I know that continually posting on one book doesn’t add much interesting variety to my blog, but I don’t regret it. In reading this book, I feel like I better understand my own country. I’ve also been dwelling a lot on the nature of social change. Before I read this book, I had a simplistic view of the Civil Rights Era: it was a time of inspirational heroes overcoming terrible and often violent opposition, heroes advancing the cause of freedom and equality. And all of that is still true.
But I failed to fully appreciate that, especially in the early years, victory did not seem sure. Civil rights activists not only had to overcome violent opposition, but also more prosaic obstacles like disagreements among civil rights groups and personalities; distortions by the media; lack of resources. Segregationists were not always mob-like and thuggish; they could also be sly and clever and use the court system to hobble civil rights leaders (see perjury and other charges against Martin Luther King Jr., also New York Times v. Sullivan). And sometimes, as in the case of the Albany Movement, a whole community can mobilize against segregation and have their efforts be labeled a failure.
The Albany Movement started in November 1961, when a group of young people, aided by Charles Sherrod of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) decided to protest segregation. Soon the movement spread throughout the community and by December, Martin Luther King, Jr. was also involved. Hundreds of people were arrested for marching in protest, and most chose jail time instead of paying the fine. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also arrested and went to jail. But due to a variety of factors, the unity of the Albany Movement fractured and people became less willing to protest. From the local government to the presidential administration, the powers-that-be just wanted the movement to go away. Local and state officials used a variety of tactics to accomplish this goal, and the federal government was reluctant to intervene.
Perhaps the most absurd event, for me, was when segregationist U.S. District Court judge J. Robert Elliott “ruled that Negro protest marches denied Albany’s white people equal protection by draining police manpower and other public resources out of white neighborhoods” (p. 609). It was a clever move. If the civil rights activists defied this federal ruling, it would give ammunition for those states that were actively resisting the federal school desegregation orders. In the end, several hundred protesters did defy Elliott’s injunction, but Martin Luther King, Jr. painfully decided not to defy the order. The injunction was later lifted as it obviously had little legal ground to stand on.
Perhaps the most horrifying event that occurred in opposition to these protests was the beating of Marion King (no relation to MLK), a well-respected member of Albany’s black community. Marion King was standing outside of the jail in Camilla to catch a glimpse of Albany protesters that she knew. Around her, other visitors were singing. When the deputies ordered the crowd back from the fence, Marion King did not move as fast as the others. The sheriff struck her so hard that her three-year-old daughter fell from her arms to the pavement. Marion King was also knocked to the ground and kicked. She was five and a half months pregnant at the time and some weeks later she miscarried. You can see the interview with her here: http://crdl.usg.edu/cgi/crdl?format=_video;query=id:ugabma_wsbn_44817
The attack on Marion King did galvanize Albany activists further, but others in the community were not so committed to nonviolence and threw rocks and bottles at Albany police. Authorities of course used this to their advantage, and the chief of police remarked “Did you see them nonviolent rocks?” Major media coverage failed to note Marion King’s beating, leaving the wider public ignorant as to the cause of this near-riot.
In the end, the movement lost momentum, and segregation still reigned in Albany. King and others were criticized roundly for this “failure”, including from people associated with the NAACP. I found the following passage quite thought-provoking:
More burdensome to King than the multiplicity of his critics was their detachment. Since he viewed Albany as part of a universal moral issue, with only one clear and just resolution that ought to be as compelling to the white reporter in Iowa as to himself, it nettled him to see people of all opinions stand aside to analyze the results as though segregation might be vindicated, or nonviolence falsified, by his performance in Albany. King felt victimized at the hands of bystanders. He did not believe that the continued enforcement of segregation in Albany lessened the justice of his claims any more than a second-place finish by Jesse Owens would have ennobled Hitler’s ideas. [p. 631]
This passage, and really the whole book, has me thinking about the difficulties we still face when trying to call for change. We are still too easily distracted by score-keeping; too caught up in analyzing the personalities involved. During the Occupy Wall Street movement, it was easier for many to be dismissive of the protesters and their methods than to truly grapple with the problem of wealth inequality. I myself am conflicted about how OWS turned out, but I don’t think that makes that central concern any less valid. The struggle toward marriage equality gets mired by weird distracting episodes involving fast-food chains, but I don’t think that makes the cause less just. I think the move to make birth control more accessible is a worthy public health goal, but apparently many in society could only evaluate the merits of this goal based on one woman, Sandra Fluke, instead of the many women of all social strata who would benefit.
I know I’m wearing my political and moral beliefs on my sleeve here, something I usually steer away from in the online arena, but this book has a way of activating the passionate side I usually reserve only for in-person discussions with friends and family. My main point is this: I want to be better at seeing past the vicissitudes of the news-cycle, past the endless polarized discussions that go nowhere. I don’t want hurried reporters, calcified debaters, and news-bites from politicians to have the last word on what happened, what is happening, and what will happen. All of them are going to keep on generating noise, and I want to keep on seeking what is true and just. That requires patience and perseverance, to sift through information, to listen to people, to get beyond my own selfishness and laziness.
Now I have no idea if my description of the Albany Movement and my own ruminations seem connected – it’s possible that you’re not sure how I got from one to the other. I’ve been living and stewing around with this book for such a long time, that it may be one of those things where “it all made sense in my head.” Well, thanks for reading anyway. I hope to report before long that I’ve finished this book. And if it turns out that I miss reading it, there’s always the second two books of the trilogy!