|Laurie Pritchett on the right speaking with Martin Luther King Jr.|
As a student of history my favorite area of study is military history, especially the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. Running a very close second is the study of race and the Civil Rights movement in America. The history of race is closely intertwined with military history. The American Revolution was a compromise between those who saw the need to establish a free Republican form of democracy for a limited group of white people and those who wanted to preserve those freedoms by the continued enslavement and subjugation of black people, Indians and certain classes of poorer white people. There were a few egalitarians like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams who were willing to go much further but they were too few in number. However the brilliance of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution was that it gave an unfulfilled promise to people of all races and classes. The Founding Fathers supplied the machinery that would one day fulfill that promise. The Civil War was a struggle that was the result of that unfulfilled promise and the festering sore of slavery. World War II was the catalyst for social change that set the stage for the modern Civil Rights movement.
Anyone who has a fair knowledge of history can probably point to the highlights of the modern civil rights movement. Like Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The desegregation of Little Rock Central high school in 1957. The Greenville and Nashville sit-ins of 1960. The Freedom Rides of 1961. The Birmingham Children's Crusade and the pictures of Bull Conner's dogs and fire hoses being unleashed on peaceful demonstrators. The Selma march for voting rights in 1965 and the encounter with police nightsticks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Well my question is this. How many of you have ever heard of the Albany movement of 1961 and 1962? It was a movement to desegregate restaurants, bus station waiting rooms, libraries and everything that needed to be integrated in Albany Georgia. The movement was started by several of Albany's black citizens in November 1961. Several members of SNCC or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to town to organize non-violent demonstrations. The original organizers of the movement at first resented their presence but later came to accept them. Then Martin Luther King Jr., who was sensitive to the criticism that he had not gotten involved in the Freedom Rides decided to lend his prestige to the movement by showing up in Albany on December 14, 1961. He was arrested in a mass demonstration the next day. King refused to be released until the city agreed to concessions. The city made concessions but King claimed that they later went back on their word.
The reason that most people have not heard about Albany is because of a very smart Albany police chief named Laurie Pritchett. He was not your run of the mill redneck southern cop like Bull Connor of Birmingham or Jim Clark of Selma. The following paragraph is from the Washington University Film & Media Archive. Laurie Pritchett was born on December 9, 1926 in Griffin, Georgia. He attended Auburn University and South Georgia College before graduating from the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville as well as the FBI National Academy. He was the chief of police of Albany, Georgia from 1959 to 1966. Pritchett then moved on to become police chief in High Point, North Carolina. He held this post from 1966 to 1974. He died in North Carolina in 2000.
Pritchett had done his homework on the nonviolent tactics of groups like SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He arranged beforehand with neighboring police and sheriff departments to have access to their jails in order to use them for mass arrests. Pritchett did not want to fill up his own jails drawing outside news attention. He ordered his officers not to use violence in arresting the demonstrators. Again he did not want to draw undue news attention to Albany. Pritchett also arrested the demonstrators for violating the city's public disturbance laws instead of the city's segregation laws which could be challenged in court. He defeated non-violence with non-violence. Looking at the situation pragmatically and not necessarily in a moral sense, Southerners have always been their own worse enemy. They tend to overreact to situations or make poor decisions that end up having negative unintended consequences. For example the South went to war in 1861 over the election of Abraham Lincoln because they thought that Lincoln was a threat to slavery. By firing on Fort Sumter they rallied the North in the same way that the Japanese rallied America by attacking Pearl Harbor. By starting the war they insured the destruction of slavery, the very thing they were trying to protect. When Bull Connor set the dogs on defenseless children and demonstrators of Birmingham he guaranteed the end of segregation with passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The thing he was trying to protect. Jim Clark busted heads of marchers near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma because people were marching peacefully for the right to vote. Clark's actions helped to guarantee the 1965 Voting Rights Act. By resisting desegregation of their schools they insured a radical and impractical system called busing that has led to the deterioration of our schools and white flight.
Pritchett, I am sure, probably held the typical racist views of most white male Southerners of that time. However I sense that Pritchett was basically a decent man. Even Martin Luther King admitted this. King tried as late as August of 1962 to bring about change in Albany but eventually had to accept defeat. He had been outmaneuvered by Laurie Pritchitt. However King said this about Pritchett. He used ‘‘the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral ends of racial injustice’’ It would be a short-lived victory because as I said future acts of violence committed by Southern police,sheriffs and bigots would help to insure change in America. The peaceful Civil Rights activists and demonstrators using the tactics of non-violence knew that violence was what they were really hoping for. It was their friend. I am sure that John Lewis, who was beaten to within an inch of his life. On at least three occasions. Or Jim Zwerg, a white Freedom Rider, who nearly died with Lewis in the Montgomery Greyhound bus station. Probably did not look forward to these beatings but they understood that they brought welcome media attention to their cause. Pritchett robbed the Civil Rights movement of this kind of media attention. When King arrived in Birmingham just before the Childrens march, in 1963, his morale was very low because of the lack of results and damage to his prestige. This low point in his life would lead to his famous (Letter From A Birmingham Jail). However Bull Connor and James Bevel, who was the driving force behind using children in the Birmingham demonstrations, would be Kings salvation in the end.