When the civil rights struggle was still controversial, some people stepped up
Chief Laurie Pritchett of the Albany, Georgia, Police Department was not a friend of the Civil Rights Movement in 1962, but not because he was a racist or a bad person. Indeed, he seems to have been a very good person. Therein lay the problem.
The primary purpose of the civil rights struggle was to give equal rights to African-Americans. The method was to focus national attention on injustices and therefore put pressure on communities to change. Eugene “Bull” Connor, police commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, and others seemed to delight in seeing blacks beaten up. Whenever the inevitable conflict happened, the various media would gather and call national and international awareness to the situation. That attention would strengthen the resolve of the civil rights workers and eventually win over the Congress. In a perverse way, violence aided the struggle.
Laurie Pritchett was nonviolent, a student of Gandhi. He was a cop, so he had to enforce the law. But he did it nonviolently and thereby diffused the attention of the national media. The tactics of some of his officers were questionable. One 14-year-old black girl was arrested for “careless walking and attempting to fall down.” Still, for the most part, Chief Pritchett kept a tight rein on his police force.
That frustrated Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the “face” of the Civil Rights Movement. He certainly did not want the police to act violently. But he did want national attention focused on Albany. Publicity was needed to effect change, so Dr. King asked clergy from Chicago and New York to come to Albany and stand with the folks there. About 40 people responded from Chicago. I was one of them and thus began a journey that would affirm a long-held belief about “liberty and justice for all.”
We gathered the evening of August 26, 1962, in the offices of the Church Federation of Greater Chicago in downtown Chicago. Doug Still was the executive of the Federation, and was designated to be our spokesperson. We went through an orientation in which we renewed our commitment to nonviolence in whatever situation we might find ourselves. One of Dr. King’s attorneys showed us how to protect ourselves if attacked. The journey began about 10:00 p.m.
We were a racially mixed delegation that boarded the bus. As we were boarding, a voice rang out, “Negroes to the back of the bus.” I startled at those words until I realized they were spoken by one of the black participants. He began to laugh and then we all did.
As morning approached we were hungry. The first place we stopped in Madisonville, Kentucky, wouldn’t serve us because we were an integrated group. I wondered if they would serve Lutherans this far south. We tried a second restaurant and they were willing to serve us, but in a private room. We would have to use the back door of the restaurant to get to the restrooms. I felt sorry for the waitresses who were cordial but obviously embarrassed. I asked one of our black travelers how he felt about all of this. He shrugged and said, “I’ve lived it all my life.”
The bus trip to Albany took 26 hours, essentially nonstop. We paused in Nashville to buy bread and lunch meat, knowing we wouldn’t be served in any restaurant. We picked up a few copies of the Nashville Banner, which quoted the Albany Ministerial Associa-tion as saying our pilgrimage would be ineffective. The Ministerial Association, of course, consisted of only white clergy.
Tensions mounted as we neared Albany, 180 miles due south of Atlanta. We reviewed our plans — be nonviolent, stick together as much as possible. A chain of command was chosen. About midnight on August 27, we reached Albany and were escorted into town by two police cars. They took us to the home of Dr. William Anderson, a black osteopathic physician, the leader of the Albany Movement. He entered our bus and said, “Welcome to Albany, our homes, our churches, our jails.”
We were escorted to Shiloh Baptist Church where we were given a meal by members of the parish and where I had my first conversation with King. He sat at our table and chatted as we ate, talked of the strategy for the next day, reminded us of the reason for the action. Forty-two percent of Albany’s 56,000 citizens were black but could not use the public swimming pool, library, parks, and other public facilities. One could walk blindfolded through Albany and know when one had reached the black section of town — neither sidewalks nor streets were paved.
We were taken to the homes of local black residents for the night. My friend Bud Klippen and I went to a home with a small living room, smaller kitchen, and one bedroom. He and I shared the bed. I have no idea where the elderly owners slept.
In the morning on August 28, we were taken to the church where we were fed breakfast and the rally began. We had asked to meet with the Albany Ministerial Association. They refused to meet with us so we decided to go to the city hall and hold a prayer service. But first we must hear some speeches and sing some songs. It was wonderful, the first time I had sung “We Shall Overcome.” Dr. King said, “The economic boycott of Albany is not to put anyone out of business but to put justice in business. The struggle is not only to free the Negro people of Albany, but to free all 56,000 citizens of Albany.” This he said, and much more.
