Race is a complicated topic. Race in the South is more complicated still. And race in the South in the 1960s had more layers of complexity than Lance Armstrong has lies.
Take, for example, the photograph above, in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is being arrested by Laurie Pritchett, the big, blustery police chief of Albany, Ga. It was a scene repeated many times during the civil rights movement, in towns all over the South, as King led the crusade to end segregation. But there’s a lot more going on in that photograph than first impressions and stereotypes might lead you to believe.
Beginning in November of 1961, Albany had become the national focus of civil rights protests. Led by King, who had been invited down to Albany from Atlanta by the town’s black leadership, black citizens used an endless string of non-violent mass protests and sit-ins to demand their constitutional rights and an end to segregation. The on-going movement attracted reporters from around the world to the southwest Georgia town to witness what was sure to become a confrontation between good and evil.
Pritchett, however, knew the role that he was expected to play in King’s system, and he refused to play it. He too had studied non-violence. To respond to non-violent protests, Pritchett trained his officers in non-violent law enforcement. On the occasions when King was arrested, Pritchett ensured that his jail cell was immaculate, and well-supplied with books, paper and a radio. The interplay continued for months, tension building as King and his followers pushed and tested and attempted to provoke through civil disobedience, and as Pritchett and his men defended a cruel, oppressive system with what passed for kindness under the circumstances.
In her autobiography, Coretta Scott King describes Pritchett almost fondly:
“One redeeming aspect of that period was that Police Chief Laurie Pritchett was not at all typical of southern law enforcement. He was not brutal, although some of his officers engaged in brutality. He tried to be decent, and as a person, he displayed kindness…. Our people were given fair warning. Often they would refuse to disperse and drop to their knees and pray. Chief Pritchett would bow his head with them while they prayed. Then, of course, he would arrest them and the people would go to jail singing.”
All that led to one of my favorite “little moments” of the entire civil rights movement, when … well, I think I’ll let Chief Pritchett tell the story, as captured in 1976 in an oral history project now stored at the University of North Carolina:
I remember one night Dr. King came to my office. It was about five o’clock, and my secretary come in with a telegram. I opened it up, and it was from my wife. It was in July; it was our anniversary. And I read it, and then Dr. King says, “Did something disturb you, Chief Pritchett?” I said, “Well yes, in a way. This telegram’s from my wife. It’s our anniversary, and I haven’t been home in two or three weeks.”
Dr. King looked at me and he says, “All right. You go home tonight, enjoy your anniversary, do anything you want to. There’ll be nothing happening in this town tonight.” And he said, “In the morning, we’ll take up where we left off.”
So I said, “Do you mean this?” He said, “You have my word.” So I got in my truck and went home. We went out to dinner. When we came back to my house after we left the Victory Club (a steak house) there was a bunch of cars out in front, and I thought something had happened.
And it was the news media. … They’d went and got my wife a gift certificate and brought it back to the house to us. And we sat there and had a few drinks and talked. And then the next morning we took up where we left off.”
Pritchett also understood the danger of violence perpetrated by others. As he told interviewers in 1976, he and King had developed a system to ensure the safety of the civil rights leader.
“… as soon as he’d leave Atlanta, he’d tell me approximately what time he’d be coming into Americus, which was forty miles north of Albany. We’d meet him. One of my men would get in the car, he’d get in our car, and then they’d come in by two cars. And we took him everywhere. There was a plot down there to kidnap him, and we found out about this and got it stopped. But there was a close friendship, you know.”
Again, the wily Pritchett was using decency and kindness as weapons to defend a morally indefensible system. He claimed later to have opposed segregation personally, but said that as long as it was the law, he was required as a professional to enforce that law.
And in 1964, when President Johnson signed the Public Accommodations Act outlawing segregation, Pritchett fell back upon that professionalism:
“I not only went to all the (Albany) businesses and met with them at the Chamber of Commerce, I said, “If this bill is passed then it’s all over. They’re going to come in, they’re going to eat, they’re going to sleep in the motels. The law is the law, and I’ve been enforcing it because we had our laws. Now if this is passed we’re going to enforce that one. I’m going to force you to open up, and it’s going to be non-violent.’
“And that night they went in. They went … and some of them went to the Holiday Inn. They went right in, had their dinner. Some of them raced it and went all over. You know, nothing happened. And so this is what I say: when it became a law that the people in the businesses and things of this nature had to do it by law, they did it.”
I doubt desegregation occurred as smoothly in Albany as that might imply. But on a day when we celebrate Dr. King’s life and career, the story of his chess game and friendship with Chief Pritchett serves as a reminder that in the end, it all comes down to people seeing each other as people.
– Jay Bookman