Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lee Formwalt Receives Lillian Smith Book Award for 2015

As Lee Formwalt explains to us in Looking Back, Moving Forward, the Civil Rights Movement in Southwest Georgia was not limited to the more well-known events that occurred there in the 1960s. It is rather a movement that began with the arrival of enslaved people in the early 19th Century, and it is a history that he brings right up to the present day. In bestowing this award, the Lillian Smith Book Awards Jury commends Professor Formwalt for doing justice to this long history of struggle through a narrative that is compelling, that is instructive, and that is often heartbreaking; For sharing with us this intensely local history with national significance.  It was Albany’s Citywide Campaign in 1961 and 1962 when events came to a head in Southwest Georgia . and when the region received widespread attention.
Professor Formwalt is particularly effective in conveying a sense of this period: The mass meetings at Mt. Zion and Shiloh churches, the convictions of local leaders, the marches, the boycotts, the Freedom Rides, the young women locked in the Leesburg Stockade, and the brutal attack on the pregnant Marian King. He writes of the music of the movement that brought unity and courage in the face of great adversity.

And who better to relate these events and many others than the former Director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute and long-time Professor of History at Albany State University, Lee Formwalt? All the better that the proceeds from the sale of Looking Back, Moving Forward will go to the Albany Civil Rights Institute to help support that institution in its effort to educate this and future generations on the civil rights struggle in Southwest Georgia.

In accepting a Lillian Smith Book Award for 2015, Dr. Formwalt observed as follows:

I am truly honored and humbled to receive this award today.  When I look at the competition this year and at the previous winners, I am in awe that my work on the history of that dark southwest corner of Georgia is recognized and graced with this prize named after the courageous woman whose writing and work challenged segregation in the Jim Crow South.

Looking Back, Moving Forward tells the story of the Albany and Southwest Georgia Movement. For some people that means the years 1961-1962 when Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Albany and participated in the movement. With his involvement, the Albany Movement came to be part of the larger national civil rights movement which many people consider to have begun either in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision declaring public school segregation unconstitutional, or in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott when the young minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as a civil rights leader of national renown. The movement is often considered to have concluded either in 1964-1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, or in 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.

Many historians are rethinking the chronological boundaries of the movement which make it a 1950s and 1960s phenomenon. Instead, they propose what they call the Long Civil Rights Movement which began before 1954 and did not end in 1968, but continues right up to the present. In the Long Civil Rights Movement we look to those earlier and later attempts by African Americans and others to assert their human and civil rights.

Some would argue that the civil rights movement began in the 1930s; others go back to the beginning of the 20th century when the NAACP was founded. Still others go back to emancipation and Reconstruction in the 19th century. Others argue that the movement began with slavery and those enslaved persons who resisted their bondage. In other words, most historians agree that the freedom struggle for civil rights was not limited to two decades in the middle 20th century, but has a long history that goes back to before our nation’s founding and continues right up through today.

This book tells the story of the Long Southwest Georgia Movement, going all the way back to the earliest white and African American settlers in southwest Georgia. Greed and white privilege on the one hand, and resistance and a yearning for freedom and equality on the other have been continual themes in southwest Georgia history in the last two centuries. Quickly summarized, the story of its early years consists of the white man defeating the red man in the Creek War, 1813-1814, and taking his land to grow the white gold of that day—cotton. To clear the land, and to plant and cultivate the crop, he brought in the enslaved black man, and laid in southwest Georgia what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the corner-stone of the Cotton Kingdom.” That kingdom, built on African American slavery, came crashing down with emancipation at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. There followed in the brief hopeful years of Reconstruction in southwest Georgia (1865-1871) a struggle to make African American freedom real. With the spotty protection of the federal government, black men by the hundreds elected African American men to represent them in the state legislature. They built their own churches, schools, and social institutions.

