As today is Martin Luther King Day, it perhaps is appropriate to remember the man by recalling some of his words and deeds. Forty years ago, in 1962, Dr. King was part of a non-violent campaign in Albany, Georgia calling for desegregation of public facilities. In 1962, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was already seven years in the past and Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham jail" and "I Have a Dream" address were a year in the future.
July 10 imprisonment
On July 10, 1962, Dr. King and his colleagues were convicted of disturbing the peace. In the words of his dairy, "we gradually concluded we had no alternative but to serve the time if we were sentenced. . . . Ralph [Abernathy] and I immediately notified the court that we could not in all good conscience pay the fine, and thereby chose to serve the time.
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. . . We were brought immediately to the Albany City Jail which is in the basement of the same building which houses the court and the city hall. This jail is by far the worst I've ever been in. It is a dingy, dirty hole with nothing suggestive of civilized society. The cells are saturated with filth, and what mattresses there are for the bunks are as hard as solid rocks and as nasty as anything that one has ever seen. The companionship of roaches and ants is not at all unusual. In several of the cells there are no mattresses at all. The occupants are compelled to sleep on the bare hard steel.
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The rest of the day was spent getting adjusted to our home for the next forty-five days. There is something inherently depressing about jail, especially when one is confined to his cell. We soon discovered that we would not be ordered to work on the streets because, according to the Chief, 'it would not be safe.' This, to me, was bad news. I wanted to work on the streets at least to give some attention to the daily round. Jail is depressing because it shuts off the world. It leaves one caught in the dull monotony of sameness. It is almost like being dead while one still lives. To adjust to such a meaningless existence is not easy. The only way that I adjust to it is to constantly remind myself that this self-imposed suffering is for a great cause and purpose. This realization takes a little of the agony and a little of the depression away. But, in spite of this, the painfulness of the experience remains. It is something like the mother giving birth to a child. While she is temporarily consoled by the fact that her pain is not just bare meaningless pain, she nevertheless experiences the pain. In spite of the fact that she realizes that beneath her pain is the emergence of life in a radiant infant, she experiences the agony right on. So is the jail experience. It is life without the singing of a bird, without the sight of the sun, moon, and stars, without the felt presence of the fresh air. In short, it is life without the beauties of life; it is bare existence-cold, cruel, and degenerating."
July 13 release
On July 13, 1962, Dr. King and his colleagues were told to dress in their civilian clothes and to see the Albany Police Chief in his office. When they arrived, Chief Pritchett told Dr. King that their fines had been paid and that they were released. In Dr. King's words, "This was one time that I was out of jail and I was not happy to be out. Not that I particularly enjoyed the inconveniences and the discomforts of jail, but I did not appreciate the subtle and conniving tactics used to get us out of jail. We had witnessed persons being kicked off lunch counter stools during the sit-ins, ejected from churches during the kneel-ins, and thrown into jail during the Freedom Rides. But for the first time, we witnessed being kicked out of jail."
July 24 violence and Day of Penance
Dr. King wrote: "On July 24, officials unleashed force against our peaceful demonstration, brutally beating a pregnant woman and caning one of our lawyers. Some of the Negro onlookers, not our demonstrators, seething with resentment, hurled bottles and stones at the police. At that point, I temporarily halted mass demonstrations, and for several days, I visited homes, clubs, and pool rooms, urging that no retaliation be tolerated, and even the angriest of men acceded."
Dr. King announced a "Day of Penance":
"While we are certain that neither the peaceful demonstrators nor persons active in the Albany Movement were involved in the violence that erupted last night, we abhor violence so much that when it occurs in the ranks of the Negro community, we assume part of the responsibility for it. . . . In order to demonstrate our commitment to nonviolence and our determination to keep our protest peaceful, we declare a "Day of Penance" beginning at 12 noon today. We are calling upon all members and supporters of the Albany Movement to pray for their brothers in the Negro community who have not yet found their way to the nonviolent discipline during this Day of Penance. We feel that as we observe this Day of Penance, the City Commission and white people of goodwill should seriously examine the problems and conditions existing in Albany. . . ."
July 27 arrest
On July 27, 1962, Dr. King was again arrested in Albany. That Sunday, July 29, Dr. King conducted devotional services among all the prisoners, reading from the Book of Job. During his imprisonment, Dr. King wrote three sermons from jail, including one on "Loving Your Enemies."
After his release from jail from August 10, 1962, Dr. King estimated that "5 percent of the Negro population [in Albany] voluntarily went to jail. At the same time, about 95 percent of the Negro population boycotted buses, and shops where humiliation, not service, was offered." While he viewed the Albany campaign as only a partial victory, the city repealed its segregation laws. Dr. King concluded that "[t]he people of Albany had straightened their backs, and, as Gandhi had said, no one can ride on the back of a man unless it is bent."
On September 28, 1962, at the closing session of the SCLC conference in Birmingham, a member of the American Nazi Party assaulted Dr. King, striking him twice in the face. On October 16, 1962, President Kennedy welcomed Dr. King to the White House. On November 13, 1962, Dr. King wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "[d]arkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction." In a vein perhaps more practical to lawyers, he observed that "[i]t may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."
For more information, visit the King Papers Project at http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/index.htm.