Albany was considered Martin Luther King’s only failure in the Civil Rights Movement (thanks to Police Chief Laurie Prichett, who studied the mistakes of King’s previous adversaries). See below for a brief history of the Albany Movement. This June 20, 1963 edition of The Atlanta Constitution has the headline “President’s Rights Bill Assailed by Georgians“. It has the subtitle “Kennedy Blueprints Broad Plan“. One cover article states “Marchers Hurl Rocks In Albany” (with quotes from infamous Police Chief Laurie Prichett). The title of a very interesting Opp/Ed piece “The Civil Rights Controversy Continues Uppermost in the Minds of the Readers” reflects the outrage of someone who witnessed a black patron being carried out of a restaurant feet first; the writer vows never to return.
Late in 1961, King turned his attention to the situation in Albany, Georgia. With the Albany Movement, as it came to be known, King attached himself to a protest already in progress. This is what he had done in Montgomery and with the Freedom Riders as well. SNCC had already established a voter-registration center in the heavily segregated city, and this, in turn, had provided a base of operations for various sit-ins and protests in Albany’s public places. King stepped in when he felt that the movement could not afford to give up any more of its members to the prisons.
He arrived 15 December 1961, and the next day, with Ralph Abernathy, led a march of 250 protestors to City Hall. All of the protestors were arrested. Albany Police Chief Laurie Prichett handled his prisoners very courteously, however, which diffused the power of their non-violent protest: with no physical conflict there was no media bonanza and no national outrage. Nevertheless, negotiations followed the mass arrest and appeared to portend victory for the protestors; King, who had vowed to remain in jail until demands were met, left when City authorities made various promises. But appearances were deceiving. For example, the city of Albany promised to desegregate bus and rail terminals as if in response to the protests, even though ICC statutes already required it to do so. And the City circumvented further promises of desegregation by shutting down the public institutions in question.
King and Abernathy returned to Albany in February to be tried for the December rally. While they had been away, the media had left too, and the city had refused to negotiate with the SNCC protestors who remained. King and Abernathy were sentence to jail terms in July, and returned again at that time, reviving the interest of the media. King and Abernathy refused to pay the $178 fine that would have exempted them from serving time, but local authorities, sensing the publicity their incarceration would generate, paid the fine for them, effectively kicking them out of jail.
Between the police chief’s gentle methods, the City’s refusal to jail King, and pressure from Robert Kennedy, who encouraged King to continue to abide by federal laws, there seemed slim chance for victory in Albany. King left the city in August, having learned what not to do. In his next campaign, in Birmingham, Alabama, he would avoid these mistakes.
Later referring to the setbacks of The Albany Movement in his autobiography, King had this to say:
The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair. It would have been much better to have concentrated upon integrating the buses or the lunch counters. One victory of this kind would have been symbolic, would have galvanized support and boosted morale…. When we planned our strategy for Birmingham months later, we spent many hours assessing Albany and trying to learn from its errors. Our appraisals not only helped to make our subsequent tactics more effective, but revealed that Albany was far from an unqualified failure.