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Historic Church Will Be Civil Rights Museum

Sat., Jan. 13, 1996

The pigeons are being evicted from the crumbling brick church where freedom songs were born and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired weary protesters.

The old Mount Zion Baptist Church, which has been standing empty for 23 years, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in August and will become a civil rights museum.

Its artifacts, including the key to a jail cell where King was confined, will honor members of the “Albany movement,” who risked arrest and beatings in 1961 and 1962 to end segregation in Georgia’s fifth-largest city.

“That was our meeting place,” McCree Harris said. “I was a schoolteacher. I had to be careful, but I attended every meeting, even though I had some fear. I had some retaliation from my bosses.”

The first meeting was on Nov. 25, 1961, three days after five black students were arrested for standing in a white ticket line at the bus station. Within a few days, more than 700 of Albany’s black residents had been arrested, marking the first mass arrests of the civil rights movement.

Albany is considered significant in the struggle because it was where King refined his tactics of nonviolence before moving on to Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., said Lee Formwalt, a history professor at Albany State College.

It was also in Albany that some of the movement’s well-known songs were born, such as “I Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”

“Every time I hear something about the movement, I hear some of the songs that were revitalized” in Albany, said Harris, secretary of a nonprofit corporation that is rebuilding the church. “Most of them were old spirituals. We used them … with sometimes a change in words. The tune was more or less the same.”

King visited Mount Zion in December 1961 to energize civil rights protesters. He delivered four sermons in one night - two at Mount Zion and two across the street at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.

“There had been mass meetings, mass marches, and hundreds were in jail,” Formwalt said. “The movement was at a point where they needed a shot in the arm.”

King was arrested the next morning during a march. But rather than pay a fine of $178, he chose to serve a jail sentence to demonstrate the evils of segregation, Formwalt said. City officials, eager to get out of the national spotlight, wanted King to leave, and a mystery man eventually paid his fine.

Besides having a role in the civil rights movement, Mount Zion was a meeting place for Albany’s oldest black Baptist congregation. The Gothic-style church was built in 1906 and was used until 1972, when the congregation moved to a new building about three miles away.

Workers recently began a massive restoration project. The $773,000 project, funded largely through a special sales tax, is expected to be completed late in 1996. It is the first step in creating a black historic district.

A few years after the Albany movement, the city repealed segregation laws and integrated the schools, and black residents gained some political clout.

“It changed our direction,” Harris said. “No longer did we want to go in the back.”

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