Interview:Re-evaluating the Albany Civil Rights Movement: Interview with Lee Formwalt

Lee Formwalt has recently written a book entitled Looking Back, Moving Forward: The Southwest Georgia Freedom Struggle - 1814-2014. It explores the long fight for basic civil rights in Albany, Georgia. Even though local leaders had been pushing for civil rights for years, in 1961-62 the eyes of the nation focused on Albany, Georgia. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference descended on the small city in an effort to end segregation at the local Trailways bus depot. Unlike other battles of the civil rights movement, this one was notable because it was initially unsuccessful and forced leaders within the civil rights movement to reevaluate their strategies. Formwalt's book takes a much longer look at the civil rights movement than just this one year period in Albany and tries to understand the long struggle for civil rights. The book is being co-published by the Georgia Humanities Council and Albany Civil Rights Institute.

Lee W. Formwalt was a professor of history at Albany (GA) State University for 22 years (1977-1999) and served his last 2 years there as Dean of the Graduate School. Founder and editor of The Journal of Southwest Georgia History, he has written numerous scholarly articles and essays, and a book on southwest Georgia history, focusing largely on the African American experience. From 1999 to 2009, he was executive director of the Organization of American Historians, the world’s largest professional association and learned society devoted to the study of United States history. In 2009, he returned to Albany, GA, to become executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute. He retired in 2011 and lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he is currently working on a memoir and a collection of his essays and articles on southwest Georgia history.

What was the genesis of this book?

I have been researching and writing about various aspects of southwest Georgia history for the last 35 years, ever since I moved to that region in the late 1970s to teach at Albany State College. In 1985-1986, I received an NEH fellowship to write a book on the socioeconomic history of 19th-century Dougherty County, the buckle of the southwest Georgia Black Belt. A heavy teaching load made me realize that the book would be a long time coming, so I cranked out a series of articles for a number of scholarly journals instead. In addition, I wrote occasional columns on my research for a wider audience in the local press. Beginning in the late 1990s, administrative appointments, including Executive Director of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), significantly reduced my historical writing on southwest Georgia. In addition, in the 1990s I was a founder and heavily involved in the establishment of the Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum at Old Mt. Zion Church (ACRMM), thus beginning my foray into the 20th-century history of the region.

While I was at OAH, the ACRMM built a $4 million expansion that opened in 2008. Upon retiring from OAH in 2009 I accepted an invitation to serve as executive director of the rechristened Albany Civil Rights Institute (ACRI). One of the first things I did in my new leadership position was to walk around with visitors as docents led them through the new museum. I heard a number of factual errors and I realized that I needed to write a docent’s script and train the tour guides to deliver an accurate account of the events leading up to the Albany Movement as well as the movement itself. That script later served as the outline for Looking Back, Moving Forward.

I retired after serving two years at ACRI. Last fall the Institute came calling with another invitation—this time to write a souvenir book on the history of the Albany Movement to be published by ACRI and then sold in its gift shop to visitors. I agreed to write the 30,000-word book in four months as it was already outlined in the docent’s script I had compiled earlier. That, plus the fact I had been researching and writing about southwest Georgia African American history for 35 years, made the writing go pretty quickly. In a sense, it seemed like the book practically wrote itself. The book grew to almost 40,000 words and the Georgia Humanities Council signed on as a co-publisher.

Why did you want to tell this story?

I had been telling bits and pieces of the story in my earlier writing in the 1980s and 1990s. Composing the docent’s script allowed me to put the whole story together from the acquisition of Creek Indian lands in 1814 through the Albany Movement of 1961-1962. Writing the book allowed me to tell the rest of the story from SNCC’s activities in 1963-1966 on up to the present—a full two centuries from 1814. This story of African American resistance to white oppression in one of the darkest corners of the Deep South is not well-known. So, in a sense, I felt compelled to tell it, especially what happened before 1961 and after 1962.

The first freedom fighters in southwest Georgia were those enslaved African Americans who ran away from their owners before emancipation in 1865. During Reconstruction, African Americans organized politically, voted, and were elected to the state legislature. In the 75 years of Jim Crow when more than 120 African Americans were lynched in southwest Georgia, other citizens of color organized NAACP chapters in several towns and UNIA (Marcus Garvey’s back to Africa movement) divisions in rural counties. Few people are aware that after 1962, SNCC continued its efforts to organize and desegregate communities throughout southwest Georgia. Even the cause célèbre cases of the Americus Four, the Albany Nine, and the Dawson Five have largely been forgotten. The classic phase of the Albany Movement (fall 1961-summer 1962) is better understood when told in the context of the century and a half of resistance that preceded it and the half-century of struggle that followed it right up to today.

