ALBANY – On the evening of April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a riveting speech at the Mason temple in Memphis, Tenn., speaking in support of an ongoing Memphis sanitation strike.
The most quoted segment of his speech proved to be chillingly prophetic.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” King said. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
This was not a melodramatic statement. For King death was no stranger. In his speech, he referenced being attacked 10 years earlier at a book signing in Harlem. He was approached by a stylishly dressed black woman wearing sequined cat’s-eye glasses who asked, “Are you Martin Luther King?” When he responded that he was, she lunged across the desk where he sat and drove a 7-inch pen knife into his chest with such force the handle broke off from the blade.
As King sat in his chair with the blade protruding from his sternum, bystanders disagreed over what they should do. Fortunately for King and the nation, they did not elect to remove the blade. King remained calm and conscious, reassuring those around him that everything would be alright as they carried him in the chair to an ambulance, which transported him to a Harlem hospital. There it was discovered that the blade was resting against his aorta.
King went on to mention the many letters he received while in the hospital recovering from the attack carried out by the mentally ill Georgia woman in his speech in Memphis.
“They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states, and the world, kind letters came in,” he said. “I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the president and the vice president. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what the letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, ‘Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.’
“And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.”
Historically, King’s connection to Albany and the Albany Movement are significant and controversial for a variety of reasons. King came to Albany in December of 1961 at the invitation of Dr. William G. Anderson and his wife, Norma, who were prominent figures in the black community and close friends with King’s wife, Coretta. His invitation was the result of a series of events that transpired during the last week in November carrying into mid-December.
Earlier that year at a national conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the group selected Albany and the surrounding southwest Georgia counties, as a target for voter registration drives. These counties had a black majority population but white-controlled governance. Starting at the ballot box seemed to be a logical starting place for change.
SNCC sent three field secretaries to the region to support these efforts, but when they stalled it was decided that a focus on Albany and widespread changes there might be a more realistic and effective goal. The most receptive audience for the SNCC organizers turned out to be students in high school and at then all-black Albany State College. However, the use of youths in protest efforts was opposed not only by the college administration but by the local NAACP.
The local NAACP was led by E.D. Hamilton, a local dentist. In November of 1961, Charles Sherrod from SNCC faced off against Hamilton, calling a meeting that ended Hamilton’s leadership role. At the same time, SNCC sought to remove Thomas Chatmon, a local businessman, from his position as adult advisor to the NAACP Youth Council. Both moves created acrimony within the black community.
With tensions growing, the Albany Movement was born. Groups involved in the nascent organization included the Ministerial Alliance, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Negro Voters League, the Criterion Club, the NAACP and its Youth Council. Anderson was chosen as chairman, and Slater King was selected as vice chairman.
When five black students were arrested on Nov. 22, 1961 for sitting in at the lunch counter of the Trailways bus station in Albany, the Albany Movement called for a mass meeting at Mt. Zion Baptist Church on the 25th. The students who had been released from jail told of their experiences while being held there. The first mass protest march in Albany was held two days later. When The Albany Herald criticized these actions, the Albany Movement called for a boycott of all Herald advertisers.
On Dec. 10, nine Freedom Riders got off the train at the Albany Depot, having traveled from Atlanta. They sat there in an integrated group and were arrested. Two days later, 267 high school and college students marched in protest and were in turn arrested as well. Most were unwilling or unable to pay bail and remained in jail. The next day, more than 200 protesters were arrested for marching on City Hall without a permit.
Elsewhere in the country, mass jailings had been used to successfully bring municipalities to the bargaining table once their jails were filled to the point of overflow and other arrests were no longer a viable option. Although more than 500 had been jailed in Albany jail capacity had not been achieved.
The failure to fill the cells was a result of Police Chief Laurie Pritchett’s understanding of the Civil Rights members’ strategies. Realizing that Albany would in all likelihood become a target of desegregation efforts he reached out to other city and county jails within a 90-mile radius of Albany, securing agreements allowing him to transport those he arrested to those facilities. As a result, local jail capacity was not an issue.
Accepting the Andersons’ invitation, King came to Albany expecting to give a speech supporting the Albany Movement and its efforts and then go back to his scheduled activities. It should be noted that SNCC strongly objected to inviting King, seeking to retain control over what they envisioned as a local effort.
