jim Crow laws, which used the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" mandate to deny blacks access to quality education, health care, jobs and services, were the impetus for the civil rights movement and created a chasm between southern blacks and whites that has not yet been fully breached even with significant advancements that include the election of a man of color to the highest office in the land.

"One of the saddest things I've witnessed in my career is that so many people -- black and white -- don't have a knowledge of their history," Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Herbert Phipps, once an Albany attorney and Dougherty County Superior Court judge, said. "When there is a lack of education, we all pay for it.

"Certainly things have improved in the South since the Jim Crow era, but we have not come as far as a lot of people think. If you look at it, we're not that far removed from a time that blacks were subjected to legalized treatment contrary to what it means to be a human being. Certainly that still impacts our region today."

Khalil Muhammad, a noted author and assistant professor of history at Indiana University, agrees.

"The Jim Crow past continues to shape and limit African-Americans in Georgia today," he said.

JIM CROW

The term "Jim Crow" became synonymous with Southern segregation laws as early as the 1890s. Named for the minstrel character "Jump Jim Crow," a white actor in black face with exaggerated African-American features, the laws all but eradicated any advancements made by freed blacks after the Civil War.

Whites legally negated black voting strength by imposing grandfather clauses, poll taxes and literacy tests to essentially disenfranchise thousands. And blacks were denied access to the most basic human rights that most Americans now take for granted.

"We couldn't eat in most Southern restaurants; we couldn't stay in hotels; we just were not treated as human beings," Rutha Harris, a member of the Civil Rights-era Freedom Singers, said. "We couldn't even use the restroom at a gas station. If they didn't have a separate bathroom for us, we had to go into a field."

The idea, according to Albany Civil Rights Institute Executive Director Lee Formwalt, a former history professor, was to dehumanize African-Americans.

"All of the images from that era are ingrained in African-Americans who grew up in the South," Formwalt said. "Try to imagine being a little black boy who grew up learning the lessons of his church but also being told not to look a white woman in the eye and to stay away from all the 'white' facilities.

"That's got to have an impact on you."

VIOLENCE AND INTIMIDATION

An ugly offshoot of the Jim Crow laws was the implication that whites, deemed by the Supreme Court a "superior race," could use any means necessary to bend blacks to their will. And increasingly those means included violence.

The emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and other violent groups led to an unholy reign of terror that included beatings, burning of black-owned property -- especially churches -- and, most heinous of all, lynchings.

In Southwest Georgia, 122 known public lynchings were recorded, a sorry part of the state's history that includes the horrifying story of Mary Turner. A 20-year-old who was at the time eight months pregnant, Turner had the temerity to publicly threaten a Brooks County group that had lynched her husband.

She was taken by a mob and so brutalized -- her baby was even cut from her stomach and killed -- that hundreds of blacks in the area fled their homes in fear for their lives.

"Those kinds of stories are seared in the minds of people who live in this area," Formwalt said. "And people have the audacity to ask why blacks have resentment and anger even today."

THE ALBANY MOVEMENT

Albany's history as a central part of the civil rights movement is well documented. Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett is remembered as one of the key figures in an orchestrated plan to deny blacks their basic rights, but without the open acts of violence that became emblematic of the movement.

"So many savvy prosecutors are picking up on the legacy of Laurie Pritchett," Muhammad said. "They're utilizing his nonviolent discrimination tactics to minimize African-Americans through the criminal justice system."

News reports from the early 1960s include almost daily accounts of the growing unrest in Southwest Georgia's most populous city. From a citywide bus boycott that ended bus service in the community for weeks to desegregation attempts at long-established "white facilities," the nascent Albany Movement, under the leadership of Dr. William Anderson, slowly chipped away at the Jim Crow mentality in the region.

"I was watching these young kids out protesting the treatment of blacks in the city from my office, and I saw the way police were treating them," Anderson, who was still teaching medicine in his 80s, said. "I just became so angry I walked out of my office and joined them.

"There was a sense that the movement was growing in the city, but it was basically by a group of disorganized young people."

So Anderson called together members of the local Criterium Club, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Baptist Ministerial Alliance and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to organize what became the Albany Movement.

The local movement had its detractors. The local Albany Courier wrote in August of 1962: "The City Commission's courageous stand in refusing to yield to the lawless and provocatory tactics of the Negro demonstrators here has elicited admiration from most Albanians and some outsiders who are able to view the racial turmoil of the South objectively.

"The extremist Albany movement, abetted by Negro agitators like Dr. Martin Luther King, has defied local laws and deliberately created an incendiary situation as an adjunct of integration suits now being pressed in the courts. It is our opinion that had not Dr. King, Dr. Anderson, Dr. (Ralph) Abernathy, et al, inflamed our white citizenry, much more progress would have been realized in ameliorating race relations here."