We sang songs. “Oh freedom… before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free.” We sang and sang. We white folk were becoming restless; we wanted to get out on the street. King said we weren’t ready yet; we would have to sing some more songs. Then we’d be ready. So we sang. King said we would probably be arrested; the police would find a reason.
We were driven to City Hall, where we lined up three deep on the sidewalk. Reporters were there, television cameras were there, and Chief Pritchett and much of his police force were there. We had a moment of silence. Then one of the clergy read from the Scriptures.
When he had finished, Chief Pritchett asked us why we had come to City Hall. He was told we had come to pray. “Now you’ve had your prayer, I ask you in the name of decency to disperse,” he told us. “Go back to your congregations from where you come and from where you draw your salaries and eradicate the sin there,” implored Pritchett.
A rabbi stepped forward to read Scripture and when he had finished Chief Pritchett said, “All right, you have had your prayer, you have had two prayers, now again I ask you in the name of decency to disperse. You come to the state of Georgia and if you break the law, you will be treated as any lawbreaker. Now I ask you again to disperse.” We didn’t move. The chief said, “All right, lock them up. Don’t let any get away.” The assembled white residents cheered and honked their horns. I sensed they were not on our side.
We were lined up two-by-two and booked into the Albany jail. They took our eyeglasses and shoelaces, presumably because we nonviolent types might break our glasses and use the broken glass as a weapon or hang ourselves with our shoelaces!
Ten of us were put into a cell built for four with four people already in it. After an hour Chief Pritchett decided that wasn’t a good idea. The white local toughs in the cell were threatening to beat up us “nigger lovers.” So much for Southern hospitality.
The police loaded us on a bus, blacks and whites together. We joked that the Albany buses were finally desegregated. We were taken to the Lee County Stockade where chain gangs were held. I don’t know what they did with the chain gangs. The black members of the delegation were put into one large cell; we dozen whites into another with double bunks, one toilet, one sink, no soap, and no towels.
It was hot; August in Georgia. We stripped down to our boxers and briefs. I got a monster headache. I have astigmatism, and going without glasses gives me a headache. We were served breakfast — grits, bacon, biscuit, and coffee. We said “Grace” but did not eat, choosing to fast for the three days. Fasting focuses the attention, a sort of spiritual discipline.
There were no lights in the cell, so as evening approached we sang, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,…in Chief Pritchett’s jailhouse, I’m gonna let it shine.” A rabbi prayed, “Lighten our darkness, O God, by thy mercy defend us from all dangers and perils of the night.” We Christians celebrated Communion with some crackers and stale Pepsi. We sang “Faith of Our Fathers.” We read the 103rd Psalm and the eighth chapter of Romans.
Dr. King stayed in jail only one day. He was needed on the outside. He, Andy Young, later the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Ralph Abernathy visited us in our cell. A memorable sight was that of King and Young reaching into their socks while the guards weren’t looking and pulling out soap and cigarettes which they had smuggled in for us. We were not troubled by the local police or sheriff (as the national spotlight was on them), except when they yelled into our cell, “Shut up that damn singin’ and prayin’.”
After three days I and others bailed ourselves out. I had to get to work. We had been arrested on three charges — blocking the sidewalk (even though photo evidence showed that we had not), disorderly conduct (disorderly prayer, more likely), and failure to obey an officer who had told us to disperse (an illegal order). Under the Constitution we are guaranteed the right to peaceful protest. We have not yet been called to trial; they’ve evidently not heard of the Sixth Amendment’s right to a speedy trial.
Why protest? Why go to jail? Those are fair questions requiring another paper to answer adequately. When Henry David Thoreau was in jail for civil disobedience, Ralph Waldo Emerson asked him why he was in jail. Thoreau replied, “Why are you not in jail?”
Chief Pritchett was a good cop doing his job. A year after our sojourn in Albany, he was in New York attending a police officers convention. He had lunch with a young black woman from Albany attending college in New York. She asked him, “Chief, when is this hatred going to end?” He replied, “I don’t know, but I hope it’s soon.”