Arriving in Albany, King was met with a massive local reception. Arriving at Mt. Zion, the emotions of those assembled there and the songs from those outside who could not get into the packed sanctuary forced him to speak three times at Shiloh Baptist Church and Mt. Zion. As the final service ended, Anderson rose to his feet encouraging those gathered there to, return in the morning and “bring their marching shoes.”
King reassured those assembled that if they were unable to come to an agreement with the mayor and other city officials the following morning, he would indeed lead them in their march. Anderson had given the city officials until noon to come to an agreement with the movement.
When an agreement was not reached, contrary to his original plans, King was true to his word and joined the more than 200 protesters assembled at Shiloh.
“Hundreds of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, are in jail,” he said. “We will not rest until they are released. … I am here because there are 20 million Negroes in the United States, and I love every one of them. I am concerned about every one of them. What happens to every one of them. What happens to any one of them concerns all directly. I am here because I love the white man. Until the Negro gets free, white men will not be free. … I am here because I love America. I’m going to live right here in the United States and probably here in Georgia the rest of my life. I’m not an outsider. Anybody who lives in the United States is not an outsider in the United States.”
Following King’s address to those assembled, Anderson prayed from the pulpit, then King led them toward the heart of the city. There they were met by Chief Pritchett the Albany Police Department and a collection of paddywagons. As King and Anderson kneeled in prayer, the marchers moved forward to their arrest.
Pritchett had studied King’s methods, which were guided by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. He had worked to prepare his police force to respond in a non-violent manner with the realization that an openly violent response would only draw a greater media focus on Albany than the presence of King had already achieved.
During his first incarceration in Albany, King would become aware not only that a victory had not been achieved but that the fractional divisions within the Albany Movement were amplified by his presence.
Further division between the civil rights organizations in Albany occured when Wyatt T. Walker took control of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during King’s incarceration and declared he would bring the organization’s total resources to Albany. At the same time, Marion Page, secretary of the Albany Movement, was acting as head of that organization while Anderson and Slater King were also in the Albany jail.
Page stated his opposition to the SCLC increasing its presence in Albany stating, “As of now, we need no help.”
Page led a trio of leaders agreeing to a truce with the mayor and Albany City Commission, which would release King and the other protestors from Jail on Dec. 18. In exchange, the Albany Movement would call off other planned protests. The second part of the supposed agreement with the commission was an agreement to desegregate the train and bus stations. Finally, it was proposed that the newly elected commission would hear the grievances of the black citizens at their first business meeting. Historians have stated that the movement would rather accomplish nothing than sustain advances to their cause with outside assistance. King was not happy with the arrangement, but Anderson convinced him that it was the best course of action and King saw no reason to stand in the way of peaceful resolution.
In the long run, it would not matter, as the offers by the Commission were merely a ruse to try and placate the black community, who having turned out in large numbers, got little in return. In contrast, the city got exactly what it wanted: King out of jail and hopefully on his way out of town.
“We … met nonviolence with nonviolence and we are indeed proud of the outcome,” Pritchett said. Newspapers around the country referred to the incident proclaiming that King had been defeated in Albany. King would later admit that it was a poor decision, and the commission’s decision to honor the verbal commitment would lead him to only accept such offers in writing from that point forward.
It would later be learned that Page was in contact not only with the FBI, but spoke almost nightly with Pritchett. It was Page’s attorney, C.B. King, who negotiated the agreement that got King out of jail.
After King’s departure, the movement continued its efforts to get a seat at the bargaining table with a series of boycotts of white businesses, but without significant buying power the results were minimal. The movement then chose to boycott the local bus system. Although the boycott was successful, the end goal was not achieved as the commission continued to refuse to address the grievances of the black citizens. At the same time, the bus company closed its operations in Albany.
King returned to Albany on Feb. 27, 1962, for his trial, where he was found guilty of disorderly conduct and parading without a permit. Judge Fred Durden would not pronounce sentence until July 10, calling King back for sentencing at that time.
