A Documents-Based Lesson on the
Voting Rights Act:
A Case Study of SNCC’s work in Lowndes County
and the Emergence of Black Power
By Emilye Crosby
Introduction and context
The Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law on August 6, 1965, was a significant victory for the Civil Rights Movement, southern African Americans, and American democracy. It outlawed many of the strategies that had been used by white supremacists to disfranchise Black citizens and included provisions to facilitate the registration of new voters. The Justice Department implemented a pre-approval process for potentially discriminatory voting laws and had the authority to send federal poll watchers into communities to monitor key elections. Together with the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) ended most of the remaining legal forms of white supremacy. Although this was tremendously important, it did not end all forms of racial discrimination, many of which were–and are–strongly embedded in the structures of our society.
Especially in the years immediately after its passage, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act remained a big problem and white supremacists continued to use their economic and political power, along with extra-legal violence, to intimidate potential Black voters. In many ways, however, with the implementation and enforcement of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the issues facing African Americans in the South and North became more similar and included longstanding problems of educational segregation and inequality, employment and housing discrimination, and police brutality. (Unfortunately, many of these problems remain today, 50 years after this landmark legislation.) African Americans, South and North, used the vote as one tool among many to organize for full equality and self-determination.
Most textbooks and narrative histories of the Civil Rights Movement portray the Voting Rights Act as both a major victory and the end of the Civil Rights Movement. They tend to shift their focus away from the South and turn their attention to urban riots/ rebellions and Black Power, which they typically connect to Malcolm X, the Oakland-based Black Panther Party, and sometimes Stokely Carmichael. Whether textbooks use the Voting Rights Act or the assassination of Dr. King to mark the end of the movement, they generally have little to say about civil rights organizing after 1965. In addition, most authors identify what happens after the Voting Rights Act as a negative shift—from the good, southern Civil Rights Movement to the bad, northern Black Power movement.
There are a number of problems with this. It tends to obscure some of the common goals and interconnections between the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and mis-characterize them both, but especially Black Power. Ending the story with the enactment of this legislation–even though it was extremely important—also downplays how much work remained on important issues (some of which are still unresolved). To quote Courtland Cox, one of the young activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), the vote was “necessary but not sufficient.” See here for more information on SNCC.
This lesson uses a case study of Lowndes County, Alabama and three SNCC-related documents from the early 1960s—just before and after the Voting Rights Act—to explore the impact of the Voting Rights Act (and 1964 Civil Rights Act) on every day southern Black citizens: What did the legislation mean to them? Did they achieve their goals? The way textbooks present the Voting Rights Act, it is easy to imagine that the new law took care of all remaining problems over night. Was that true?
The reading choices and questions below are drawn from work I have done with students over the past twenty years of teaching at SUNY Geneseo. I have used these assignments in a variety of classes on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, as well as ones focused on the skills of writing, historical interpretation, and historical research. I have honed this material over time and find that students respond extremely well to these particular documents and to the sets of questions I have included here. The questions are critical for helping students analyze and understand the specifics so they can then use the details to make sense of the larger issues that are historically significant.
Many of the key aspects of this lesson challenge the “master narrative” presented by most textbooks and help students begin to understand the complexity of history. It also introduces students to “real people” and strengthens their skills. I generally find that students are much more receptive to rethinking (or learning new) history that challenges what they’ve been previously taught (or learned through popular culture) when they are doing the analytical work themselves. For this lesson, the content and approach are interrelated. When it works well it can also help students feel a stronger sense of efficacy. Not only do they begin to feel more confident in their own academic ability, they are learning about young people (and others generally dismissed by society) taking the lead in making our country more small-d democratic.
Using a close reading of the assigned documents, careful analysis, and guided discussion, teachers can help students do the following:
- Be able to identify key goals of Civil Rights Movement activists and be able to recognize the continuity from the early 1960s through the period after the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
- Be able to identify some of the issues or problems that were not resolved by the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. If desired, teachers can bring this up to the present. (See more information about the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.)
- Identify specifically how white power worked in Lowndes County, Alabama, in the period immediately before and after the VRA (approximately 1965-66). Begin to think about how “white power” or white supremacy was the context for the emergence of Black Power.
- Understand what the phrase Black Power meant to the people in SNCC who used and popularized it and how their understanding of Black Power was influenced by their work in Lowndes County.
