Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt

Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt

Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt

Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt

Synopsis

Winner of the 2010 Clinton Jackson Coley Award for the best book on local history from the Alabama Historical Association

Early in 1966, African Americans in rural Lowndes County, Alabama, aided by activists from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), established an all-black, independent political party called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). The group, whose ballot symbol was a snarling black panther, was formed in part to protest the barriers to black enfranchisement that had for decades kept every single African American of voting age off the county's registration books. Even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, most African Americans in this overwhelmingly black county remained too scared even to try to register. Their fear stemmed from the county's long, bloody history of whites retaliating against blacks who strove to exert the freedom granted to them after the Civil War.

Amid this environment of intimidation and disempowerment, African Americans in Lowndes County viewed the LCFO as the best vehicle for concrete change. Their radical experiment in democratic politics inspired black people throughout the country, from SNCC organizer Stokely Carmichael who used the Lowndes County program as the blueprint for Black Power, to California-based activists Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, who adopted the LCFO panther as the namesake for their new, grassroots organization: the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. This party and its adopted symbol went on to become the national organization of black militancy in the 1960s and 1970s, yet long-obscured is the crucial role that Lowndes County"historically a bastion of white supremacy"played in spurring black activists nationwide to fight for civil and human rights in new and more radical ways.

Drawing on an impressive array of sources ranging from government documents to personal interviews with Lowndes County residents and SNCC activists, Hasan Kwame Jeffries tells, for the first time, the remarkable full story of the Lowndes County freedom struggle and its contribution to the larger civil rights movement. Bridging the gaping hole in the literature between civil rights organizing and Black Power politics, Bloody Lowndes offers a new paradigm for understanding the civil rights movement.

Excerpt

Jim Crow was a grim reality in Lowndes County, Alabama, at the beginning of 1965. African Americans attended separate and unequal schools, lived in dilapidated and deteriorating housing, and toiled as underpaid and overworked domestics and farm laborers. They were also completely shut out of the political process. There were five thousand African Americans of voting age in the overwhelmingly black rural county, but not a single one was registered. Most were too scared even to try. Francis Moss, born nearly seventy years earlier, was among those immobilized by an overwhelming fear of white violence. “I used to run in the house whenever I saw a white man coming down the road,” she said. “I was afraid I’d be killed. And I wasn’t a baby then, but a grown woman.”

By the end of 1966, however, Jim Crow was crumbling. The most obvious sign of its demise could be found on the voter rolls, which listed the names of nearly three thousand African Americans. In a remarkable display of collective courage, African Americans managed to set aside their fear and act on the powerful impulse to end segregation immediately. “Negroes ain’t planning on scaring no more,” said a black farmer. Their fierce determination to take action also led them to embark on a radical experiment in democracy. With the help of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), they created the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), an all-black, independent political party whose ballot symbol was a snarling black panther. “We ain’t backing up,” said Sidney Logan, Jr., the LCFO candidate for sheriff. “We’re looking for power.” Their bold bid to take over the local government transformed Lowndes County from an unheard of bastion of white supremacy to the center of southern black militancy.

This startling change seemed to appear out of nowhere, but it was actually more than a century in the making. When the Civil War ended, emancipated African Americans laid the groundwork for the movement in Lowndes County by initiating a broadly configured struggle to exercise . . .

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