Direct action was not unknown in southwestern Georgia. Albany was the location of Albany State College, an all-black school whose students faced routine harassment from the city’s white population. In early 1961, a student leader named Bernice Johnson organized a rally to protest the college’s apparent unwillingness to protect the student body from overt prejudice. When Sherrod and Reagon arrived in the city, they came to rely on local activists like Johnson as intermediaries between SNCC and the larger black community. In November, SNCC, the local branch of the NAACP, and four other black organizations formed the “Albany Movement” and agreed to focus on a broad plan for change that included fair employment, an end to police brutality, and public desegregation. On November 22, Albany police arrested five SNCC activists attempting to integrate the Trailways bus terminal. Five days later, as the young people stood trial, the Albany Movement, including Sherrod, Reagon, and Johnson, led a six-hundred-person march to city hall. Over 450 were arrested.
In Montgomery and Birmingham, the Freedom Riders used arrest and police negligence to call attention to the plight of southern blacks—the images of the beaten Riders demonstrated the violence that kept segregation in place. Yet in Albany, activists found local leaders prepared for their arrival. The city’s police chief, Laurie Pritchett, had read Martin Luther King’s treatise on nonviolence, Stride Toward Freedom, and determined to fight nonviolence with nonviolence. When confronted with public protest, Pritchett quickly sent participants to jail before attracting negative attention. One SNCC member complained, “We ran out of people before he ran out of jails.”
The situation grew even more complicated on December 15 when Martin Luther King arrived in the city with fellow SCLC leader, Alabama’s Ralph Abernathy. Some in the Albany Movement hoped that King’s presence would put additional pressure on the city and Pritchett to accede to activists’ demands. Instead, Pritchett arrested King and Abernathy while they led a protest march. The men were released on bond only after agreeing to a month-long cessation of demonstrations and the creation of an interracial committee to address race relations in Albany. In return, city leaders promised to conform to federal integration of interstate bus terminals.
King’s presence in Albany angered many in SNCC. While he sat in jail, younger leaders in the Albany Movement warned incoming SCLC members, “We welcome any help from outside, but as of now we need no help.” When King was released, he alienated SNCC activists by excluding them from public press conferences. SNCC’s John Lewis remembered Cordell Reagon’s complaint: “I don’t think that anybody appreciates going to jail…and then you don’t even get to speak on it.” King’s actions in Albany validated the worst fears of SNCC’s young volunteers. After weeks of preparation and the threat of constant persecution at the hands of segregationist officials, SNCC’s activists were overshadowed by the popularity of SCLC. King’s planned protest and arrest did nothing to address the needs of local blacks, and his failure to outfox Pritchett threatened to undermine the entire Albany Movement. As Lewis recalled, “Unlike the members of the old-guard civil rights organizations, especially the SCLC, who…did not step down and suffer the kinds of indignities and injustices that the local people were suffering on a daily basis, we did go out and live and suffer with the everyday people.”
After the Albany stalemate, SCLC and SNCC struggled to share the spotlight, and came to embody different aspects of the fight for equality. SCLC, headed by King, used its ever-present national publicity to call attention to the most overt aspects of southern segregation. SNCC focused its attention on rural Alabama and Mississippi, where activists empowered local communities to make lasting social, political, and economic change.