Freedom Riders and the Albany Movement
On May 5, 1961, a small, biracial group boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses in Washington, DC, in a planned demonstration against the continued segregation of public transportation in the South. Black and white Freedom Riders sat together on buses that were headed for New Orleans. The Freedom Riders met their first strong resistance in the form of an angry mob in Rockville, SC. On Mother’s Day, May 14, just outside of Anniston, AL, the bus was firebombed and the Riders were attacked by another mob. Montgomery received them on May 19 with riots. On May 24, the National Guardsmen of Alabama and the state police of Mississippi took the Freedom Riders to Jackson, MS, where they were jailed.
Over the next months, more than 360 people joined the protest against segregated travel. The prisons in Jackson filled to capacity, and most of the original Freedom Riders were transferred to the notorious Parchman Farm prison. There they responded to harsh treatment with song. Guards attempted to break the singing by removing their blankets and mattresses, but the Freedom Riders continued to sing. Five months after the Freedom Rides began, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) banned segregation at all interstate public facilities.
In 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled that, effective November 1, interstate transportation would be fully integrated. But deep in the Black Belt, Albany, GA, stood in defiance of this ruling and continued to enforce segregation in its bus and train stations. In response, field secretaries from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) helped to begin a series of demonstrations against these continued segregationist practices. They were arrested on December 11 for demonstrating at the bus and train stations, as described in the press release displayed here.
Once jailed, the SNCC workers sang to keep their spirits up and to frustrate their jailers. Among those jailed was Joan Browning, whose materials are displayed here. As Browning wrote on a paper towel to her friend Faye, "Oh yes—last night they turned out the lights and heat in an attempt to stop our singing. Chalk up another failure for them." Notes passed between the SNCC workers often ended with song titles, such as "We Shall Overcome" and "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," which served as shorthand for a larger message of strength and determination.
In mid-December, more than 700 local African Americans were imprisoned as they joined the students who were challenging the Albany city government’s stance. This display of support from the local community was unprecedented in the Deep South. Albany became the site of an extended protest that exemplified the power of peaceful protest and that generated such songs as "Over My Head" and "Oh Pritchett, Oh Kelly."