Federal support of the experiment in African American freedom did not last long. The bonds of race were strong; white northerners and southerners reconciled as the 19th century ended, ushering in the long dark years of Jim Crow, and segregation became the law of the land south of the Mason Dixon line. White supremacy was reinforced by law and by extralegal violence, the worst of which was lynching. As during slavery and Reconstruction, African Americans resisted the system of oppression. Some left southwest Georgia; others organized and laid the groundwork for the Albany civil rights movement which burst on the national scene in late 1961. The eyes of the nation and the world were on southwest Georgia and witnessed the largest direct action community protest at that time in American history.

Key players in igniting the Albany Movement were Charles Sherrod, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and high school and Albany State College students. Martin Luther King, Jr. came in 1961 and left in 1962, but Sherrod and SNCC stayed. Their stories flesh out the narrative of the southwest Georgia movement in the 1960s. Once again the federal government allied itself with the African American liberation cause, but it was local people of color who went to court and, in county after county in the region, brought the white power structure kicking and screaming into the modern world of equal rights and diversity. The struggle for freedom and equality continues in the 21st century as whites continue to avoid true public school integration and wield economic power in their own interest. One thing that continues to inspire contemporary freedom fighters is the story of how their predecessors challenged oppression.

This book had its origins in the 1980s and 1990s when I was teaching at Albany State and researching and writing about 19th-century Dougherty County. In the 1990s I got involved in the effort to turn the old and no longer used Mt. Zion Baptist Church into a civil rights museum.  We restored the front half of the church to the way it was in 1961-1962 during the heyday of the Albany Movement.  In the back half of the church were the museum exhibits.  The $1.2 million renovation was completed in 1998 and the museum opened on the 37th anniversary of the founding of the Albany Movement in November 1961. Our dream for a new building with separate exhibit space next to the church was realized in October 2008, when the $4 million  facility was dedicated as the new Albany Civil Rights Institute or ACRI.

In the meantime, I had left Albany in 1999 to become executive director of the Organization of American Historians in Bloomington, IN.  When I retired in 2009, I got a phone call from ACRI and before I knew it I was back in Albany running our beloved new civil rights institute.

I wasn’t there long when the editor of a slick glossy photo-rich community magazine proposed that we put together a souvenir book that ACRI visitors could buy which would tell the story of the Albany Movement. We raised $25,000 to cover the costs of making the book so that all the sales proceeds would benefit ACRI.  We had difficulty finding a writer and the project remained unfinished when I retired and returned to Indiana at the end of 2011.

The following summer I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and I decided that while I was still able I would visit those places I had always wanted to see: Italy, Greece, Machu Picchu, and the Galapagos Islands. I went to Italy in May 2013, and while I was in Greece four months later I got an email from ACRI director Frank Wilson asking me about the souvenir book project.  When I got home, I explained that he needed to find a writer for the book.  Within ten days, I was signing a contract to write the book over the next four months before I headed down to Machu Picchu. Having researched and written so much on 19th-century southwest Georgia history and having written the ACRI docents’ presentation on the movement, I was able to crank out a chapter every week to nine days.  For their feedback, I sent drafts out to former SNCC workers Penny Patch, Peter de Lissovoy, and Jack Chatfield, to former Albany Movement president Dr. William Anderson, to Julian Bond, and to historians Susan O’Donovan, Emilye Crosby, Hasan Jeffries, and Jamil Zainaldin.  Sadly, we lost Jack and Julian this past year, but both lived long enough to see the book before they passed. Jamil recognized the publication as more than a souvenir book and offered the help of the Georgia Humanities Council in promoting it to a wider audience.  Cathy Cowdrey did a superb job in designing and laying out the book. Rich Weichert read every word of every draft and provided support day in and day out.  Also with us today are others who supported me over the years—my mom who has been there for me for the last 65 years; my sisters Debbie McFerran and Kim Mistovich and their husbands; and colleagues Susan McGrath and Frank Wilson, who made this project finally happen. To all of you—Thanks!

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