- Understand the need for different tactics in different situations. For example, what was tactically effective for desegregating a lunch counter probably would not work for voter registration.
- Understand what historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries means by the phrase “freedom politics.” What is important about it in relation to SNCC and Lowndes County, Alabama? How does it differ from politics in Lowndes County before SNCC’s organizing? How does it differ from most politics in our country?
Background for Teachers
Before reading this background text and the rest of the lesson description, we recommend taking the time to print the student readings. They are a useful reference as you read the lesson. To facilitate the printing, here is a list of the readings. (The readings are also listed later in the lesson, along with descriptions and optional student questions.)
In some ways Lowndes County was typical, as one of many places where the VRA triggered local movements across the South organized around newly accessible voter registration and longstanding grievances. And clearly the Voting Rights Act was going to have a big impact on Lowndes because the community was 80 percent African American with no Black registered voters before its passage. (In contrast, more than 100% of eligible white voters were on the voting roll, one of the ways that whites tried to retain power.) But Lowndes was also particularly important because SNCC engaged in intensive organizing and political education with local Blacks. According to historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries, “SNCC organizers developed a unique political education program for Lowndes County residents that used workshops, mass meetings, and primers to increase general knowledge of local government and democratize political behavior.” (Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes, p. 145) As part of this effort, SNCC helped local Blacks organize the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, LCFO (later Lowndes County Freedom Party, LCFP), an independent political party. This alliance between SNCC and local people in Lowndes wasn’t just about voting or even politics as usual. Jeffries explains that SNCC linked their “egalitarian organizing methods” with the people’s civil and human rights goals to create what he calls “freedom politics,” an approach which rejected traditional American politics and instead emphasized acting on the community’s best interests. For example, the LCFP developed its platform before nominating candidates and the candidates who stepped forward reflected and came prepared to implement the community’s goals. (See student reading # 7 SNCC Political Education Materials and student reading # 8 by Jack Minnis, “Lowndes County Freedom Organization: The Story of the Development of an Independent Political Movement on the County Level.)
SNCC’s intensive organizing effort in Lowndes was also at the heart of their move toward Black Power in 1966 and this case study will help students understand the basis for Black Power. It emerged from SNCC’s southern organizing and was grounded in experience, not the angry rhetoric and emotional outbursts emphasized by textbooks. It is important for students to consider what Black Power meant to those who were using and publicizing the phrase. Moreover, when I teach Black Power, I always start with the white power structure. In Lowndes, in the period immediate before and after the voting Rights Act, white power is very obvious. Though they made up less than 20 percent of the population, whites held all elective offices and controlled the vast majority of the land. The sheriff deputized virtually every white man over 21, so to some extent, to be a white man was to be “the law.” (See student reading #4 by John Hulett, “How the Black Panther Party Was Organized.”)
I find that starting with the white power structure helps students avoid falling into some of the common misunderstandings of Black Power, including that it is “reverse racism.” In addition, people sometimes argue that civil rights activists turned their back on their white liberal allies, the national Democratic Party, and the country, just as they were achieving their goals (such as the CRA and VRA). In contrast, as students will learn, for most young people in SNCC, Black Power was a positive development that emerged from their collective experiences, culminating in the Lowndes County independent party organizing effort. Black Power included several key concepts. According to SNCC’s Courtland Cox, it meant 1) “the power to define oneself; 2) the power to control one’s own condition and vote to control one’s own community; and 3) the power to use politics to enhance one’s own economic condition.” (July 6, 2015, meeting of SLP-Duke Digital Gateway Editorial Board) (See also, Stokely Carmichael, “What We Want” excerpt.)
It is important for students to understand that there are distinct differences between “white power” or “white supremacy” and Black Power. White supremacy, which is intertwined with any form of “white power,” is about creating and maintaining advantages for whites. In our country it is linked to slavery and Jim Crow and has been nurtured and shaped by discriminatory legislation and enforced by intimidation and even terrorism. Black Power has been about developing ideas and institutions that are responsive to the Black community. Black Power is not anti-white, though it is an important means of organizing to resist and dismantle white supremacy.
