King, nonviolence and the Albany Movement

Lee Sustar tells how Martin Luther King's strategy of nonviolence was put to the test.

The History of Black America

MARTIN LUTHER King Jr. was optimistic as the 1960s began. He had become an international figure since leading the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. The new Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, had practically begged King to endorse him, and Black voters gave Kennedy his narrow margin of victory over opponent Richard Nixon.

While the outgoing Republican Eisenhower administration gave only lip service to civil rights, Kennedy had promised to support Southern Blacks with an executive order that would make Jim Crow unconstitutional.

But the experience of Kennedy in office was quite different. When King and his supporters once again confronted the racists--most famously in this period in Albany, Ga., and Birmingham, Ala.--the president and his advisers responded by calling for the maintenance of "law and order" and investigating King's alleged Communist Party ties, rather than by attacking Jim Crow.

Despite their promises, the Kennedys claimed the government had no jurisdiction over the Jim Crow laws of Southern cities, and they told King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to await Congressional action.

It was only repeated, bloody confrontations between the Black youth of Birmingham and the brutal police of Eugene "Bull" Connor--and the possibility of a Black rebellion across the South--that forced Kennedy to draft civil rights legislation.

By the time King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech at the August 1963 March on Washington, the pitfalls of his nonviolent strategy--and the treachery of the Democrats--was clear to thousands of young Black activists.

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IRONICALLY, THE 1961-62 Albany movement was partly the result of the Kennedys' intervention in civil rights. The administration had convinced activists from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights groups to abandon the 1961 "Freedom Rides"--an attempt to desegregate interstate bus lines--and launch voter registration drives instead.

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While the Kennedys supported civil rights for public relations' sake, their alliance with the Democratic Party's powerful bloc of segregationist "Dixiecrats" dictated that the administration derail the movement. The White House believed voter registration to be a politically safe alternative to the Freedom Rides, where police-backed racist terror against the activists engaged in civil disobedience had embarrassed the new administration.

Despite the agreement with the Democrats, young SNCC activists were still bent on challenging Jim Crow laws. In the small town of Albany, they initiated a boycott of segregated buses and public buildings.

In late 1961, mass arrests of local Black high school and college students at a bus station sit-in swept almost the entire Black community into action. Forming the Albany Movement, with representation from SCLC, SNCC, the NAACP and local church activists, Black leaders decided that by bringing Martin Luther King to town, they could generate enough support to convince the Kennedys to back their demands.

But in the wake of the Freedom Rides, Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett understood that cop violence and racist mobs risked provoking federal intervention. So, he told reporters, he would use "nonviolent" police methods--mass arrests--that would test the civil rights activists' stated willingness to "fill the jails."

By December, there had been no bloodshed, unlike other Southern confrontations. Yet hundreds, including King, were imprisoned--and the Kennedys were satisfied that order had been preserved. While King was jailed, Albany Movement leaders agreed to cease the protests in exchange for the release of prisoners and a vague promise to negotiate by the Albany city officials.

King, who did not repudiate the deal, was blamed for the defeat, while Albany Mayor Asa Kelly gloated he had forced an end to the protests with Jim Crow still intact. Even more humiliating, the Kennedy administration phoned Kelly to congratulate him on his handling of the crisis.

The administration's only words to King were warnings that two of his advisers, Jack O'Dell and Stanley Levison, were linked to the Communist Party and should be dropped. King bowed to pressure and asked O'Dell for his resignation as a paid SCLC staff member. O'Dell continued to be active in the organization as a volunteer.

King subsequently criticized President Kennedy for his "lack of leadership" in civil rights issues. But King maintained his position that federal support was key to the movement's success--a position that would contribute to the final defeat at Albany.

When protests revived in mid-1962, King returned and was once more arrested. King had planned to remain in jail as a martyr, but Albany officials outwitted him, lying that a "well-dressed Black man" had bailed him out.

Meanwhile, Albany Mayor Kelly got a Kennedy-appointed federal judge to issue an order barring King from participating in any marches. Since King had long argued that racists must submit to federal desegregation rulings, the Albany officials knew he would obey the order. Thus, the next Albany protest--the first that involved police violence--took place while King waited in a nearby hotel.

President Kennedy did publicly urge the Albany city council to negotiate with local Black leaders, but he didn't acknowledge a telegram from King requesting federal mediation.

The protests ended in August with Albany Movement leaders agreeing to meet city officials without "outsiders" such as King--and with the city still totally segregated. The energy of thousands who took part in the protests was wasted.

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AFTER ALBANY, at least a few SCLC leaders began to realize that despite their commitment to nonviolence, it was only by exposing the brutality behind Southern segregation that they could force federal officials to intervene. And they knew that Bull Connor of "Bombingham" would oblige them.

In the spring of 1963, Wyatt T. Walker, a top aide to King, and local Black leader Fred Shuttlesworth organized a march to Birmingham's City Hall--even though they never expected to get there.

King had earlier toured the city. Soon, he was on the scene preaching nonviolence. But while King remained in his hotel room, Walker planned a "peaceful" showdown, knowing the ensuing violence would galvanize Black Birmingham into the movement. "At times, I would accommodate or alter my morality for the sake of getting a job done...I did it consciously," Walker said years later. "I felt I had no choice. I wasn't dealing with a moral situation when I dealt with a Bull Connor."

The tactic worked in that Connor's brutality finally forced the Kennedys to back a new civil rights law. But Walker's exposure of inexperienced Black protesters to racist police terror without preparation outraged activists such as SNCC leader James Farmer.

The Black resistance in Birmingham was a signal to the Southern right to escalate its attacks on the movement. Even as King's March on Washington speech in 1963 sought to appeal to the Christian consciousness of the white South, the racists were organizing the biggest campaign of terror the movement had yet seen.

This article first appeared in the June 1987 issue of Socialist Worker.