What is the Albany Movement and how did it start?

The first thing we need to do is clarify the difference between the Albany Movement as the civil rights movement in Albany and the Albany Movement as an official organization founded on November 17, 1961. In both cases we’re talking about the classic stage of the Albany Movement characterized by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s involvement. Historian Michael Chalfen traces the movement’s beginnings to the founding of Albany’s NAACP chapter in the wake of World War I. In Looking Back, Moving Forward, I trace the movement’s origins back through Reconstruction to the resistance of enslaved African Americans in the antebellum era. Similarly, Chalfen extends the movement in Albany into the 1970s and I bring it into the 21st century. Thus, depending on your interpretation, the Albany Movement or southwest Georgia freedom struggle began before the Civil War, in 1918, or in 1961, and ended in 1962, the 1970s, or continues right up to today.

In 1961-1962, the Albany Movement had among its goals increased voter registration and unprecedented communitywide desegregation. Most accounts of the classic stage of the Albany Movement begin with the arrival of SNCC field secretaries Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon in October 1961 to begin a southwest Georgia voter registration campaign. The young SNCC leaders met with college, high school, and junior high students teaching them freedom songs and nonviolent tactics. African American adults in Albany recognized the need to organize themselves if they—and not these outsiders from SNCC—were going to lead the growing student movement.

On November 17, 1961 the leaders of SNCC, the NAACP Youth Council, the NAACP, the Criterion Club, the Voters League, the Federated Women’s Club, and the Ministerial Alliance established a formal organization, The Albany Movement, and elected black osteopath William G. Anderson president. This version of events suggests that SNCC came and started a student movement that within weeks led the adults to create the Albany Movement. Historian Racquel Henry and former Albany State College students Annette Jones White and Bernice Johnson Reagon, however, have more recently shown that ASC student activism had begun years before Sherrod and Reagon showed up in Albany which made it easier for them to organize the students. Students were the first to be arrested for trying to integrate the Trailways Bus Station in November 1961. When SNCC Freedom Riders were arrested in December, mass protests by students and adults resulted in over 750 arrests, including that of Martin Luther King, Jr. Another 750 arrests were made in the next 18 months for a total of 1500 in 20 months. King’s involvement in Albany accelerated the national press coverage the movement began to experience.

Why has the Albany Movement been overshadowed by other civil rights actions? Why have we forgotten about this important piece of the civil rights movement?

When King left Albany in the waning days of summer 1962 after having been jailed three times, the city was as segregated as it ever had been. King admitted that he had failed in Albany, but that he learned some important lessons there that he applied in Birmingham in 1963. In many accounts of the civil rights movement, the victories in Montgomery (1955-1956), Birmingham (1963), and the March from Selma to Montgomery (1965) get most of the attention and Albany is noted as the place where King made mistakes and failed. The problem with this perspective is that it is King-centric, implying that Albany was significant only when King was involved. It sees Albany as a part of the national civil rights movement sandwiched between the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the Birmingham protests and March on Washington of 1963 and fails to take it on its own terms as a local movement.

The Albany Movement began before King arrived and persisted long after King’s departure in defeat. Its history is not one of failure simply because King failed in southwest Georgia, but one of persistence and ultimately some success. Often forgotten is that the Albany Movement was the first mass movement of the modern civil rights era to have as its goal the desegregation of an entire community. Mass meetings, protest marches and arrests continued in Albany in 1963. Sherrod and his integrated teams of SNCC workers expanded their efforts beyond Albany into the rural counties of Terrell, Lee, Sumter, Baker, and the rest of southwest Georgia, where they faced some of the worst white racist terrorism in the South. SNCC workers were beaten by law officers, shot at and wounded by night riders, and churches associated with their voter registration efforts were firebombed. What I have tried to do in this book, for the first time, is to tell the whole story of the movement—the southwest Georgia freedom struggle—in one place, and not just that part of the story that got national and international attention when King was involved.