Deciding on an Independent Party
One of the most important and contested strategies that SNCC pursued with their local allies in Lowndes County was the development of an independent political party that was eventually named the Lowndes County Freedom Party. On the national level, the Democratic Party was the party in power, controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency. Democratic president Lyndon Johnson advocated for and signed into law both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Some segments of the national Republican Party were aggressively opposed to civil rights and it was almost non-existent in the South. In Lowndes County, for example, the only functional political party was the Democratic Party. As a result, many people assumed that newly registered Black voters would align with the Democratic Party. The issue was more complex, however. (Learn more about the national political context.)
As SNCC workers and their local allies analyzed the situation, they felt that it made little sense for them to participate in the local Democratic Party Primary. The Alabama Democratic Party’s slogan was “white supremacy for the right” and was led by outspoken segregationists who actively opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Similarly, if they allied with the Republican Party they would be joining a party where the most recent presidential nominee campaigned against civil rights legislation. They would also have no say in state or local primaries since all of the viable candidates would be running in the Democratic Party Primary. In other words, joining or working with either of the major national parties was unlikely to have any positive benefits for Blacks in Lowndes County. (John Lewis noted the contradictions within each major party in SNCC’s speech at the March on Washington, see student reading #3.) There was no evidence that either party had their interests at heart. Those considering the viability of an independent party were pushed even further in that direction by the decision of the all-white Lowndes County Democratic Party to dramatically raise the filing fees to run in the Democratic Party primary. For example, the fee to run for sheriff went from $50 to $500. The median income for entire Black families in Lowndes at the time was approximately $1,000. Imagine spending half of your family’s yearly income just to run for political office. (See student reading #6 by Courtland Cox, “What Would It Profit a Man?” and student reading #4 by John Hulett, “How the Black Panther Party Was Organized.”)
Building the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO)
SNCC’s Research Department found an obscure Alabama law that laid out the process for creating a county-level independent party. It was relatively straight forward but required considerable work, especially since SNCC was working with a community of people who had been actively excluded from politics for about a century. The work of building the LCFP was very similar to the work of organizing a movement and encouraging people to register to vote. SNCC field secretaries and their local allies spent considerable time canvassing, teaching people about voter registration, and doing intensive political education work. According to Gloria House, one of SNCC’s field secretaries, “We were helping to equip the people with the information and skills essential to running the county themselves not just as new voters but also as political leaders. We found that a review of African American and African history, giving a strong sense of historical identity, was of immeasurable significance in this process.” (House in Hands on the Freedom Plow, p. 510)
The Black Panther Symbol and Creating a Political Party
All political parties in Alabama had to have a symbol to make it easier for illiterate voters to identify candidates and parties. In Alabama, the Democratic Party used a White Rooster as its symbol. Lowndes County residents considered several symbols, including a white dove, and ultimately settled on a Black Panther. The Panther was a mascot at an Atlanta Black college. It was also indigenous to Lowndes County. And according to Lowndes County leader John Hulett, it has another very important property: “The Black Panther is an animal that when pressured it moves back until it is cornered, then it comes out fighting for life or death. We felt we had been pushed back long enough and that it was time for Negroes to come out and take over.” (Hulett, February 1966, quoted in Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes, p. 152) And as Stokely Carmichael added, everyone in the rural South knew that panthers ate roosters. In addition to the symbol, to be recognized by the state, independent parties had to hold a candidate nominating convention near an established polling place on the same day as the Democratic Primary. The people who voted in their election could not vote in any other primary. To address this, SNCC developed the slogan, “pull the lever for the Panther and go home.” If the candidates secured 20% of the vote in the general election, the party would be recognized by the state.
By founding the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, African Americans sought to use their newly achieved voting rights to improve the conditions of their lives. Alice Moore, the candidate for tax assessor, promised that if she was elected she would “tax the rich to feed the poor.” (Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes, p. 197) Courtland Cox explained that, rather than complain about poor schools and police brutality, the 80 percent Black majority in the community sought to elect a school board, superintendent, and sheriff who would be responsive to their concerns. (Cox, “What Would It Profit a Man?)
Cox and SNCC colleague Jennifer Lawson wrote and illustrated a series of educational materials that used a cartoon format to explain voting, politics, and the duties of various elective offices. (See student readings 7 and 8.) One document encouraging people to join the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, explained, “We should decide what are our common needs” and come together and address them. “When you come together you can determine who from your own community can do the things you want done. If you don’t come together, the people who have been running the show will put their own candidates up and vote for programs that will benefit them only and you will have no say at all.” (“One Man, One Vote,” p. 3) Hasan Jeffries argues that the:
emerging black electorate rejected the undemocratic traditions that defined American politics. Rather than promote the interests of the socio-economic elite, draw candidates exclusively from the ranks of the propertied and the privileged, or limit decision making to a select few individuals, they adopted a freedom rights platform, selected candidates from the poor and working class, and practiced democratic decision making. In this way, the political education process gave rise to freedom politics. (Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes, p. 145)
My students tend to be very interested in and inspired by the Lowndes County experiment in “freedom politics.”
