A Story of Personal Integrity and Triumph

Although the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s owes a lot to the leadership whose names we know, the movement would never have gone anywhere if not for thousands of everyday people who stepped up and were willing to fight for basic human rights. The more I learn about this time in our history, the more impressed I am by the stories of so many of these everyday people who displayed courage, strength, dignity, and determination. That’s why I felt so privileged when Annette Jones-White agreed to let me interview her in October. One of my questions to her was about consequences that she suffered as a result of her activities.

Annette was a student at Albany State College in Albany, GA. This college was not her first choice. She had wanted to attend Spelman College, but financially, this was not possible for her. In her third year, Annette was voted “Miss Albany State” by her classmates. One of the benefits that went with being Miss Albany State was free tuition. Another, more important benefit was that she would receive a fellowship to enable her to attend graduate school at North Carolina State free of charge. As wonderful as these benefits were to Annette, they had an effect on her that was harmful, even though she wasn’t necessarily always aware of it. Here is how she discovered this:

In November, 1961, several NAACP Youth Council high school students and three Albany State students were arrested for their protest activities. Although the NAACP protestors were released on bail, two Albany State students remained in jail through the Thanksgiving holidays. Annette visited them in jail. She was in shock at what she saw. There was no privacy; it was stinking; a man was in an adjacent cell coughing a ringing, wet cough; there were roaches; the only water available for drinking was in a very weak water fountain.

Having its students involved in these activities was not the kind of publicity that the administration at Albany State wanted or needed. While they were still in jail, the college suspended these two students without any sort of a hearing. After their release from jail, a trial was scheduled. The president of the Albany Movement requested a public show of support from Albany State students at their trial at City Hall. Annette and her friend Bernice Johnson (Reagon) organized a campus-wide meeting to urge students to march on City Hall to show their support and to protest the arrests of these students. When the march took place, on the day of the trial, hundreds of Albany State students, as well as high school students and community members, took part. The large group of protestors sang protest songs and they prayed. As the protest was coming to an end, the pastor of the Baptist Church near campus invited the Albany State students to use his church as an impromptu meeting place. After this meeting, they marched the two blocks to campus, singing freedom songs as they marched. They marched through the campus and its buildings, protesting the students’ suspensions. They ended the march by singing freedom songs under the flagpole.

Annette was called to the Dean of Students’ office on campus. The school administrators wanted Annette to stop her activities, and they wanted her to provide information about others who were involved. They suggested to Annette that her coronation as Miss Albany State could be at risk if she did not cooperate. How did Annette react to these threats? She tells me that she immediately felt a weight fall from her shoulders. She realized that her activities in support of civil and human rights were more important than a coronation, more necessary, and at that time more important even than her education. She realized that she had been carrying a weight of responsibility toward her fellow students who had voted for her. This weight of responsibility had produced in her a degree of stress and anxiety that she hadn’t even known she had. At this moment she realized that she was not going to compromise her integrity, even in the face of these empty threats. In her words, “My dignity is worth more than a rhinestone crown.”

Not long after the meeting with the college administrators, some Freedom Riders came by train from Atlanta to Albany. These Freedom Riders were arrested and put in jail. When their trial came up, Annette and her friend tried to organize the students on campus and convince them to march on City Hall again. This time, because of fear of repercussions, only a small number of students participated. This time the participants, mostly high school students and members of the community, were arrested. Annette was put in jail with 24 women in a single cell meant for four. After several hours, seven of them were moved to another cell to alleviate the overcrowding. Annette found herself in the very cell that she had seen earlier where the man had been coughing. She was afraid to touch anything. She was then moved again to a cell with four to a cell for the night. There were no mattresses on the steel bunks. One of her cellmates was the oldest protestor – 75 years old. Because the jails in Albany were so overcrowded, the next day Albany officials moved busloads of protestors to jails and prisons in surrounding counties. Thirty-nine of the women, including Annette, were sent to the jail in Newton, GA. Newton was a city with a notoriously bad reputation for racial incidents, including murders. The idea of being moved to Newton brought fear to the hearts of these prisoners, because of the violent history there. Annette and the others were concerned because no one knew they were being taking there. It was two days before the FBI, summoned by the leaders of the Albany Movement, arrived and forced the authorities to tell where all the prisoners had been taken.

Jail in Albany had not been a big problem to Annette, once she got over her initial shock over the condition of the cells. The jail in Newton turned out not to be a problem, other than the fears that went along with it. However, there was a price to be paid that she had not anticipated. After her release from jail in mid-December she received a letter from the college stating that she was suspended indefinitely as a result of her protest activities, which were “unbecoming to an Albany State student.” She expected that there would be a hearing prior to any suspension, because Georgia State Board of Regents rules required such a hearing. The suspension occurred with no hearing.

Annette was one of five students expelled from Albany State. Expulsion meant the loss of her scholarship, which she had to repay, and the fellowship that would have enabled her to attend graduate school. This, of course, was a much more serious consequence than a few days in jail, even though the conditions in jail were so horrendous. However, the community was behind her. The NAACP, and SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee – a national organization) was behind her. Attorney C. B. King, legal council for the Albany Movement, supported her. She had no regrets, and she believed she would find a solution. Although they eventually did have a hearing, this hearing was just a formality. The expulsion, along with the loss of the scholarship and fellowship, remained. Annette says today, “As far as the scholarship is concerned, I just believed that God would help me.” She also says that she has always been a problem solver and a creative person. She has always thought that there would be a way to work things out.

Well, this proved to be true. Irene Asbury Wright, former Dean of Students at Albany State worked to make a way for suspended and expelled students to be allowed to enroll in other colleges. As a result of her work, students who met all the other admissions criteria at other schools were able to transfer. At the urging of Howard Zinn, the American Home Baptist Mission Society and others stepped in and provided scholarships to the students who had been expelled from Albany State.

Although not all of the suspended and expelled students were able to continue their education, Annette was able to use this scholarship to attend Spelman College, which was where she had wanted to go from the beginning.

I guess God was watching and was pleased by what he saw in Annette Jones White.