Civil Rights Movement Celebrates 50th Anniversary

I am attending the 50th Anniversary of the Southwest Georgia Civil Rights Movement here in Albany, Georgia. As a first year law student, in the summer of 1963, not quite half a century ago, I worked during the summer as a law clerk for C. B. King, a noted black civil rights attorney in Albany. I had no idea how dangerous and bad the place was ― if I had I would never have gone. But once there, I knew I had to help.

I am excited about becoming re-acquainted with the people who were in the Movement, as it was called. Albany was a SNCC town and those of us who came from outside Albany were derisively called "outside agitators." The response to the Movement was brutal. Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested here, and C. B. King was smashed in the head for his civil rights advocacy.

This morning, as the plane banked left in its descent over Albany, I saw the dark green, lush trees tops and remembered how closely linked beautiful and dangerous were for me down here. I recall a trip with C. B. King and Donald Hollowell, a noted civil rights attorney from Atlanta, into big, bad Baker County, a rural area not too far from Albany. The two lawyers were going to defend a black man accused of attempted murder.

The case echoed events that occurred decades earlier in which a sheriff, Claude Screws, tied a black man to the back of his car and drove him around the Baker County courthouse until he was dead. Years later, Screws' deputy, huge and hulking, had arrested and handcuffed Charlie Ware, a short, slim man about a third of his size. Claiming that the handcuffed Ware was coming at him with a knife, he shot Ware in the neck. Ware survived, only to be charged with attempted murder of the sheriff. King and Hollowell were defending Ware and drove to the courthouse made infamous in the Screws case to do so. They took me along in the back seat.

The scenery on our drive in 1963 was breathtaking ― huge stately dark green trees lined the road, sometimes giving way to lighter green pastures. But I couldn't enjoy the view; in the front seat, the two attorneys were gasping whenever the sun glinted off a leaf, making it shine like the barrel of a gun. When I walked from the edge of the tiny town of Newton to the courthouse, blacks were obliged to get off the sidewalk. The courthouse itself was out of a movie set: the judge sat next to a spittoon into which he spat from time to time, as he read his newspaper; farmers in overalls chewed on grass as they peered through the large open windows, and the ceiling fan turned slowly, barely moving the stifling hot air. Black witnesses and observers were relegated to the balcony, and no blacks were permitted to serve on the jury ― which is why the guilty verdict against Ware was ultimately thrown out.

As these memories flooded through my mind, I heard my taxi driver mention he was from Baker County; I was jolted out of my reverie. "What is it like today for black people?" I asked. "Still dangerous and bad?" "No," he answered, "it is much different."

I am very anxious to go there myself. It is hard to believe that a place so soaked in blood can have changed that much. I am hoping that it has. It will be a touchstone for me as to how far Georgia and the country has come.

I also had some short conversations that I wanted to be explored further. A grown woman was explaining to me how as a nine year old girl she got involved in the Movement when she and a few other junior high school students did a "lie in" at a white store in the black section of Albany. I want to understand what got her started and what was it about the store that prompted the lie in.

Then I met a former SNCC student who had spent a year here trying to register black voters. He was recounting the violence in Terrell County, near Albany. So many different people were moved by something so much larger than themselves and risked so much to make a difference.

I hope the country understands what a debt it owes to these young people who tried to reshape the world against impossible odds.

Tonight we have a meet and greet, where the process of finding old friends and acquaintances will be going on in earnest. Tomorrow, we will hear from each other in more formal ways, in panels and discussions.