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Author recounts Albany’s racial struggles

Albany civil rights history to be published

Lee W. Formwalt, historian and former Director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute, delivered a preview of his forthcoming book,”Looking Back, Moving Forward”, a historic account of the black struggle for freedom and equality in Dougherty and surrounding counties. (Staff Photo: Jim West)

Lee W. Formwalt, historian and former Director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute, delivered a preview of his forthcoming book,”Looking Back, Moving Forward”, a historic account of the black struggle for freedom and equality in Dougherty and surrounding counties. (Staff Photo: Jim West)

ALBANY — Attendees of a recent Community Night at the Albany Civil Rights Institute, 326 W. Whitney Ave., had an opportunity to hear a historic synopsis from 200 years of struggle by blacks in Albany and Southwest Georgia.

Former ACRI Director Lee W. Formwalt delivered selected excerpts from his upcoming book “Looking Back, Moving Forward,” to an audience of around 80. The chronological excerpts described the quest for freedom from 1814 through 2014.

“(The book) goes back to the early blacks and the white settlers in Southwest Georgia,” Formwalt began, “White privilege on the one hand, and resistance for freedom and equality on the other have been the continued theme for the past two centuries, beginning with the Creek War of 1813 and 1814 and taking Indian land to grow cotton to the enslavement of blacks, the cornerstone of the cotton kingdom.”

Formalt moved quickly through the early chapters, giving Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863 hardly a passing nod, as Georgia blacks would not benefit from that action till the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the introduction of federal troops, Formalt said.

During those “hopeful years” of reconstruction between 1865 and 1871, black men were elected to the state legislature and built their own churches, schools and social institutions, Formalt said.

But by the end of the 19th century, Jim Crow law had taken root in southwest Georgia and across the southern states. While no longer slaves in a technical sense, it was perfectly legal — and often expected — to ban black people from schools, businesses, restaurants and most other institutions, Formwalt said.

According to Formwalt, even a new form of legal slavery sprung up as “convict leasing” to private contractors and plantation owners. Formalt said that one such penitentiary camp in Dougherty County, operated by Benjamin Lockett, held a total of 162 prisoners, all but 11 being black males. All the prisoners, whether guilty of felonies or misdemeanors, were forced to work at hard labor for 12 to 15 hours each day, Formwalt said.

In his reading to the group, Formalt’s greatest focus went to the period following World War II through the 1950s and the turbulent early 1960s. The author cited black response to Alice Coachman’s Olympic gold medal win in 1948, Albany’s CB King, who became a leading civil rights attorney and the momentous Brown vs. Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court in 1954, which established the integration of races in public schools — at least on paper.

The Supreme Court decision, coupled with increased black equality demands, prompted the establishment of private schools, an increase in the rolls of the Ku Klux Klan, harsh voting laws and other measures aimed at keeping down the blacks, Formwalt said.

“Looking Back and Moving Forward” addresses the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. in Albany in 1961, Formwalt said, and the marches that resumed when King was sent to jail.

“This particular book took four months to finish,” Formwalt said, “But the reality is, I’ve been working on southwest Georgia history for a good 30 years.”

According to Formwalt, he began researching and writing various articles about the struggle in Southwest Georgia in the 1980s when he was a young college professor. “Looking Back and Moving Forward” is constructed from the material researched during those years, and also includes a number of historic photographic reproductions, Formwalt said.

“I want (the readers) to take from this a story of courage, and be inspired by what these people did so that they can make a difference in the world and change the world,” Formwalt said.

Formwalt said his book is published by the Albany Civil Rights Institute and sponsored by Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, HeritageBank of the South, Miller/Coors and by Albany philanthropist Jane Willson. Expected to become available in November or before, Formwalt said the book will be about 100 pages in length and have the look and feel of “a slick, glossy community magazine.”

Formalt holds a Ph.D in history from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and served as director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute for more than two years beginning in 2009. While the price of the book has not been set, Formwalt said it will most likely be offered for $15 to 17. For more information on Formwalt’s book, call the Albany Civil Rights Institute at (229) 432-1698.