In his diary, King wrote:
Tuesday July 10: We left Atlanta in a party of seven via Southern Airlines to attend court trial in Albany, Georgia. The party included Juanita and Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, Ted Brown, Vincent Harding, Coretta, and myself. We left Atlanta around 7:45 a.m. and arrived in Albany promptly at 8:50. We were met at the airport by Andy Young, who had preceded us the night before, Dr. William Anderson and the two detectives who had been assigned to us by the city. We proceeded directly to Dr. Anderson’s residence. There we had breakfast and discussed our possible action in the event we were convicted. Dr. Anderson brought us up to date on the temper of the Negro community. He assured us that the people were generally enthusiastic and determined to stick with us to the end. He mentioned that several people had made it palpably clear that they would go to jail again and stay indefinitely. From all of these words we gradually concluded that we had no alternative but to serve the time if we were sentenced. Considering church and organizational responsibilities, we concluded that we could not stay in more than three months. But if the sentence were three months or less, we would serve the time. With this decision we left for court, was sentenced a total fine of $178 or 45 days of hard labor.
After a brief press conference in the vestibule of the court, we were brought immediately to the Albany City Jail, which is in the basement of the same building which houses the court and the city hall. This jail is by far the worst I’ve ever been in. It is a dingy, dirty hole with nothing suggestive of civilized society. The cells are saturated with filth, and what mattresses there are for the bunks are as hard as solid rocks and as nasty as anything that one has ever seen. The companionship of roaches and ants is not at all unusual. In several of the cells there are no mattresses at all. The occupants are compelled to sleep on the bare hard steel.
When we entered our cell — Ralph and I were placed together in a single cell — we found it as filthy as all the rest. However, conscious of the fact that he had some political prisoners on hand who could make these conditions known around the nation, the chief immediately ordered the entire cell block to be cleaned. So with water, soap, and Lysol, the boys got to work and gave the cleaning it so desperately needed.
The rest of the day was spent getting adjusted to our home for the next 45 days. There is something inherently depressing about jail, especially when one is confined to his cell. We soon discovered that we would not be ordered to work on the streets because, according to the Chief, “it would not be safe.” This, to me, was bad news. I wanted to work on the streets at least to give some attention to the daily round. Jail is depressing because it shuts off the world. It leaves one caught in the dull monotony of sameness. It is almost like being dead while one still lives. To adjust to such a meaningless existence is not easy. The only way that I adjust to it is to constantly remind myself that this self-imposed suffering is for a great cause and purpose. This realization takes a little of the agony and a little of the depression away. But, in spite of this, the painfulness of the experience remains. It is something like the mother giving birth to a child. While she is temporarily consoled by the fact that her pain is not just bare meaningless pain, she nevertheless experiences the pain. In spite of the fact that she realizes that beneath her pain is the emergence of life in a radiant infant, she experiences the agony right on. So is the jail experience. It is life without the singing of a bird, without the sight of the sun, moon and stars, without the felt presence of the fresh air. In short, it is life without the beauties of life; it is bare existence — cold, cruel, and degenerating.
One of the things that takes the monotony out of jail is the visit of a relative or friend. About 1:30 — three hours after we were arrested — our wives came by to see us. As usual, Coretta was calm and sweet, encouraging me at every point. God blessed me with a great and wonderful wife. Without her love, understanding and courage, I would have faltered long ago. I asked about the children. She told me that Yolanda cried when she discovered that her daddy was in jail. Somehow, I have never quite adjusted to bringing my children up under such inexplicable conditions. How do you explain to a little child why you have to go to jail? Coretta developed an answer. She told them that daddy has gone to jail to help the people.
The rest of the day was spent sleeping, adjusting to the unbearable heat, and talking with other friends: Wyatt, Dr. Anderson, Andy Young, Ted Brown, Vincent Harding, and Atty. King, who floated in. Around 11 p.m. I fell asleep. Never before have I slept under more miserable conditions. My bed was so hard, my back was so sore, and the jail was so ugly.
Wednesday, July 11: I awoke bright and early. It was around 6:00 to be exact. My back was still sore. Around 8:00, breakfast came. We had fasted all day Tuesday in order to prepare ourselves, spiritually, for the ordeals ahead. We broke the fast by eating breakfast.
At 10:00 we had a visit from C.K. Steele, Andy Young and Henry Elkins, my summer assistant pastor. He had brought me some articles that my wife sent from Atlanta. They told us about the mass meeting. It was lively and extremely well-attended. They whispered to us that a group was planning to march to the city hall around noon.
Around noon the group did march. They were led by C.K. Steele. All were arrested, about fifty. They were first brought to the city jails. We heard them as they approached singing freedom songs. Naturally this was a big lift for us.
As the group neared the jail, two of the jailers came over and ordered Ralph and I to move over to what is known as the bullpen. This is a dark and desolate cell that holds nine persons. It is unbelievable that such a cell could exist in a supposedly civilized society.