Current Threats to Voting Rights
While not a focus of this lesson, it is important to note that despite the Voting Rights Act’s significance and considerable evidence that it is still necessary, in July 2013, the deeply divided United States Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a case coming out of Alabama. Arguing in part that it is arbitrary and no longer necessary to focus exclusively on the former Confederacy, the court’s majority eliminated the pre-clearance requirement for nine Southern states. This means that the Justice Department can no longer check for racial bias in new voting and electoral laws in these states. For more information, see point 11 in “Voting Rights Act: Beyond the Headlines” by Emilye Crosby and Judy Richardson.
Student readings are listed below with links, short descriptions, and teaching reflections. In addition, there are suggested questions that teachers can pick and choose from. Some of the reading-specific questions can help prepare students for the overarching lesson discussion. Others, like the questions for John Hulett’s speech, get at essential topics and questions. The section after this one has overarching questions designed to help students understand the big picture.
1) Ella Baker, “Bigger than a Hamburger,” delivered in April 1960 and published in The Southern Patriot, June 1960.
Ella Baker, a long-time activist who had organized southern branches for the NAACP and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership (SCLC), organized a meeting of the 1960 sit-in leaders that led to the formation of SNCC. This article is based on her speech to the students at SNCC’s founding meeting. It reflects her preference for “group-centered leadership” and touches on the early direct action movement’s critique of American society, one that went well beyond the desire to purchase “a hamburger or even a giant-sized coke.”
Combined with the next document, written by Atlanta University students before their first sit-in, Baker’s “Bigger than a Hamburger” should help students understand that although the sit-ins could appear somewhat narrow–in attacking visible segregation in lunch counters–the push to act (and risk jail and other repercussions) was borne of deep dissatisfaction and a desire for far-reaching changes in society.
This document is also a good way to introduce students to “Miss Baker” (as she was known), who had a profound impact on SNCC and was one of the most important figures in the twentieth century. It gives a glimpse of what she was hoping the students would think about as they considered establishing a new organization. Teachers can use a close reading of this document to help the students identify some of Baker’s beliefs about leadership, including her desire to protect the students from overbearing “adults,” her strong preference for collective decision-making, and her belief in the importance of developing leadership ability in others.
A final note: This, and other documents in the set, can be used to teach students about the evolving nature of language. For example, Baker and others use the male pronoun “he” for all people, language that we would consider sexist today. Other documents use words like Negro for people who would be called Black or African American today. In fact, the Black Power documents mark a moment of change. That change is also evident in the evolving language used by SNCC activists themselves over time. Some of those who used the phrase “one man, one vote” in the 1960s recently collaborated on a website about SNCC’s voter registration work and named it “One Person, One Vote,” reflecting a shift in their use of language. I find it helpful to use historical documents to talk to students about language and give them guidance about when and how it is appropriate to use outdated language and when it is not.
Optional questions for the reading:
- What does Baker emphasize in this speech?
- What does she say about leadership?
- What does she identify as the goals of the sit-in movement?
2) Atlanta Students, “An Appeal for Human Rights,” The Atlanta Constitution, March 9, 1960.
When four young men at North Carolina A&T sat in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960, they inspired sit-ins across the upper South. As the students at the Atlanta University Complex prepared to launch their own sit-ins, they were encouraged by the college presidents to articulate their grievances. Roslyn Pope and Julian Bond drafted this statement which was published in local newspapers in March 1960.
After reading this document, students should be able to identify a very specific list of problems resulting from white supremacy. Together with Miss Baker’s speech, delivered approximately a month later, the Atlanta Students’ “Appeal for Human Rights” gives current students a clear list of key forms of racial discrimination. Students can use this list to analyze which were likely to be addressed immediately by the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act. The Atlanta students’ language of “human rights” and Baker’s assertion that the students “are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination . . . in every aspect of life” speak to the expansive goals and vision of the early direct action movement.
