When Martin Luther King Jr. led a civil rights march into Albany, Georgia, in December 1961, racial tensions were boiling. Jim Crow laws were still in effect, the Ku Klux Klan was a threat, and most whites were serious about keeping blacks in their place.
As one of the original Freedom Singers, Rutha Harris marched alongside King, singing songs like "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," while whites lined the streets, harassing the passing activists. "Those songs gave us hope," says Harris, 70, who still lives in Albany. "They filled the voids that segregation brought into our lives."
Segregation remains on the tip of the tongue for many residents of Albany, where old attitudes persist—sometimes openly and certainly behind closed doors. Blacks and whites attend the same schools, visit the same movie theaters, and drink from the same fountains, but prejudices are palpable.
"There are a lot of tensions around here that just won't die," says a member of the local news media who asked to remain anonymous. "There's a black-white divide, a lot of good-old-boy cronyism. The whites won't let it go, but the blacks won't either."
One local pastor who has lived in several southern cities—including Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man—says Albany is "easily the most racially divided city I've ever been in." In 2010 alone, charges of racism dogged the selection process for a school-board superintendent, Albany's human resources director resigned after accusing her boss of racist comments, and a local firefighter sued the city and its fire chief, alleging racial discrimination after being passed over for a promotion. As the year ended, conflict erupted after a black man ...