Americus-Sumter County Movement Remembered Committee, Inc. (ASCMRC)

 

Projects & Initiatives:

  • The Americus Civil Rights Museum and Interpretive Center
  • Voter Registration and Education Program
  • Americus Civil Rights Veterans Oral History Project
  • Americus Civil Rights Film Documentary
  • Youth Mentoring and Academic Scholarships for graduating seniors
  • Targeting issues that adversely affect the elderly and providing resources to address them.
  • Partnering with city and county officials in providing employment opportunities for all.
  • Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration
  • Bi-Annual Banquet/Celebration of the Americus-Sumter County Civil Rights Movement.

The Colored Hospital | Campbell Chaptel AME Church | Friendship Baptist Church | The Cotton Avenue Coridor | Outreach Program

The Americus Civil Rights Museum Initiative

Any serious discussion on the development of a civil rights museum in the city of Americus has to begin with the rich tapestry and fabric of the African American family throughout its entire history of struggle and accomplishment in Americus and Sumter County. A proper examination of this history would reveal an astonishing legacy of immense pride, self reliance, and an insatiable appetite for entrepreneurship. Despite Jim Crow laws that discriminated against blacks and denied them voting rights, many African Americans in Americus went on to establish businesses that thrived and serviced our community for decades. The epicenter of this commercial center was none other than the Cotton Avenue corridor, bordered by Jackson, Wild and Forsyth Streets. It is indeed because of the immense social, political and economic history that so defined the Cotton Avenue sector, one is left with little doubt that this is the ideal location for such an institution.

Beginning in the 1940's and well into the eighties, Cotton Avenue boasted the city's first black owned bank just north of Forsyth Street. Next door were buildings that housed at least four black owned Life Insurance companies, including North Carolina Mutual, and Pilgrim Life and Health. Sam Weston, the first black to qualify in the democratic primary in Americus, operated his tailor shop and soda fountain for teens on Cotton Avenue. Other adjoining businesses included Simpson's Restaurant, Barnum's Bottle Shop, Fletcher Morgan's Barber Shop and Eatery, and Eddie Bryant's Enterprises, which included a restaurant, a bottle shop and billiard hall. In the late forties there was the Harlem Movie Theater located above the building later occupied by Fletcher Morgan's Barber Shop. The Harlem Theater was the first movie theater for blacks in Americus, which interestingly enough, was owned by two local white businessmen, one an Assyrian named Elias Attyah, and Jewish entrepreneur, Theo Baldwin.

Mission of the Civil Rights Museum and Interpretive Center

The mission of the proposed Americus Civil Rights museum and Interpretive Center is to commemorate the Americus Civil Rights movement of the 1960's and serve as an educational resource for the Americus community, and indeed the nation. A significant part of this mission is to portray the past in a healing and non divisive manner to reduce prejudices and improve intergroup relations in schools and universities, while revealing the harsh realities in the lives of African Americans in Americus during this era. The museum will house all memorabilia we continue to collect from Americus and around the country that documents the Americus-Sumter County Movement. Included in this collection are photographs, newspaper articles, jail records, artifacts, film, video-recordings of oral histories, and weekly field reports filed by civil rights workers, representing SNCC, SCLC and Core. As outlined in the introduction, the museum will also focus on the enormous contributions of African American families prior to and during the Americus Movement. The museum will also seek and host traveling exhibitions from other museum and institutions that advance a collective narrative of the overall civil rights movement. A major acquisition for our collection is the actual jail cell that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was held while incarcerated in the Sumter County jail in Americus in December, 1961. That cell has been dismantled and is now in storage until a permanent site is secured for the museum, upon which time, the cell will be re-assembled and put on public display for viewing by local residents and tourists to the area.

A major objective of the museum is to become an educational resource for high schools and colleges in Southwest Georgia and across the nation. Utilizing the new technologies of the information age, we envision the museum as a "virtual timeline" through history, where one will be able to access photographs, text, copies of documents, and audio and video recordings. This virtual museum will offer links to information on the context of the Americus civil rights movement, thereby establishing a starting point for gathering and disseminating information as it relates to local or national events. Some of the most compelling documents in the museum's holdings are a collection of photographs, live DVD footage of protest marches, rallies and mass meetings that characterized the Americus movement. As a living, breathing facility, the museum will be a center for interacting with the local community through conferences, forums on local issues, both cultural and educational.

The ASCMRC launched its' Oral History Project during the summer of 2007, when our staff videographer, John Hudson, began video-recording the voices of veterans of the Americus Civil Rights Movement. The aim of this project is to collect the compelling oral histories of people who participated in the movement locally. These poignant histories convey the feeling of being involved in a great social movement which altered the course of American history, as no scholarly or journalistic history can. These histories will be available, in excerpted form through the museum web site. A proposed Online Resource Center will provide an interactive multi media gallery for visitors to access these oral history interviews, clips, and other materials about the other movements for civil and human rights as they occurred across the south, the nation, and the world.

