Civil rights scholars sometimes preface discussion of the Albany Movement with the word “failed.” Such a hard adjective is used, justly or not, because many of the rules and regulations blacks in the Southwest Georgia city fought against so vehemently didn’t immediately change. And because things didn’t happen at the pace they may have elsewhere, black leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., moved on to other cities with their fight after learning a few key lessons.
But try telling Rutha Mae Harris the movement in her native Albany was a failure. Now a glorious 68 years old, Harris was once a 21-year-old civic soldier who marched and boycotted the injustices then-Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett defended. But beyond the usual means of protest, Harris and three of her peers were members of a vocal group—actually, “choral activists” is probably the better term—called the Freedom Singers. Founded in 1962, the Singers would travel thousands of miles to churches and schools, raising money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and soothing troubled souls fortunate enough to hear them. They even performed with folk music luminaries Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary in ’63.
“Music played a very important role in the Civil Rights Movement,” says Harris, who still blesses ears today with a revamped edition of the Freedom Singers, the second Saturday of every month at history-rich Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which is attached to the sparkling, new Albany Civil Rights Institute. “Without the music, there wouldn’t be a Civil Rights Movement. The music gets you going. Choose a song you like and it’ll lift your spirit.”
These days, the crowds that gather are sometimes pretty big because of church and grade-school trips. Other times the Freedom Singers outnumber the visitors. But through it all, the message of struggle and eventual triumph continues through song. Insists Harris, “We still perform and do what we’re supposed to do.” Albany is resilient.
Rolling with the Punches
The city of about 76,000 residents, Georgia’s ninth largest, also is in the midst of change. Long departed from its days of being the agriculture-based economy Nelson Tift established in the mid 1800s, Albany became a cornerstone of industry in the 1980s, with Miller Brewing, Mars and others opening their plants. One such employer, Cooper Tires, is presently downsizing and its Albany plant is on the shortlist for closure. A production stoppage could be devastating to the tightly-knit city. All around town, marquees with “We Love Cooper Tires” express a universal sentiment. This city’s overcome tough times before.
The looks on the friendly faces at local breakfast stops like the Corner Café and the famous Pearly’s assure trouble won’t always last. Frequenters to Flint River BBQ don’t say much of anything—their mouths are too full of ribs and smoked turkey splattered in a robust sweet sauce. And thankfully, the only thing worth mentioning about seafood charmer The Catch or the refined Plantation Grill is just how delightful the food and service are.
As the birthplace, one-time home or current address of such musical forces as Ray Charles, soul legend Patti LaBelle, country musician Luke Bryan, trumpeter Harry James, the rap group Field Mob and the Albany Symphony Orchestra (Feb. 7, Albany Municipal Auditorium), you’d expect Albany’s musical palate to be as diverse as its culinary one.
“The Good Life City” doesn’t disappoint either. At the Harvest Moon restaurant, for example, nightly jam sessions are led by local acts. Owner Bo Henry is a good judge of talent, so don’t worry. The man sings and plays guitar in his own outfit, the Bo Henry Band. Crowbar and Charlie B’s are two other places keeping Albany weekends rockin’ well after the sun’s gone down.
Embracing the River
When it comes back up, there’s still plenty to do thanks to a surprising bounty of attractions. Three of the most popular family distractions are the Albany Museum of Art, the new-look Science Discovery Center and the Parks at Chehaw, which is made up of some 800 acres of zoo, playgrounds and camping areas. While adventuring, you’ll notice a strong turtle theme throughout, too, on the city’s unofficial logo, on souvenirs and on 60 strategically-situated terrapin statues painted by various groups. Without the Flint River, or its cute inhabitants, there would be no Albany.
The vital waters swelled to unthinkable heights in ’94 and ’98, crippling the city. But in true Albany fashion, the town not only persevered, but produced a council, Albany Tomorrow, to focus on the revitalization of the river and downtown area. More than a success, the group’s responsible for the sparkling Hilton Garden Inn, the sophisticated Flint RiverQuarium and the Ray Charles Plaza, a dazzling tribute to the city’s favorite son.
Still, Albany Tomorrow’s crown jewel is none other than the Albany Civil Rights Institute, a truly captivating experience that walks visitors through white-only entrances, black-filled paddy wagons and poignant narratives from folks of all colors. Of course, you’ll see pictures of Rutha Mae Harris at the Institute, pouring her heart out in Albany’s behalf through spirituals. “We sang in the jails,” Harris says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t want to forget that era. Forgetting is much tougher than forgiving.”
Southwest Georgia’s place on the civil rights map should never be forgotten either. And thanks to living testimony and multi-million dollar facilities that tell an honest depiction of the times, it won’t. Albany was never a failure. One visit tells as much. If anything, this determined corner of the state is more of a success story than many places ever could dream.