SLOW CHANGE

Change came gradually to Albany and Southwest Georgia. The Albany Herald's editor and publisher at the time, James H. Gray Sr., bought and privatized a public swimming pool at Tift Park that the city had chosen to close rather than allow blacks to swim in it. The city's Carnegie Library was closed after officials there refused to issue library cards to young blacks.

Local diners shut down over fear that they would be the target of integration efforts. And in 1962, 20 black students were turned away from Albany High School, East Dougherty Junior High and the "white" Vocational Technical facility when they tried to enroll at those schools.

Yet, in March of 1963 the Albany City Commission struck down its segregation ordinances, though the Commission assured citizens that it was doing so only to meet the requirements of U.S. law. And by the mid-'60s, blacks started to make inroads in the community. In 1963 Dr. Jacob Shirley became the first African-American admitted to the Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital staff. In 1964, the first black Albany Police officers -- Albert Bennett Jr., David High, Eddie Williams, Joe Johnson, Harry Hansford and Franklin Traylor -- joined the force.

But perhaps the most significant advancement for black citizens in Albany came when six African-American sanitation workers filed an unfair wages suit against the city.

JOHNNY JOHNSON SUIT

Phipps, who'd been offered a job the year before with his hero, civil rights attorney C.B. King, remembers the Johnson case as "doing more to bring Albany into the 20th century than any other action ever taken."

King filed suit on behalf of Johnson and fellow sanitation workers Earnest Culbreath, Willie Fogg, June Mayor, Lindsay Roberts and Julius Cobb, contending the city of Albany discriminated against all black workers through its wage scale.

"We had all kinds of other civil rights litigation going on at the time of the Johnson case," Phipps said. "Most people didn't understand at the time how strictly Albany segregated its work force. We knew if we were successful in defending the workers, it was going to mean so much to the entire community.

"It was disgraceful that a government entity treated its workers this way. Fortunately, Johnny Johnson and those other workers had the courage to stand up and put their jobs -- such as they were -- on the line. Other than two or three people at that time, the only black workers hired by the city were sanitation workers, and they couldn't even drive the trucks."

Judge Wilbur Owens ruled in the Albany workers' favor, opening the door for an entirely new set of hiring and pay standards by local government entities.

Emboldened by their victory in the courts, and with a growth in black population that by the 1990 census for the first time since the 1940s surpassed whites in the county, African-Americans started to flex their new-found political muscle.

In 1974, John White became the first black from the region elected to the state House of Representatives. The next year Robert Montgomery and Mary Young were the first African-Americans elected to serve on the Albany City Commission.

Charles Sherrod, long recognized as one of the most influential members of the local civil rights movement, was elected to the City Commission in 1977, and the next year Don Cutler and James Bush became the first blacks elected to the Dougherty County Commission.

By the 1990s, Albany had seen the appointment of its first black police chief, the election of its first black members of the local school board, its first black judge, its first black Civic Center director and its first black city manager.

JIM CROW LINGERS

Even with monumental advancements, few blacks think constitutionally guaranteed equality has been achieved in this country, especially in the South.

"There's plenty of work still to be done at every level," Phipps said. "Even with all the improvements, there's still a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, we haven't come as far as a lot of people want to think we have."

Indeed, Muhammad, who spoke recently at the Civil Rights Institute, said the country's criminal justice system, particularly through its so-called war on drugs, has negatively impacted African-American families.

"The extended punishments in the war on drugs effectively changes the political populous because individuals convicted of felonies are no longer allowed to vote," he said. "And research shows that African-American men with a criminal conviction are considerably less likely than whites to find employment once they're released from the penal system.

"I know people make the 'bad people make bad decisions' argument, but there is evidence that the same proportion of whites, blacks and Hispanics use drugs, yet whites are the least affected. There is a disproportionate amount of pain felt in the African-American community from the war on drugs, and it's even greater in the South."

Muhammad said communities like Albany are looking for a new generation of black leaders.

"The most frightening thing is that there's plenty of work left to be done, but the old lions of the civil rights movement are passing away," he said. "In the post-Civil Rights era, there is no sense of urgency to battle the nonviolent discrimination that still goes on. Unfortunately, no one's shown citizens how to fight a battle on this scale."

Harris, who still sings the songs of freedom that were such a vital part of the civil rights movement, said it may take several more generations to erase the hatred and mistrust that made the Jim Crow era possible.

"Once people take something in their heart, they usually take it with them to their grave," she said. "That kind of hatred is a learned behavior, it's taught. Our hope is that the next generations will teach their children how wrong it is.

"As a Christian, I have to believe things will be better if we pray. We have to continue to pray."

Herald Librarian Mary Braswell contributed to this article. Albany Civil Rights Institute intern Sam Ratner helped with research.