Why A Civil Rights Museum

The Americus civil rights movement was one of the most important and significant movements of its time. In many ways, the Americus Movement eclipsed similar movements in other cities, including Albany, Selma or Birmingham. This does not in any way diminish the struggles that occurred in those places, because it was the collective struggles in all these cities and throughout the south that made the difference in the fight for first class citizenship for African Americans in America. What sets Americus apart was the length of its engagement (longer than any other city). The Americus arrests were noted for having the highest number of juveniles (aged 12-15) arrested and incarcerated, and overall, the Americus protestors, young and older, were jailed for longer periods (two to three months) than their counterparts in other cities. The long and protracted struggle of the Americus Movement led to two of the most important civil rights legal victories during the southern civil rights movement being decided right here in Americus, Georgia.

On August 8, 1963, SNCC Field Secretaries Don Harris, John Perdew and Ralph Allen, were brutally beaten and burned with electric cattle prods along with hundreds of young black protestors during a night time demonstration on Cotton Avenue. The three SNCC workers along with Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) worker Zev Aelony, were charged with insurrection, inciting to riot, and assault and battery. Two local blacks, Sallie Mae Durham, a minor, and Thomas McDaniel were also charged with inciting to riot and assault. Twenty four peace bonds totaling $120,000 are lodged against the SNCC and CORE workers by Sumter County solicitor Stephen Pace, Jr. who was campaigning for his father's seat in congress, and was vigorously courting the segregationist vote. Since the insurrection charge carried the death penalty in Georgia, no bond was set for the defendants. It was clear to all civil rights workers and legal scholars throughout the south and indeed the nation, that if the state of Georgia were to prevail on these charges, it would stifle and possibly end protest movements in cities across the south. The intent by the state in lodging these draconian charges was to once and for all, crush the movement by indiscriminately arresting anyone deemed as leaders and jailing them under the threat of a death sentence. The chief legal council for the defendants would include noted civil rights attorneys C.B. King of Albany, Morris Abram of New York, Donald Hollowell of Atlanta, Thomas Jackson of Macon, and Constance Baker Motley, associate council for the NAACP Legal defense Fund. All of the activists remain in jail for 85 days until on November 1, 1963, a three judge federal panel ruled Georgia's insurrection law unconstitutional, and set the rights workers, now known as the "Americus Four", free.

On July 21, 1965, Mary Kate Fishe-Bell became the first black woman to run for public office in the history of Sumter County in the Democratic Primary for the office of Justice of the Peace. On the day of the election, Ms.Bell was arrested along with Mrs. Mamie Campbell, wife of the Reverend J.R. Campbell, President of the Sumter County Movement, and local activists, Lena Turner and Gloria Wise. They were all arrested for trying to vote in the "white" only voting lines at the Sumter County court house polling site. Their arrests prompted massive daily demonstrations led by Reverend Campbell, Reverend R.L. Freeman, civil rights activist Dick Gregory, and SNCC and SCLC field workers. While jailed, the four women refused bond and continued their demand that their release be immediate and unconditional. On July 24, 1965, while still incarcerated, the four women along with the U.S. Justice Department, file suit in federal court to enjoin local officials from further prosecution and an end to segregated elections in Americus and Sumter County. On July 30, 1965, Federal Judge W.A. Bootle ordered the release of the four women and an end to segregated elections in Sumter County.

The impact of these two landmark legal cases had profound implications that reached far beyond Americus. The federal courts decision to free the "Americus Four" of insurrection charges was viewed as setting a precedent for civil rights demonstrators to go directly to federal court with complaints of excessive bond, or other violations of constitutional rights. A second order, just as significant, was issued three hours later which was an injunction restraint against the prosecution of peace warrants, a legal weapon used by Americus and other Southern officials to fight against civil rights activities. Americus, Georgia, and Selma, Alabama brought national attention to the voting rights struggle and lawless resistance to the right of African Americans to vote. It is arguably true that the arrest of candidate Mary Kate Bell, her three co-defendents, and the subsequent massive demonstrations that followed, pushed the Voting Rights Act out of congress, and broke the resistance of the southern filibuster and senior members of congress. The outcome of both these legal battles in Americus, along with length and breath of the Americus civil rights movement, helped to facilitate passage of both the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Colored Hospital