Optional questions for the reading:
- What the do Atlanta students identify as the key issues motivating their protest?
- Which of them are directly related to the sit-ins and other direct action protests?
3) John Lewis and SNCC, Speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 1963.
This speech was written collectively and delivered by SNCC’s then chair, John Lewis, at the March on Washington. SNCC was actually pressured to edit the speech at the last minute because some march participants objected to what they considered militant language and SNCC’s critique of both the Kennedy Administration and the limits of the civil rights legislation President Kennedy had submitted to Congress. (The latter eventually passed Congress and became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)
Like the previous two, this document also shows the far-reaching issues SNCC and civil rights activists were grappling with, including poverty, police brutality, and a passive federal government. The speech demonstrates SNCC’s international consciousness, as Lewis asserts, “‘One Man, One Vote’ is the African Cry, it must be ours too.” SNCC also points out that both the Democratic and Republican parties contribute to racism, leading the organization to ask: “Where is our party?”
This is a helpful starting place for introducing students to the national political picture and how it contributed to SNCC’s decision to push for an independent party in Lowndes County, Alabama.
Optional questions for the reading:
- What does the SNCC speech identify as key issues?
- What does the speech say about President Kennedy’s “civil rights bill”? (This is the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)
- What does the speech say about the two major political parties at the time (Democrats and Republicans)
4) John Hulett, “How the Black Panther Party Was Organized,” May 23, 1966.
John Hulett was an African American native of Lowndes County who spent time working in Birmingham before moving home in the early 1960s. He was an important leader of the Lowndes County movement, the first Black person to successfully register to vote, and the first Black person elected to office since Reconstruction. Elected sheriff in 1970, he eliminated the widespread abuse by white lawmen (all male), demonstrating in a tangible way the impact that the Voting Rights Act and increased African American voter registration had on the lives of Black residents.
This speech was given in California shortly after the Lowndes County Freedom Organization held its successful nominating convention on May 3, 1966. As a result, their seven candidates would appear on the ballot for the general election. This was a tremendous accomplishment since African Americans in Lowndes had been completely excluded from voting and politics, from the 1870s until the passage of the Voting Rights Act, less than a year before. The LCFP became an official party when its candidates drew more than the necessary 20 percent of the vote in that general election.
I use Hulett’s speech in a number of ways with my students. First, it provides a useful way for them to analyze the immediate impact of the VRA. Second, it gives them a way to identify the forms of racial discrimination that remained embedded in Lowndes (and much of the country), even after the passage of the new civil rights laws. Third, I ask students to use this speech to identify “white power,” that is, the kinds of power that whites exercised collectively in the community. I find this a useful exercise and context for understanding SNCC’s call for Black Power (that was strongly influenced by their experiences in Lowndes). Many students (especially white, but sometimes also Black and other minority students) have a negative reaction to Black Power and assume that it is reverse racism and a rejection of white allies. By starting with white power, I can help students think more critically about Black Power and to understand what it meant to the people who publicized the phrase.
In Lowndes County, although whites were less than 20% of the population, before the VRA they made up more than 100% of the registered voters. (There were 2500 whites registered to vote although there were only 1900 eligible.) Whites controlled all of the elective offices and the Democratic Party. They used their electoral and political power to benefit the white community. This “white power” is seen, for example, in the fact that the sheriff deputized almost all of the adult white men. So, in Lowndes County, to be an adult white man, was to be “the law.” Hulett also points out how the sheriff used his authority to permit the Klan to use the Courthouse lawn for a rally. Using that same authority, he denied the LCFO use of the lawn for its nominating convention. (According to state law, the LCFO needed to hold the convention near an official polling place, all of which were “white” spaces. In fact, the Courthouse was the least intimidating polling place and, of course, was also symbolically important.) In this instance, not only was the sheriff showing preference for a white group, he was implicitly condoning the Klan while trying to undermine a legitimate political organizing effort initiated by newly enfranchised Black voters.
I ask students to go through and identify all of the power that whites held in Lowndes and we come up with a list that encompasses economic power, political power, control over the legal system and law enforcement, and even official sanction (or looking the other way) for extra-legal violence. (It can be helpful to tell students about Thomas Coleman’s attack on civil rights workers: In broad daylight, Thomas Coleman, a member of an elite white family in Lowndes, attacked a group of activists, shooting and killing Jonathan Daniels and critically injuring Richard Morrisroe, both white activists. Coleman was quickly acquitted by an all-white jury that accepted his claim of self-defense. The fact that the activists were released from jail suddenly, for no apparent reason, suggests that Coleman was acting as part of a wider conspiracy. This is just the most dramatic of the many ways the white elite used violence and misused the legal system in an effort to sustain their authority and advantages.)
