Sherwood Baptist Partners with a Black Church to Bring Racial Healing
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 killed a white cop in the wake of an armed robbery.
2011 hasn't been much better. When Albany's African American city manager resigned in March to take another job, two whites and one black emerged as replacement candidates. When Mayor Willie Adams, an African American, hired the black applicant, some locals played the race card. "Imagine that," one reader commented in the Albany Herald. "The only black finalist is the recipient of the top city guvment job." "Bad just got worse," wrote another.
When the Herald ran an evenhanded report about the community's history of segregation and civil rights, readers let loose with comments like these:
• "The black community needs to get over being black and move forward …. I see more black people trying to get something for nothing. I see more white people working and paying for black people who do nothing but commit crime and sit around."
• "All black people are racists and have proven they can't be trusted."
• "If you really want to help race relations in Albany, just fire all the Albany officials and start over. Talk about a racist bunch. And excuse me, but 90 percent are black. And being in office gives them power they do not need."
• "If hate could fuel an engine, Albany would power the world!"
Lee Formwalt, executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute, told Christianity Today about an older white doctor who welcomed a new physician, also white, to town a few years ago. While riding down one street, they saw a black boy with an older man. The old doctor chuckled, "Kind of makes you wish we could still buy 'em."
All this in a town whose motto is "The Good Life City."
Into this uneasy quagmire have stepped two local Baptist churches—one mostly white, one mostly black—and their pastors, working together to heal divisions.