The Colored HospitalLocated at the northern end of Cotton Avenue was the Americus Colored Hospital. Opened in 1923, the hospital was the only medical facility in Georgia where black medical professionals could practice at a modern medical facility. At the time, the Colored Hospital boasted 33 medical doctors of color, two dentists, two pharmacists, six registered nurses, 18 other nursing professionals and a nursing school. It was the only hospital in Georgia that trained both black and white physicians simultaneously. History also notes that the Colored hospital was the only hospital in Georgia that was founded for the purpose of preventing the suffering among African Americans in rural Georgia. The institution made possible the opportunity for doctors, pharmacists and nursing professionals to set up practice and gain experience, and work in a modern medical center in the south for people of color. Records indicate that the Americus Colored Hospital actually produced more doctors of color than Atlanta, Chicago and New York combined from the mid 1920's to the 1940's, despite having a much smaller population of citizens of color. Today the hospital is under the stewardship of the City Federation of Colored Women, a non-profit organization that oversees the operation of the facility. In January of 2009, through the efforts of local historian and researcher, Willie Cooper, the hospital was designated as a historic landmark, sanctioned by the Georgia Historical Society and a historical marker new stands at the entrance to the facility.

Campbell Chapel AME Church

Campbell Chapel AME ChurchAcross the street from the "Colored" Hospital is the majestic and historic Campbell Chapel AME Church, or as it was called then, the "Chapel on the Hill". In 1877, trustees of the church purchased property at the corner of Jackson and Wild Streets, and in 1920, Louis H. Persley, the first black registered architect in Georgia, designed and built Campbell Chapel. In 1999, Campbell Chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior. Throughout its history, Campbell Chapel has served the Americus community through its worship services, civil rights gatherings and cultural events. When Staley Middle School burned down at the hands of an arsonist in 1958, Campbell Chapel allowed the segregated Sumter County School system to use its facilities to host graduation exercises for blacks. This occurred from 1957 through 1970.

Friendship Baptist Church

Friendship Baptist ChurchFounded in 1895, by the Reverend J.C. Bryan, Friendship Baptist Church is located on the east side of Cotton Avenue. Led by larger than life Pastor Daniel Thomas, Friendship played a pivotal role in the Americus Civil Rights Movement, as did other important houses of worship for African Americans in Americus. Reverend J.R. Campbell of Allen Chapel, Reverend R.L. Freeman of Bethesda Baptist, Reverend Ulysses Brown of Union

Tabernacle and Deacons Leland Cooper and Lonnie Evans of New Pineville and New Corinth Baptist Churches, all played a gallant and significant role in advancing the cause of the Americus-Sumter County civil rights movement. They all worked tirelessly to inspire their congregations to change the dynamics of race and class as it were during the movement. The location of Friendship on Cotton Avenue afforded movement participants immediate access to the corridor that led directly to places of protest within the downtown area, including the county court house where many vigils were held. Reverend Thomas opened the doors of Friendship to host mass meetings and other movement activities at a time when black churches were being targeted and bombed by the Ku Klux Klan and others. From his church demonstrators filed into Cotton Avenue to march downtown to protest segregation, police brutality, mass incarcerations, and the countys' attempts to deny blacks the right to vote.

The Cotton Avenue Corridor

Cotton Avenue Corridor

The historic Cotton Avenue corridor has traditionally played a significant role in the growth, history, and development of Americus. Because of the perseverance of these merchants, their businesses, and their powerful houses of worship, they were able to nurture, inspire and provide services to generations of African Americans that were not available to them in a segregated society. It would be a tragedy of enormous proportion, if as a community we fail to honor and recognize their contributions during the tumultuous period leading up to and during the civil rights movement. We have already witnessed the demolition of entire blocks of Cotton Avenue and Jackson Street without so much as a wink or nod of what these structures meant to a generation before. There are no street markers that remind this generation of the shared sacrifice their forefathers made in order for them to reap the bounties within their grasp today. When one drives or walks through this corridor today and looks over the barren landscape, it is as if these buildings and institutions never existed…as if none of the contributions of these pioneers are worth mentioning, let alone preserving. If we are to inspire and motivate this generation of our youth, the place to begin is to remind them that they are the descendants of a proud and resourceful community that prospered in spite of forced limitations, and that these are the broad shoulders on which they stand upon today.

Outreach Program

Americus is fortunate to have not one, but two institutions of higher learning conveniently located and accessible to its general public. It is our desire to partner with Georgia Southwestern University, and South Georgia Technical College with the goal of channeling students toward research that will examine the Americus and other civil rights movements around the world. Educators and researchers will be needed to develop a curriculum guide to the movement whereby students can receive academic credit for taking classes that focus on conflict resolution on issues of race and class in American society that continue to resonate today. Georgia Southwestern University can be especially useful in contributing to the Oral History Project through the assistance of its History and Media Departments, its facilities, and student personnel.

Overview:

Americus is uniquely positioned and qualified for a Civil Rights Interpretive Center, given its past history of documented accomplishments.