About seven-thirty on the morning of July 13, we were called and notified that Chief Pritchett wanted to see us. They asked us to dress in our civilian clothes. We did that and went to see Chief Pritchett at about nine o’clock. At which time, the Chief said to us that we had been released, in other words that our fine had been paid. I said, “Well, Chief, we want to serve this time, we feel that we owe it to ourselves and the seven hundred and some-odd people of this community who still have these cases hanging over them.” His only response then was, “God knows, Reverend, I don’t want you in my jail.” This was one time that I was out of jail and I was not happy to be out. Not that I particularly enjoyed the inconveniences and the discomforts of jail, but I did not appreciate the subtle and conniving tactics used to get us out of jail. We had witnessed persons being kicked off lunch counter stools during the sit-ins, ejected from churches during the kneel-ins, and thrown into jail during the Freedom Rides. But for the first time, we witnessed being kicked out of jail.
Interestingly, King and Pritchett appear to have developed a respect for each other during their interactions.
“I sincerely believe that Chief Pritchett is a nice man, a basically decent man, but he’s so caught up in a system that he ends up saying one thing to us behind closed doors and then we open the newspaper and he’s said something else to the press,” King would say.
During King’s incarceration in Albany President John F. Kennedy is said to have been not only worried about the dangers that King might face while he was jailed in south Georgia but was livid with the political chess game in Albany, stating if he could negotiate with the Soviet Union, the Albany City Commission could damn well sit down with the black leaders there.
On the day of the sentencing, some angry protesters threw rocks and bottles at police outside the Courthouse. During a meeting that evening at Shiloh Church, Pritchett intruded for the first time, asking the leaders gathered there to try return to a nonviolent approach.
This outbreak of violence may have been the motivating factor in getting King out of jail. James H. Gray, the editor of The Albany Herald, was a personal friend of Kennedy’s and his Georgia campaign manager in 1960. Some believe that Kennedy was instrumental in getting Gray to intercede and get King released from jail. Other theorists believe that it was a local effort conceived in collaboration with white segregationists and conservative blacks.
Pritchett later acknowledged that a plan was drawn up to have King’s fine paid without his knowledge or permission. However, he said he agreed with the strategy but left the meeting before knowing who would actually put up the money. Calm was restored in the community following King’s release; however, he vowed to return to Albany after going home to preach the Sunday service in Atlanta. He also announced that the SCLC would be establishing an office in Albany. On July 17, in speeches delivered at Shiloh and Mt. Zion, he seemed to indicate a more militant approach was pending.
However, on July 20 Federal Judge Robert Elliott, a segregationist judge appointed by President Kennedy, issued an injunction against further protest in Albany. King declared that this was conspiratorial and that he would work to have the order rescinded. King and other leaders were prohibited from marching under the injunction.
On July 24 tempers once again flared and a black crowd began throwing rocks and bottles at police injuring one officer, who had to be hospitalized due to his injuries. Pritchett goaded the press asking, “Did you see them nonviolent rocks?” King declared a day of penance stating he would leave Albany if violence broke out again.
Excerpts from King’s jail diary and subsequent appraisal of the events in Albany:
Friday, July 27: Ralph Abernathy and I were arrested again in Albany at 3:15 P.m. (for the second time in July and the third time since last December). We were accompanied by Dr. W.G. Anderson, Slater King, the Rev. Ben Gay, and seven ladies. This group held a prayer vigil in front of City Hall, seeking to appeal to the City Commission to negotiate with leaders of the Albany Movement. When we arrived at the city hall, the press was on hand in large numbers, and Police Chief Laurie Pritchett came directly over to us and invited us into his office. When we declined, he immediately ordered us arrested.
Around 9 p.m., one of the officers came to the cell and said Chief Pritchett wanted to see me in his office. I responded suspiciously, remembering that two weeks ago, we were summoned to Pritchett’s office, only to discover that we were being tricked out of jail. (A mysterious donor paid the fine, $178 for each of us.) Today, we were determined that this would not happen again. So, I told the officer that Pritchett would have to step back to our cell. The officer reacted very bitterly, but he apparently got the message to Pritchett because the Chief came immediately and said: “Come on, Doctor. I am not trying to get you to leave. There is a long-distance call for you from a man named Spivak.”
