Born in Waycross, Georgia, Mary Jenkins moved to Dougherty County at a young age. She attended public schools in Dougherty County. Later, she matriculated at Fisk University and received a master's degree from Georgia State University. Jenkins's first teachihng experience was in Baker County. There she experienced her indelible impressions from the era of segregation. She was involved in situations that were inhumane and demeaning to Blacks. Her experiences in Baker County persuaded her to become a part of the Albany Civil Rights Movement. The author of Open Dem Cells: A Pictoral History of the Albany Movement, Mary Jenkins actively participated in the historic Albany Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. This interview focuses on her intimate involvement with the Movement and her recollection of overt social injustices that the citizens of Albany tolerated and then sought to obliterate
What was your role in the Albany Civil Rights Movement?
During the Albany Civil Rights Movement, I was married with children. I wanted to be a part of everything; however, I had commitments to my family. I never participated in any marches, sit-ins, or picketing. Every night I would attend the mass meetings that were held in Mount Zion Baptist Church, Shiloh Baptist Church, or other churches in the city. I worked in the office that Dr. King set up in the home of Dr. Anderson (President of the Albany Civil Rights Movement). Incorporating my passion for writing, I wrote accounts of the mass meetings and kept historical records of the Movement. I had the honor of speaking with Dr. King several times.
What were the mass meetings like?
The mass meetings were exciting in a way. By the end of each meeting, so many emotions had been felt. There were so many people and they were so aroused by leaders and speakers such as Martin Luther King. In addition, the people who were arrested would come back and say what happened to them in jail. The atmosphere was very emotional. Attendees went from crying to smiling within minutes and from dismay to joy in hours. The heart of the Movement was the singing that happened at the meetings. The Freedom Singers originated in Albany in the mass meetings. The singing would really stir up the emotions of the people. Attendees would inform others about social injustices that they had faced recently as well as make suggestions about what to do next.
What inspired you to write Open Dem Cells? Did you write the book for a particular audience? Where did you obtain most of your information?
As I mentioned, I attended most of the mass meetings that were held even if they were not at Mt. Zion. Having written accounts about what happened in the meetings, my daughter, who later attended Albany High School in 1966, kept telling me that I should write a book. After her death, I decided to create the book. After having organized the information that I had collected, I decided to publish a book. I did not really have a particular audience. Maybe my target audience was young people, but adults can profit from it as well. Basically, I wanted all those who were not informed about the Movement to become knowledgeable. I obtained most of my information from the notes recorded at meetings. However, at the end of the book, I have a part that brings the information to current times. I had to contact individuals to get hands-on accounts. I advertised in the Southwest Georgian (Albany's Black newspaper) asking subscribers to tell about "firsts" (i.e. first bank teller, first Black principal, etc.). Most of the information came from personal contacts.
How helpful did you find the Albany Herald as a source of information for your book?
Well, there are several interesting things that happened in regard to the Albany Herald. First, a young man who was a Herald circulation manager was fired because he refused to stop working with the Albany Movement. Second, James Gray, editor of the Herald, wrote many racial articles in his newspaper. As a result of these two events, many African-Americans stopped subscribing to the Albany Herald.
I discovered another interesting situation with the Albany Herald. I had cut out an article from the newspaper when it was issued. There was a continued part to the article that I did not have. I needed the article for some research that I was doing for the Albany Civil Rights Museum. I went to the Albany Herald office to copy the second part of the article that they had on file. The front page of the newspaper I had and the front page that the Albany Herald had were different. This added to the existing rumor that developed during the Civil Rights Movement that Black people and White people had separate newspapers.
How would you describe the atmosphere in Albany before the Albany Movement?
Albany was strictly segregated. There were separate Black and White water fountains. When attending the Albany Theatre, I had to sit in the balcony. When entering any public place, I would walk through the back doors. Albany was Jim Crow throughout. Schools were segregated. I graduated from a segregated high school (Madison High School) where students were given hand-me-down books from the "white school" - Albany High School. The pay for teachers was not equal at the two schools. Albany High School had a lunchroom, but Madison High School only had snack items available for sale. Madison High School did not really have a library either. There was only a place where a few books were located. My senior year was the first year that a business education program was introduced. Albany High School sent only eight typewriters to my school. I was editor-in-chief of the newspaper, and I felt that I could benefit from the class. The principal said that I would have to buy a typewriter in order to take the class. When listening to the radio, there was an advertisement to sell a typewriter for thirty dollars. When I went to the White seller, the typewriter was forty dollars.
Describe the segregated public education system in Albany, Georgia (from the perspective of a teacher). What was the method that was used to integrate the schools?
I always taught in the Black schools; however, I do know that the White teachers were paid bonuses to go into all the Black schools. Black teachers were hand-picked to teach in White schools. At some White schools, Black teachers taught on one hall. In addition, Black teachers were required to turn in the grades of the White students to see if the Black teacher had given them the correct grades. One way in which White parents agreed to having their children taught by Black teachers was because Black teachers taught only one subject all day. The idea was that White children would not be really affected by the Black teachers because they would only be with Black teachers for one subject.
Discuss the collective boycotts in Albany as forms of protest.
The movement started with the bus situation. The Interstate Commerce Commission ruled that there should not be any segregation on interstate transportation. The people tested the rule that there was not supposed to be segregated facilities. Initial protests at the bus stations (i.e. sit-ins at bus station lunch counters) by college students encouraged other people to start other forms of protests (i.e. Freedom Riders). Everything that happened afterwards stemmed from the situation that occurred at the bus station.
In Albany, an eighteen year old Albany State College student got on the city bus to go to school. As the bus was getting ready to continue on its route, the student fell into one of the front seats of the bus. Instead of moving, she stayed there. She was forcefully taken off the bus. As a result, Blacks refused to ride the bus, and a bus boycott in Albany was in effect.
Do you recall other forms of protests besides marches, sit-ins, or picketing?
I recall boycotts of downtown stores and especially "Black Christmas." The leaders of the Albany Movement thought that with the masses of people going to jail, city officials would be willing to listen to the grievances of Blacks; however, Albany City Commissioners refused to listen. Another issue was that a Black man had been killed unjustly by the police. The leaders of the Albany Movement decided that they would not burn Christmas lights and would not support business in Albany. Christmas was not to be celebrated. This lack of celebration continued into Easter. Men boycotted by not wearing Easter suits; instead they started wearing overalls.
What were some words that you would use to describe the large number of young people who were active participants in the Movement?
We could not have accomplished all that we did without the help of the youth. The youth were the main participants in the Movement mainly because they had the most time. Adults were trying to work and support the families. In fact, the students at Albany State College helped to organize the first large march. Most of the youth participants were trained under SNCC and believed that non-violence was the key to instituting permanent change. I would describe the young participants as bold, daring, courageous, out-spoken, and dedicated. They accepted the challenge that was given to them with grace.
At the close of the interview as Mrs. Jenkins sat on the sofa in her living room, she said, "I certainly believe that we have an Obama today because of the fight that took placef during the Civil Rights Movement."
Carey Charlese Cobb, a second-year Honors Program student, participates in the National Association of Black Accountants, One World Learning Community, and Oglethorpe Hall Council. Pursuing an accounting degree, Charlese makes the Dean's List consistently. Her hobbies are traveling, dancing and volunteering. After graduate school, her aspirations are to become a financial advisor.