Photographs are an important part of this book. Where did you find these photos and what do they add to this story? From the beginning we planned on making photographs a key part of the book. The opening chapter is illustrated with newspaper ads for runaway slaves and slave sales. I have seen the shock on the faces of nonhistorian friends who saw for the first time an advertisement for “150 Negroes for Sale at public out-cry in the City of Albany.” Such images can really drive home what slavery was all about. In the chapter on the origins of Jim Crow, I used photographs made by A. Radclyffe Dugmore for W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1901 World’s Work article, “The Negro As He Really Is.” Dugmore, a 30-year old Englishman on the verge of a career as a well-known photographer and filmmaker, met Du Bois in Albany in March 1901 for the photo shoot. Nineteen of Dugmore’s photographs of African Americans and their homes, stores, and work illustrate Du Bois’s article which the author later revised into two chapters in his The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

Most of the photographs from the heyday of the movement were taken by Benjamin F. Cochran, the official Albany Movement photographer, and by SNCC photographer Danny Lyon. When Cochran retired he sold his studio and movement photographs to Albany cameraman Adrian Jenkins. Lyon started his career making photographs of the movement in Cairo, IL, and Albany, GA, and became SNCC’s official photographer. One of his most iconic pictures, among the first he took in Albany—the white and “colored” water fountains in the Dougherty County Courthouse—dominates the cover of Looking Back, Moving Forward. Words cannot capture the essence of Jim Crow the way that one photograph does. Lyon went on to become a renowned photographer and published a number of his civil rights photographs in his book, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (1992/2010). Contemporary photography of ACRI, Old Mt. Zion and Shiloh Baptist churches was shot by Todd Stone in 2010 and 2014.

How does the story of the Albany Movement add to our understanding of the broader civil rights movement?

The Albany Movement illustrates how the national civil rights movement was much more complicated than it is often portrayed. It’s easier to tell a linear story beginning with the 1954 Brown decision followed by the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King’s emergence as a national civil rights leader. Then comes the 1957 Little Rock crisis, the 1961 Freedom Rides, the Albany Movement, Birmingham, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the emergence of Black Power and the end of the movement with King’s assassination in 1968. But the story of the movement is not a linear tale. It was a hodgepodge of many local movements, each with its own beginning and its moment in the sun of national media attention. There are many threads connecting these movements besides the involvement of Martin Luther King.

For example, SNCC leaders who came to work in Albany brought with them their movement experiences in southwest Mississippi, South Carolina, and on the Freedom Rides. SNCC workers in southwest Georgia moved on to other places, including Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Music was another connection linking the movements all over the South. One of the first things SNCC workers did when they arrived in a community was to teach freedom songs to local folk. Albany became famous for its freedom songs many of which came out of the a capella rural southwest Georgia black Baptist church tradition. The original SNCC Freedom Singers group originated in Albany and went on a fundraising tour spreading the movement music nationwide. Like Albany, each community movement in the South made its unique contribution to the broader civil rights movement shaped by its particular history.

Who is your intended audience for this book? Who do you hope finds this book?

This book was written for a broad general audience, initially for visitors to the Albany Civil Rights Institute, who wanted to take away with them a history of the movement that they just experienced in the ACRI permanent exhibit. The Georgia Humanities Council recognized that Looking Back, Moving Forward was more than just a souvenir book—that it was an important contribution to civil rights scholarship. The Council began promoting the book, became copublisher with ACRI, and Council President Jamil Zainaldin wrote the foreword. Considering the broad general audience we made the decision to include many illustrations and no footnotes. At the end of the book is a list of more than two dozen books and articles for further reading, all of which I used in writing the book. Because this is the first book devoted solely to the Albany Movement and southwest Georgia freedom struggle from the time of white settlement to the present, I realized that some of my scholarly colleagues might also be interested in this work. So I kept a footnoted version of the book and I am currently exploring ways to make the documented manuscript available online.

How can our readers get a copy of this book?

Books are currently on sale at the Albany Civil Rights Institute, 326 Whitney Ave., Albany, GA 31701 and at the Georgia Humanities Council, 50 Hurt Plaza, S.E., Suite 595, Atlanta, GA 30303. The easiest way to order the book is to send a check for $22 (includes postage and handling) to ACRI, P.O. Box 6036, Albany, GA 31706-6036. The entire cost of publishing the book was raised from four sponsors, so all proceeds from sales go directly to ACRI to help the Institute continue to tell the story of the southwest Georgia freedom struggle.