This is the latest installment in Weld’s historical series, No More Bull! You can find the rest of the series here.
“Birmingham Now Target of Negroes – Like Albany”
–Albany Herald, April 6, 1963
The Albany Movement was a year old when Martin Luther King arrived. It was comprised of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which did not want him to come; the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which did; Albany’s black Federation of Women’s Clubs; and the black Criterion business club, among others. It wanted King to provoke Albany’s white establishment into unmasking the racial system that bullied half its citizens and coerced the rest into believing that blacks had no grievances.
Unfortunately, he was outmaneuvered by two men in particular. One was Laurie Pritchett, the police chief, and the other was James H. Gray, who owned Albany’s only newspaper, the Albany Herald, its only television station, a radio station, and who was a key member of its city commission. Although historians give Pritchett the lion’s share of credit for beating King at his own game, it was Gray who called the shots in Albany, and it was his media empire that played events up or down as he saw fit.
Pritchett was the city’s point man, and he confounded both the press and the demonstrators. According to The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibhanoff, he looked every bit the Southern bubba cop and enjoyed playing the role for cameras. Large in stature and big bellied, he often addressed demonstrators while chewing on a piece of straw, and he liked to cock a smile at them before taking them politely to jail.
But the comparison ends there. Pritchett was also smart. He knew King was committed to non-violence, and he had spent time in the library studying Gandhian philosophy and tactics. He understood that if King could not provoke a confrontation, he would gain no moral ground in Albany. Pritchett was also mean. Once he told a reporter over beer that “There are three things I like to do: drink buttermilk, put niggers in jail, and kick reporters’ asses.” To that the journalist replied that it was good to finally meet an honest cop.
Behind Pritchett’s power was James H. Gray. Gray grew up affluent in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where his father was a lawyer and one of his neighbors was Norman Rockwell. He graduated from elite Dartmouth College, where he befriended a Harvard University basketball rival, Joseph Kennedy. According to The Race Beat, Gray sometimes visited the Kennedys and, after Joseph Kennedy died in World War II, he became close to the next oldest son, John. After leaving Dartmouth he wrote for the Hartford (Connecticut) Courant and later the New York Herald.
By then he had set his sights on Albany because of his wealthy wife, Dorothy Ellis, who was from the small Georgia city and whose father owned the Albany Herald and a plantation. Just prior to the nation’s entrance into the war Gray tried to buy the paper, but instead of seeking his fortune he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training. Afterwards he served as a paratrooper in Europe. When he returned home he moved to Albany, purchased its only newspaper and began to build a media empire. He was also prominent in Georgia’s arch segregationist Democratic Party, where he became chair in 1958. That year he hosted his friends, then-Senator John F. Kennedy and his wife, for a weekend in Albany.
Although only a transplanted Southerner, Gray earned a reputation for his rabid defense of racial segregation. In the late 1950s, following the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated public schools, he was one of a number of Southern editors openly hostile to any news coverage portraying the South in a negative light. Following the decision, moreover, a new organization known as the White Citizens Council (WCC) formed in Mississippi to fight segregation; chapters soon formed in every Deep South state. Unlike the Ku Klux Klan–whose members, by then, were typically working class or marginalized whites–the WCC was middle class. Its members were professional men, including bankers, lawyers, business owners, and some newspaper publishers.
In 1959, the WCC and known segregationist editors met in Atlanta’s Henry Grady Hotel to discuss strategies for quashing unflattering news stories starting to emerge from UP and API wire services. Henry Gray pledged to be there along with editors from the Macon News, Shreveport Journal, Chattanooga Free Press, The Augusta Chronicle, the Florida Times-Union and the Columbia (South Carolina) Record. John Temple Graves, popular syndicated columnist for the Birmingham Post-Herald, also attended.
When the Albany demonstrations began in late 1961, Gray knew what to do. He contacted the city’s mayor, Asa Carter, and Police Chief Pritchett to coordinate a strategy whose main principal was to avoid violence. Arrests yes, force no.
When King sat in jail a week before Christmas, Gray addressed the public through his own television station and announced that the movement was under the influence of a “cell of professional agitators” and Communists. He affirmed further that Albany’s racial system was one that “over the years has been peaceful and rewarding.” He called Pritchett and insisted that he negotiate King’s release, then phoned his friends in the Kennedy Administration to make sure there would be no federal intervention in Albany. Upon King’s release, Gray printed in the Albany Herald that a “nicely dressed black male” had paid the leader’s bail. In fact, he knew the man was white and had been hand-picked for the job by Pritchett. As a city commissioner, moreover, he also voted to close Albany’s parks and pools rather than desegregate them. Then he used his personal wealth to purchase several of them and reopen them for whites only.
King and the Movement were unable to beat Gray’s machine and Pritchett’s prowess. To make matters worse the Movement itself was rife with internecine rivalries that further demoralized efforts. But things would be different in Birmingham.
Birmingham was a proudly tough blue collar city. It wore no racial mask and had nothing to hide. Moreover, its local civil rights leader, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, had run his own show, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, for ten years ever since the State of Alabama had outlawed the NAACP, and he was a firebrand on a mission from God. His rough-hewn rural Baptist style was powerful and jarring in its straightforward brilliance and it had helped him build an impressive working class organization determined to end Jim Crow. His ego matched King’s, whom he cajoled and nagged to come to the Magic City. According to interviews, Shuttlesworth told King he had better come to Birmingham or else he would have to desegregate the city without him.
He also spoiled for a fight with Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. By the Spring of 1963 he would have his wish, and King would get his confrontation. And this time, the Movement would win.
While Gray and Pritchett had convinced the press and public that there was no story to tell and nothing to see in Albany, King, Shuttlesworth and Connor intended to tell their stories to the world. Connor’s did not have the ending he hoped for when, in April 1963, he and his fellow city commissioners were voted out of office. The events that led up to that election played out on Birmingham’s streets, court houses, department stores, public parks and schools and in the neighborhoods.