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Martin Luther King, Free Speech, and the Albany Movement

By January 16, 2017

On the day when our nation celebrates the accomplishments of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., FIRE routinely reminds readers of the impact King’s work had on the First Amendment and free speech. A few years ago, I wrote about how King’s last speech (though, of course, he did not know that at the time) discussed the First Amendment. This year, I want to draw attention to an earlier effort of which he was a part—a desegregation campaign called the Albany Movement.

Albany, Georgia, in the early 1960s was a town of about 55,000 people, and had a system of legally mandated segregation. In the fall of 1961, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the NAACP joined local activists in creating a desegregation campaign they called the Albany Movement. By December 1961, they had been joined by Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). On December 16, King and many others were arrested and jailed following a protest. While King was allowed to leave town soon afterwards, he returned in July 1962 to stand trial. He was convicted, spent two days in jail before being bailed out (reportedly by another famous pastor, the Rev. Billy Graham) and then was rearrested and jailed for two weeks later that month for leading a prayer vigil. On August 10, he left jail in Albany and agreed to halt demonstrations there.

But between his two July jail terms, King and the Albany Movement produced a position paper. Dated July 17, 1962, the first request that the movement made of the Albany government was as follows:

A. An opportunity to talk face to face with the City Commission concerning the following issues:

1. Fair and just disposition of the cases now pending related to the activities of the Albany Movement.

2. Establishing the right of peaceful protest under the First Amendment.

That’s right: Due process and free speech were on the top of the Albany Movement’s list of requests. If you ever wonder why FIRE and other civil rights and liberties organizations are so stubborn when we perceive that these rights are being violated, regardless of the reason or the person affected, history like this serves as an excellent reminder of the reason for our obstinacy.

King and the Albany Movement didn’t get what they asked for. In fact, the Albany Movement was widely considered a failure, even by King himself. But the lessons learned in Albany informed and helped guide the far riskier, better-known, and ultimately successful efforts in Birmingham, Alabama, the next year. Today, FIRE is happy to once again salute the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his commitment to these fundamental American ideals, and remind ourselves of the commitment we share with him: to equal justice for all under law.