The call turned out to be Lawrence Spivak from the Meet the Press TV program. I was scheduled to be on the program, Sunday, July 29. He was very upset and literally begged me to come out on bond. I immediately called Atty. (C.B.) King and the Rev. Wyatt Walker, my assistant, to the jail and sought their advice. We all agreed that I should not leave and suggested that Dr. Anderson, president of the Albany Movement, get out on bond and substitute for me. Dr. Anderson agreed and I decided to remain in jail.
Saturday, July 28: I was able to arrange with Chief Pritchett for members of my staff to consult with me at any time. We held our staff meetings right there in jail. My wife, Coretta, also came to see me twice today before returning to Atlanta.
When Wyatt came to the jail, I emphasized that more demonstrations must be held with smaller numbers in front of the city hall instead of large marches because there is so much tension in the town.
A little while after I talked with Wyatt, 15 more demonstrators were arrested as they appeared before City Hall and they all came in the jail singing loudly. This was a big lift for us. This group was immediately shipped out to another jail in the state.
Later that day. Pritchett came and asked me to leave jail for good. He said that someone had actually sent the cash money for my bond and technically he could make me leave. I told him I certainly did not want to be put in the position of being dragged out of jail, but that I had no intention of leaving because I wanted to serve my sentence.
Pritchett told us: “You don’t know how tense things are, do you? Do you know what happened?” When we said no, he replied: “Somebody almost busted C.B. King’s head wide open.” It sounded horrible and we became excited. I asked him who and he said calmly, “The sheriff over in the County Jail.” I immediately sent for Wyatt and asked him to send a telegram to the president and to call Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy and Burke Marshall of the Justice Dept. I told them I was very much concerned about this kind of brutality by law enforcement agencies and that something had to be done.
Sunday, July 29: Everything was rather quiet this morning. We had our regular devotional services among all the prisoners. I read from the Book of Job. We hold services every morning and evening and sing whenever we feel like it. Since only Ralph and 1 are in a cell together, we can’t see the other prisoners, but we can always hear them. Slater is two cells away. Marvin Rich, Ed Dickenson, and Earl Gordon (some white demonstrators) are across the hall in another cell block but they join us in services. After devotion, 1 started reading some of the books I had with me.
Monday, July 30: I spent most of the day reading and writing my book on Negro sermons before our hearing in federal court started. The heat was so unbearable, I could hardly get anything done. I think we had the hottest cell in the jail because it is back in a corner.
I talked with Wyatt and he told me the demonstrations were still going as planned. We soon heard about them because they brought in about 15 more they had arrested. We were then told to get ready to go to court to begin the hearing on the city’s request for a federal injunction against the demonstrations. We discussed how the Albany battle must be waged on all four fronts. A legal battle in the courts; with demonstrations and kneel-ins and sit-ins; with an economic boycott; and, finally, with an intense voter registration campaign. This is going to be a long summer.
Tuesday, July 31: I was very glad to get to court today because I had a chance to see my wife and my friends and associates who are keeping the Albany Movement going. I also had a chance to consult with Wyatt during the recesses. He told us demonstrations were going on while we were in court and that some of the youth groups led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were testing places like drugstores and drive-ins and motels.
Later, my father came to me with the Rev. Allen Middleton, head of Atlanta’s SCLC chapter. I was happy to hear that my mother has adjusted to my role in the Albany Movement. She understood that I still had to remain in jail as long as necessary. I told Dad to invite some preachers in to help him carry on the church, but he told me, “As long as you carry on in jail, I’ll carry on outside.”
Wednesday, August 1: My father and Dr. Middleton came to see me again this morning and told me they spoke at the mass meeting last night at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. The crowd was so large they overflowed into Shiloh Baptist across the street, where nightly mass meetings are usually held. Dad said he would remain through today’s hearing and listen to Chief Pritchett’s testimony about how he had to arrest Negroes to protect the white people from beating them.
Saturday, August 4: More demonstrators were arrested all day today and later on Pritchett came back and asked them to sing for him. “Sing that song about ‘Ain’t Going to Let Chief Pritchett Turn Me Around,’” he asked. I think he really enjoyed hearing it. The other jailers would just stare and listen.
Sunday, August 5: Today was a big day for me, because my children — Yolanda, Martin Luther III, and Dexter — came to see me. I had not seen them for five weeks.
