Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was uplifting through his hope, but I am much more inspired by his honesty. It is through his vein of candor and frankness, that I believe lie some of the most essential lessons we have to learn from and about MLK.
When most people think of the Civil Rights Movement, they focus on the “I Have a Dream” speech, along with the image of a Klansmen and the fire hose-wielding bigot as the main oppressor. MLK would be pointing out a lot more to us, though.
Think about it: He called out the government for its lack of commitment to the Great Society. In his epic Letter from Birmingham Jail, he called out white clergymen whom could have used their platforms in Jewish, Catholic, and other religions to support “Negroes” in their fight against a prejudiced society. Most importantly, he called out those whom would deny the most unalienable rights to Black Americans simply by being silent. “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” he said.
His honesty about the Movement was often calculated and measured, and some of the younger more militant members of the Movement claimed he sugar-coated his speeches and involvement a bit too much at times, but it was always accurately targeted for impact. This is perhaps one reason why Dr. King said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Unfortunately, he didn’t take his own advice in Albany and I believe he’d say so today.
If I could guess, I think he’d point back to a failure in Albany, Georgia, not the Birmingham campaign or the “I Have a Dream” speech, as the key point of his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. It was there, roughly 50 years ago, in early 1962 in a small Georgia town, where Dr. King learned one of his most important lessons about honesty as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Albany Movement, which took place primarily from late 1961 through a good part of 1962 (and thereafter) is frequently forgotten or glazed over in the story arc of the Movement. This is not simply because Albany, Georgia, was a smaller town than Birmingham, Alabama, or a less violent scene than Selma, Alabama, where the infamous “Bloody Sunday” occurred in 1965, but mostly because the victory wasn’t as clear-cut. Some historians call it a defeat for Dr. King.
The previous year, during the summer of 1961, Freedom Rides had become a major pillar of the Movement, with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) leading the way. These rides were a sensational tactic in that the chief participants were not all Black and many of them, including a 19-year-old Stokely Carmichael (best known for coining the term “Black Power” and being a founder member of SNCC) were a decade or two younger than Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference colleagues.
Due to the SCLC’s limited involvement in the Freedom Rides, many King critics got to calling him “De Lawd” for his perceived lack of aggression toward Jim Crow laws. Possibly in response to such criticism, Dr. King and SCLC made it a point to be a more involved organizer of the Movement in Albany where the protesters called for the wholesale desegregation of the town.
The week before Christmas in 1961, Dr. King appeared in Albany and was quickly arrested amongst other peaceful protesters. At one point, King deployed the Gandhi strategy to have the jails filled to capacity with protesters in order to weaken the Police Commissioners powers. Unfortunately, the local police chief had out-strategized King and his colleagues – in large part due to the over-reaching nature of the Movement, which again called for desegregation throughout the town. Ultimately, in the summer of ’62 after minimal impact or gains, Dr. King left Albany.
Therein lies the lesson Dr. King likely learned. The Movement would have to be more targeted and more focused to succeed. Dr. King had tried, perhaps out of a desire to maintain his voice and signal strength as the national leader of the Civil Rights Movement, to do too much in Albany. A call for desegregation town-wide was a stretch in 1962, and hindsight clearly demonstrated that much.
But SNCC was becoming a major force in the Movement, largely through the success of the Freedom Rides the summer before, and Dr. King’s involvement in Albany may have been an attempt to keep these young, potentially aggressively-minded leaders like Stokely Carmichael (who would later become a major voice in the Black Panther Party) at bay while SCLC worked to strengthen the overall campaign through the eyes of whites and the national media by focusing on nonviolent conflict.
The lack of a clear victory in Albany is credited for instilling key lessons in Dr. King that would be critical to the successful campaign waged in Birmingham. While his work in Albany is often described as a “morass”, King’s more targeted strategies in Birmingham, which focused primarily on the desegregation of the downtown shopping district and parks and fair hiring practices, were a shot in the arm to the campaign. Dr. King’s April 1963 arrest in Birmingham led to national scrutiny with local retailers suffering financially and the Kennedy White House intervening. Just a few months later, the “I have a Dream” speech was birthed.
On MLK Day, much attention is paid to the speech and the Birmingham campaign, but I hope this brief essay has exposed a deeper reality of the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s leadership of it in the early 1960s.
Dr. King told us that, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase,” and we can now see that his faith enabled him to pursue a course of action in Albany, Georgia, that significantly altered the course of the Movement, and American history, for some of the wrong reasons. Ego, fear, hubris, inability to share leadership, lack of accountability and over-zealousness were all at play in Albany. For that brief moment in the campaign, Dr. King’s power was waning, his influence dissipating and the Movement’s focus thinning.
Dr. King also stated that, “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
In Albany, we hopefully learn that even the great Reverend could be blinded by half-baked solutions. But, as you’ve heard before, it’s not important how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up. [Something our President should learn from…]
It was from the clear lack of focus and unsound thinking that brought Dr. King to Albany and, ultimately, a lack of a publicity-grabbing victory in that small town that he was able to make much-needed strategic changes to lead the charge toward a much more important and symbolic win in Birmingham. The media frenzied battles with Birmingham public safety chief Bull Connor coupled with ample solitude for Dr. King to reflect and write in that jailhouse paved the way for the “I Have a Dream” speech we celebrate every year on this day.
So, this year, don’t just listen to the speech and think the Movement’s chief lessons are to be learned in Washington, D.C.
Think back to Albany, Georgia. Honestly, that’s where Dr. King cut his teeth as the leader of the Movement.