Ray Charles, the Albany Civil Rights Institute, memories of MLK, Jr. and more bring history to life in this Southern City
From the notes of one of the country’s greatest musical geniuses to the rhythmic beat of a significant and historic Civil Rights March, Albany, Georgia, located about an hour off I-10 and only 30 minutes from I-75, an ideal resting place or stopping point when en route to/from Savannah and Charleston, or even Florida, is filled with the sounds of “soul.” This February, celebrate Black History Month in the birthplace of both the legendary Ray Charles and a founding piece in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quest for equal rights in the 1960s.
Ray Charles was born in Albany in 1930. In spite of an illness that struck Charles blind at age seven, he would become one of the most influential singer-songwriters in American history. Today, the closest you can get to a Ray Charles concert is in his hometown at The Ray Charles Plaza. The plaza sits on the banks of the Flint River in downtown Albany. Visitors can watch the rotating, life-size bronze sculpture of the groundbreaking musician seated at a baby Grand piano, all while listening to Charles’s most famous tunes–including the state’s official song, “Georgia On My Mind.” While you are on the Riverfront, be sure to stop by the historic Bridge House. Former slave turned famed engineer, Horace King, built the original wooden bridge that crossed the Flint River and the Bridge House that now serves as Albany’s Welcome Center.
Just seven minutes from downtown, the Albany Civil Rights Institute (ACRI) immediately sends you back in time by making you choose either the historic “White” or “Colored” doorways upon entrance to the state-of-the-art facility. Experience life’s harsh realities yet profound hope that existed in Southwest Georgia under the Jim Crowe laws by exploring the museum’s interactive exhibits. The institute’s digital oral database features touching real-life stories of those who felt the effects of “separate but equal” and those who bravely fought against segregation in the South.
Every second Saturday of the month, enjoy a stirring performance by the ACRI Freedom Singers featuring Rutha Harris, one of the original singers. The Freedom Singers, established in 1962 to encourage activists, played a crucial part in Albany’s and the nation’s Civil Rights movement.
Your trip through the museum comes to a close in the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church Sanctuary where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a crowd of thousands in 1961. Due to the overflowing masses, he would make the same speech three different times that day between Old Mt. Zion Baptist Church and Shiloh Baptist Church. After the final meeting, Dr. King walked across the street to Shiloh Baptist Church and started Albany’s Famous Civil Rights March to the Trailways Bus Station. Make the same journey by walking in Dr. King’s footsteps, symbolically displayed in the sidewalk cement, and feel the dream of freedom on the streets of Albany.
If you go
During your visit, don’t miss Carter’s Grill for soul food, a block from the Civil Rights Institute and the site of past civil rights meetings. More foodie finds unfold at The Catch, a trendy nouveau Southern cuisine seafood place; local treasure Austin’s BBQ and Oyster Bar; Pearly’s Famous Country Cooking; upscale Henry Campbell’s The Steakhouse; and pub-style Harvest Moon, with evening musical entertainment served on the side. Albany has more than two dozen hotels, many of which include complimentary breakfast.