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A Volatile Time, 1962

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J. Robert Elliott was the federal judge who stopped civil rights activists from marching in Albany, Georgia. In this account, he explains his decision.


J. Robert Elliott retired Dec. 31, 2000, as the nation's oldest federal district judge. In his nearly 40 years on the bench, he rarely granted interviews and rarely, if ever, elaborated on his decisions...

...Within the sprawling Middle District of Georgia, black residents and their allies were fighting to end segregation of public accommodations, voting practices, schools and other public facilities.

Suddenly, the man whose fiery oratory helped elect Herman Talmadge -- one of the South's staunchest segregationists -- was now charged by his judicial oath with maintaining order while desegregating schools and public facilities.

The segregationist politics that ruled Georgia -- policies Elliott helped write and maintain -- collided head-on with forces seeking to desegregate the state and nation. Judge J. Robert Elliott had to give the orders opening public facilities to everyone.

"It was just a matter of doing the job, of doing what was the law," Elliott said. "And, therefore, my views changed. They had to and they did. I can see that there was a clash there, and I tried to do what was right."

His first test on the civil rights issue was brewing before Elliott was even nominated.

The battleground was Albany, Ga. -- 90 miles south of Columbus.

It was 1961 and names that would become national figures were converging on Albany.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy led protests.

Leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society urged local residents to stage sit-ins, marches, demonstrations and protests.

Their battle to win the rights their white neighbors took for granted was on.

Protesters were arrested by the hundreds in 1961 and early 1962, sometimes led by Martin Luther King Jr., sometimes by Abernathy.

But mostly the protests were led by Albany Movement leaders such as Dr. William G. Anderson and two brothers, Slater King and C. B. King, an attorney who fought the group's legal battles and sought release of those arrested.

It was a time of great hope, fear, concern, pride and even joy, said Carol King, widow of C. B. King.

Poor blacks who walked the streets barefoot and climbed aboard crowded trucks before dawn to ride to nearby farms, others who made their way to the homes of wealthy white families to care for their children and their houses, some who trekked to kitchens throughout the city to cook for thousands of Dougherty County residents and visitors -- afterward, all came together to sing, clap hands, pray and march for freedom not just for themselves, but for their children and their children's children.

"It was wonderful to see these people come free," said Carol King. "It was amazing. They would say, 'We can do this.' They felt good about themselves and about each other."

By July 1962, daily protests included blacks seeking service at downtown lunch counters, in "white" sections of the city's theaters, public libraries, city parks, bowling areas and recreation facilities. Pairs of black residents would go to all-white churches on Sundays.

By mid-July, more than 1,000 had been arrested -- and Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to rejoin the Albany Movement for another march.

On July 20, Elliott issued an injunction. He stopped further protests or marches, but didn't explain why he issued the order later overturned by the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Elliott says now that ruling has been "often misunderstood."

It was based, he says, on a threat of violence against protesters -- specifically against Martin Luther King Jr.

"In previous marches, Martin Luther King Jr. had marched at the head of the parade saying something to the effect of 'Kill me! Kill me!' " Elliott said. "Well, there were groups that had said if he did that again, they would. That was the truth of it. I did it to prevent violence."

The injunction prevented at least one weekend of marches by movement leaders. It came at a time of heightened tensions and could have kept someone from shooting King or other marchers, Elliott says.

"Maybe he would have been killed and maybe he wouldn't, " Elliott said. "All I know is he didn't parade -- and he wasn't killed."

Carol King said the atmosphere was "very tense" atmosphere and the lives of several leaders, including her husband, were threatened. She believed the threats were very real.

"Slater, my brother-in-law, gave me a gun to protect myself because I was here at home with five children while C. B. was out working to cover all those who were arrested," she said. "Cars of white men would come and drive slowly past our house or park out in front. I guess they were waiting for my husband. I don't think they had anything positive in mind."

The same scene occurred all over town.

"They would call and tell me they were going to murder C. B., and they did this repeatedly," she said. "They'd say, 'We're going to get him. We're going to blow his brains out.' "

More than 3,000 Ku Klux Klan members assembled nightly in an open pasture less than a mile from her home.

It was a volatile time, but Carol King heard of no direct threat that Martin Luther King Jr. or other leaders would be shot if they marched as planned.

During hearings into whether the injunction should be reissued, she sat in court, listened to the testimony and watched closely. She came away with an unfavorable opinion of Elliott.

"The judge was very negative," she said.

Two years later, Elliott ruled that blacks had the right to peaceful protest. He enjoined the city of Albany from arresting protesters as they had in 1962.

As Elliott prepared to retire, work was finishing on a new federal building in Albany. It will be named for C. B. King.

Houston, Jim. "Judge Elliott Reflects on Career." Columbus [Georgia] Ledger-Enquirer, July 4, 2006.

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