Consider the following:

  1. The Americus Movement ignited demonstrations in 70 other counties across the south where SNCC and SCLC/Scope were operating.
  2. Former SNCC Chairman, and now Congressman John Lewis referenced the Americus Movement during his groundbreaking speech at the historic 1963 March on Washington.
  3. Americus was the only place where both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of SCLC, and John Lewis of SNCC, two major heads of civil rights organizations, were jailed.
  4. Two landmark civil rights legal decisions were handed down in Americus, that had profound implications for the future course of the national civil rights movement.
  5. The supportive relationship and shared experiences between the Koinonia Farm community and the Americus movement.

A Civil Rights Museum would enhance both the city's cultural and historical profile as a place for tourists to visit. It would be a welcome addition to existing landmarks such as Andersonville National Cemetery, Koinonia Farm, Habitat for Humanity, which created the nations first local, national and global housing initiative, Millard Fuller Housing, and Plains, Georgia, home to President Jimmy Carter, all of which attract hundreds of visitors each year. Sumter County is significant, not just because of its civil rights history, but also for its human rights and southern political history. Americus-Sumter County, can be a major tourist destination in the South by forging partnerships among all the organizations mentioned here, whereby collaborative educational events and/or festivals can be scheduled once a year that enhance the Americus historic narrative. The museum could be the catalyst that ignites revitalization of the blighted Cotton Avenue corridor where new businesses are developed with open green spaces including a park and lighted plaza or small amphitheater, for day or evening outdoor gatherings. The benefits of such an initiative north of Forsyth Street would exert a fair and equitable balance toward the use of development funds in this historic part of downtown Americus that has been neglected for decades.

The ASCMRC Seven Point Plan

    1. Identify location of existing building which can be renovated and expanded to house the museum, or seek land on Cotton Avenue from a possible donor to build entirely new structure from the ground up.

    2. Re-create a "Living Heritage Walking Tour" that begins at the museum, via Friendship Baptist Church, and travels the route of protest marchers along the Cotton Avenue corridor, to places of protest and economic boycotts (Martin Theater, Walgreen's lunch counter, Kwik Chek and other downtown businesses, city and county jails, etc.) and demonstrations during the movement. This tour should also connect with sites located outside the downtown area that figured prominently, and greatly impacted the Americus movement, such as the Leesburg and Dawson, Georgia Stockades, Allen Chapel AME, Bethesda Baptist, and Union Tabernacle Churches, Barnum's Funeral Home, The Lee Street "Freedom Center", the "Colored Hospital",and Koinonia Farm. The Southwest Georgia Project based in Albany, is currently working to construct a "Freedom Tour" that will connect Americus to other cities and counties, such as Albany, Cordele and Terrell County where the civil rights movement was active. The Project aims to work with existing local tourism officials to create a regional tour of all these historic sites that make up the compelling narrative of the Southwest Georgia civil rights movement.

    3. Establish a Civil Rights Museum Committee to lobby Americus public officials to create an official organization with resources to plan a city sponsored museum. Sumter County is one of six Georgia counties who have been selected to partner with the Archway Partnership of the University of Georgia. Presently active in the Americus community, the Archway Project is committed to projects that promote economic development and tourism, and is well suited as a partner with the City of Americus, the Sumter County Board of Commissioners, the Americus Tourism Council, Department of Cultural Affairs, Americus Downtown Development, and the Americus Chamber of Commerce.

    4. The Museum committee should represent a broad range of Americus citizens to include educators, researchers, historians, arts and cultural leaders, civil rights advocates (past and present), city and county government officials, business and community leaders.

    5. Seek additional funding through bond issues by city government, which if cannot be passed on its own merit, could be attached to other issues like revenue for schools, recreation or public works, etc; Explore Community Development Block Grants that focuses on conversion and renovation of unused buildings to public use. An additional benefit to the project is job creation through the construction and operation of the Center.

    6. Seek assistance and support from Habitat for Humanity and The Millard Fuller Housing Center, in the planning, construction and/or rehabilitation of museum site.

    7. The impact of Plains resident, former President Jimmy Carter's personal link to Americus and Sumter County should not go unnoticed. The Carter Center in partnership with Emory University, is committed to advancing human rights and alleviating unnecessary suffering around the globe. It is possible that such an alliance could be extended to the Americus Civil Rights Museum/Interpretive Center and Georgia Southwestern University, to aid in conflict resolution, both local and global.

In Conclusion:

The ASCMRC recognizes and acknowledges that a project such as this can only progress over a period of time with careful planning and assessment measures firmly in place. We are confident however, that this project will be an added asset to the city of Americus, which over time will enhance the city's historic, cultural, and economic profile. Promoting cultural tourism in Americus would be an attractive allure for people interested in travel to places that figured prominently in the civil rights movement, especially when linked with other counties in Southwest Georgia where civil rights movement activities flourished during the 1960's. The ASCMRC remains confident that with the assistance of its supporters and participants, coupled with a unified alliance with Americus and Sumter County public servants, the dream of a civil rights museum shall become reality.