Monday, August 6: I saw Coretta again before she left to take the children back to Atlanta. I devoted most of the day to reading newspapers and letters from all over the world. Some of them were just addressed to “Nation’s No. 1 Troublemaker, Albany,” without any state. I got a few bad ones like this, but most of them were good letters of encouragement from Negroes and whites. After dinner and devotional period I continued writing on my book. I have written three sermons in jail: ... “A Tender Heart and A Tough Mind,” “Love in Action,” and “Loving Your Enemies.”
Tuesday, August 7: We went back to court today. As I listened to the testimony of the state’s witnesses about how they were trying to prevent violence and protect the people, I told Ralph it was very depressing to see city officials make a farce of the court.
Wednesday, August 8: Today was the last day of the hearing and Ralph and I testified. Although the federal court hearing offered some relief from the hot jail, I was glad the hearings were over. It was always miserable going back to the hot cell from the air-conditioned courtroom. I was so exhausted and sick that Dr. Anderson had to come and treat me for the second time.
Thursday, August 9: Even though we decided to remain in jail, “We Woke Up This Morning with Our Mind on Freedom.” ... Later, Wyatt and Dr. Anderson came and told me that two marches were being planned if Ralph and I were sentenced to jail tomorrow. All of the mothers of many prisoners agreed to join their families in jail including my wife, Mrs. Anderson, Wyatt’s wife, Young’s wife, Ralph’s wife, and the wife of Atty. William Kunstler.
Friday, August 10: The suspended sentence today did not come as a complete surprise to me. I still think the sentence was unjust and I want to appeal but our lawyers have not decided. Ralph and I agreed to call off the marches and return to our churches in Atlanta to give the commission a chance to “save face” and demonstrate good faith with the Albany Movement. I thought the federal government could do more, because basic constitutional rights were being denied.
Our movement aroused the Negro to a spirited pitch in which more than 5 percent of the Negro population voluntarily went to jail. At the same time, about 95 percent of the Negro population boycotted buses, and shops where humiliation, not service, was offered. Those boycotts were remarkably effective. The buses were off the streets and rusting in garages, and the line went out of business. Other merchants watched the sales of their goods decline week by week. National concerns even changed plans to open branches in Albany because the city was too unstable to encourage business to invest there. To thwart us, the opposition had closed parks and libraries, but in the process, they closed them for white people as well, thus they had made their modern city little better than a rural village without recreational and cultural facilities.
When months of demonstrations and failings failed to accomplish the goals of the movement, reports in the press and elsewhere pronounced nonviolent resistance a dead issue. There were weaknesses in Albany, and a share of the responsibility belongs to each of us who participated. ... Looking back over it, I’m sorry I was bailed out. I didn’t understand at the time what was happening. We lost an initiative that we never regained. We attacked the political power structure instead of the economic power structure. You don’t win against a political power structure where you don’t have the votes.
If I had that to do again, I would guide that community’s Negro leadership differently than I did. The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair. It would have been much better to have concentrated upon integrating the buses or the lunch counters. But I don’t mean that our work in Albany ended in failure. And what we learned from our mistakes in Albany helped our later campaigns in other cities to be more effective. We never since scattered our efforts in a general attack on segregation, but focused upon specific, symbolic objectives.
Yet, the repeal of Albany’s segregation laws indicated clearly that the city fathers were realistically facing the legal death of segregation. After the “jail-ins,” the City Commission repealed the entire section of the city code that carried segregation ordinances. The public library was opened on a thirty-day “trial” basis — integrated! To be sure, neither of these events could be measured as a full victory, but neither did they smack of defeat.
When we planned our strategy for Birmingham months later, we spent many hours assessing Albany and trying to learn from its errors. Our appraisals not only helped to make our subsequent tactics more effective but revealed that Albany was far from an unqualified failure. Though lunch counters remained segregated, thousands of Negroes were added to the voting registration rolls. In the gubernatorial elections that followed our summer there, a moderate candidate confronted a rabid segregationist. By reason of the expanded Negro vote, the moderate defeated the segregationist in the city of Albany, which in turn contributed to his victory in the state. As a result, Georgia elected its first governor pledged to respect and enforce the law equally.
In short, our movement had taken the moral offensive, enriching our people with a spirit of strength to fight for equality and freedom even if the struggle is to be long and arduous. The people of Albany had straightened their backs, and, as Gandhi had said, no one can ride on the back of a man unless it is bent.
Less than 24 hours after recalling this moment in his speech supporting the sanitation strike, King would be assassinated while standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.