I was in elementary school in Albany, Georgia when Martin Luther King led the Albany Movement in December 1961. I was the daughter of civil rights advocates; he was the Civil Rights Movement’s most famous leader. He never knew of me, of course, but I heard about him daily. He left Albany in 1962 and went to Birmingham not knowing if he would survive. I moved to Birmingham five years later at age fourteen, when Albany was still tense and frightening. I knew even then that my life had been defined, more than anything else, by the Albany Movement. I did not understand that King’s career had been too.
I was seven when King went to Albany and eight when he left. My parents supported the Movement and were intolerant of those who did not. My father was born and raised in Albany. He descended from German Jews, at least one of whom – his father – had no interest in religion. He married a Baptist who was similarly uninterested. My father grew up privileged, then not, due to the Great Depression and family proclivities. He graduated from the University of Georgia Law School and later received an advanced degree from the University of Chicago Law School. Somewhere in that experience he became focused — obsessed, really — with Southern racism and the need to destroy it.
My mother was born and raised in Atmore, Alabama, and her father preached at the First Baptist Church. Her mother, who was its organist, decided early in life that if the Bible called Christians to minister to everyone, then that is what she would do. It was her religion, not politics, that convinced her occasionally to invite and escort the town’s disenfranchised – African-Americans, fallen women, Creek Indians – to First Baptist worship services. And, as far as I know, no one said much about to her about it. Her daughter, my mother, graduated from Kentucky’s Berea College which was founded before the Civil War for free blacks and poor whites. After that, she attended the School of Social Work at the College of William and Mary in Richmond. Although marriage to my father in 1949 ended this study, she later became a social worker in some of Georgia’s most impoverished rural areas.
At that time bus drivers had the power of the police to enforce Jim Crow segregation laws. My mother recalled that one day she was traveling to Georgia from Alabama, where she had been visiting. A young African-American woman with her baby stood in the bus, but when a seat became available, they took it. Because it was in the “white” section, the bus driver immediately shouted at her to get up. When she refused he stopped the bus and let her out on the open rural road. My mother was horrified but too scared to speak up. During the same post-WWII period, the state of Georgia called its social workers to Atlanta for training. The supervisor advised them never to addressed their black clients with “Miss,” “Missus,” or “Mister,” and asked if any had ever done so. Knowing there was only one answer and fearing for her job, she did not tell her the truth.
My own first specific recollection of civil rights issues was during the 1960 presidential election. Because of John F. Kennedy’s liberal racial stance – and to a lesser extent his Catholicism – most white Southerners saw him as the Antichrist. My parents and grandmother, however, enthusiastically supported him and put a Kennedy-Johnson bumper sticker on our car to say so. In turn, my sister and I made them let us out a block or two from our elementary school to avoid the dirty looks and “nigger lover” remarks that would otherwise come. Even so, my best friend commented to me casually one day as we crossed the street that, “My mother says your parents are nigger lovers.” “Oh,” I said, and changed the subject to dolls.
A year or so later the Freedom Riders went to Albany to test the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregated public transportation. Several riders came from New York and New Jersey and my parents had one of them stay with us. There was a small network of white people in Albany who were known to be friendly to the cause and who would help feed and house the riders. The woman who stayed with us was named Kit Havis. She must have slept in my bed because I remember sleeping on the sun porch. She was also a Communist, my mother told me, and that did it. I was hooked by the daring of what was going on.
More than that, though, I was scared by the red-faced sarcasm aimed continuously at Martin Luther (pronounced Mah-tin Loo-tha in an exaggerated racial brogue) King, black people and civil rights activists. “Nigger” was constantly thrown around and each time I heard it I pretended not to, in case someone knew about my parents. And, once, I wondered why the Colonial Bread man in the Winn Dixie grocery store so feverishly loaded — and unloaded — bread from the shelves. When my mother and I walked up he was pulling all of the dark bread off the shelf and replacing it with white. Crouched down to reach in the back spaces he snarled that, “If those niggers want to integrate with us I’ll throw out all of their bread and see how they like that!” I’m pretty sure my mother left defiantly with a loaf of “their” bread.
It is tempting to romanticize events such as these 50 years later when they can no longer hurt. But the era was anything but romantic and anyone who played a part in ending it knows it.