In the summer of 1961 King was a supporter of the Freedom Rides, a campaign of bus trips from north to south, intended to desegregate bus stations and lunch counters simply through the use of them. The Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, had organized the Freedom Rides without King's help, and King limited his involvement to training participants in methods of nonviolence, and to negotiating with the Kennedy Administration on their behalf.
Riders were being met by violence–their tires slashed, their buses burned, their persons attacked–and King questioned whether it the gains were worth the losses. But when he declined to participate in one of the Freedom Rides, his devotion was again questioned.
John F. Kennedy had not yet been President for a full year, but already his handling of civil rights issues disappointed King and other civil rights leaders. Kennedy depended on Southern Democrats, and even had appointed some segregationists to judgeships in the South. Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General and brother of the President, was an ally of King, but not unconditionally. He shared his brother's political allegiances to certain Southerners, and was loathe to police the South via the law enforcement agencies at his command. In the case of the Freedom Rides, however, he did intervene to protect protestors, and did so at King's suggestion: the Attorney General ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission, or ICC, to ban segregation in interstate travel, thus giving official federal support to the Freedom Rides.
The Freedom Rides were CORE's program, not King's, and late in 1961, King turned his attention to the situation in Albany, Georgia. With the Albany Movement, as it came to be known, King attached himself to a protest already in progress. This is what he had done in Montgomery and with the Freedom Riders as well. SNCC had already established a voter-registration center in the heavily segregated city, and this, in turn, had provided a base of operations for various sit-ins and protests in Albany's public places. King stepped in when he felt that the movement could not afford to give up any more of its members to the prisons.
He arrived 15 December 1961, and the next day, with Ralph Abernathy, led a march of 250 protestors to City Hall. All of the protestors were arrested. Albany Police Chief Laurie Prichett handled his prisoners very courteously, however, which diffused the power of their non-violent protest: with no physical conflict there was no media bonanza and no national outrage. Nevertheless, negotiations followed the mass arrest and appeared to portend victory for the protestors; King, who had vowed to remain in jail until demands were met, left when City authorities made various promises. But appearances were deceiving. For example, the city of Albany promised to desegregate bus and rail terminals as if in response to the protests, even though ICC statutes already required it to do so. And the City circumvented further promises of desegregation by shutting down the public institutions in question.
King and Abernathy returned to Albany in February to be tried for the December rally. While they had been away, the media had left too, and the city had refused to negotiate with the SNCC protestors who remained. King and Abernathy were sentence to jail terms in July, and returned again at that time, reviving the interest of the media. King and Abernathy refused to pay the $178 fine that would have exempted them from serving time, but local authorities, sensing the publicity their incarceration would generate, paid the fine for them, effectively kicking them out of jail.
While King and Abernathy were still in Albany, violence broke out. Young protestors, who had been fighting nonviolently for months, were becoming impatient and frustrated. A crowd of two thousand threw rocks and bottles at police. King tried to rein in the violence, and held a prayer vigil against it, but was arrested for this. Again he was kept from jail, and, soon after, the City obtained a federal injunction banning King and his followers from protesting. Up until this point, King had fought local laws on the grounds of the federal laws that they contradicted. In this case, protest would mean violation of what King claimed was his legal basis.
Between the police chief's gentle methods, the City's refusal to jail King, and pressure from Robert Kennedy, who encouraged King to continue to abide by federal laws, there seemed slim chance for victory in Albany. King left the city in August, having learned what not to do. In his next campaign, in Birmingham, Alabama, he would avoid these mistakes.