Once we have gone through Hulett’s speech and analyzed white power, I ask the students to identify forms of “Black Power” in Lowndes, based on Hulett’s description. Some students are very insightful in responding to this, but others sometimes struggle with how to answer.
In general, I am looking for students to identify the potential power of the large Black electoral majority. With the VRA and successful voter registration, Blacks voters outnumber whites by a significant margin. In addition, Hulett uses the threat of collective Black armed self-defense to play into white fears of race war or, more specifically, of African Americans fighting back if they are attacked. Some whites find this threat particularly intimidating because they are well aware of whites’ history of using extra-legal violence against African Americans. Since Blacks outnumbered whites by such a large margin, if they acted like whites and used violence to secure and protect political power, the white community could be in trouble.
In his speech, Hulett describes the interactions he had with the sheriff and a Justice Department attorney about securing a (legally recognized) location for the nominating convention and how he used whites’ fear–and African Americans’ determination–to convince the Justice Department representative to intervene. Hulett insisted that the LCFO would use the Courthouse lawn, despite the sheriff’s refusal to okay it. Hulett told both the sheriff and the Justice Department attorney that if they were attacked by white vigilantes, as the sheriff warned, African Americans would protect themselves.
There were three colliding interests: The LCFO was determined to hold its convention on the Courthouse lawn in order to be in compliance with state law governing political parties. They wanted to be sure there could be no question about their legitimacy. The Justice Department representative was more concerned with possible violence than the legalities of the LCFO’s bid to be a political party. The state of Alabama wanted to do everything it could to suppress African American political activity. In an effort to resolve the impasse, the Justice Department convinced state officials to give their official sanction to a plan that would allow the LCFO to hold its convention at a Black church near the Courthouse. Since Alabama could not block the political activity entirely, this option would at least keep the Courthouse as white space a little bit longer. The Justice Department thought this would also minimize the likelihood of bloodshed. And the LCFO hoped that successful organizing would allow them to claim the Courthouse through the upcoming election.
Despite the fact that whites in Lowndes maintained considerable control over daily life, I use Hulett’s speech and this incident to help students understand how African Americans’ large majority, newly secured voting rights, and their stated willingness to use weapons to defend themselves in public are all forms of emerging (black) power that are becoming newly significant. Hasan Jeffries explains, “From that moment forward, African Americans embraced racial solidarity more explicitly. In fact, this incident was one of the key movement experiences that led many people to embrace Black Power later that summer.” (Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes, p. 173)
I spend a lot of time with my students on this document and often take them step by step through Hulett’s description of his interactions around the LCFP nominating convention (with the sheriff and Justice Department representative)
Optional questions for the reading:
- Based on your reading of John Hulett’s article, “How the Black Panther Party Was Organized,” identify types of white power in Lowndes County. Give specific examples.
- Based on your reading of John Hulett’s article, identify types of Black Power in Lowndes County. Give specific examples.
- How does Lowndes County, Alabama, reflect the continuing presence of white supremacy and white power in the rural South after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
- What role do the federal government and new civil rights laws play in the Lowndes County Civil Rights Movement?
- How do African Americans in Lowndes County begin to break the hold of white power and exert power of their own? Consider carefully the interaction between the LCFO, the sheriff, and the Justice Department over the organization’s state-required public meeting.
5) Stokely Carmichael readings, 1966-67.
A - Carmichael with Charles Hamilton, “Black Belt Election: A New Day A’Coming” excerpted from Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America(New York: Vintage, 1967), reprinted in The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, ed. by Clayborne Carson, et al. (New York: Penguin, 1991), pp. 262-68.
Stokely Carmichael was a freedom rider, SNCC field secretary, and Howard University graduate when he began organizing in Lowndes County, Alabama. In this reading, Carmichael describes SNCC’s work in Lowndes and SNCC’s rationale for organizing an independent political party. He also addresses the challenges and problems that African Americans faced in Lowndes County, as well as the existing leadership in the community and SNCC’s political education work.
Optional questions for the reading:
- According to Carmichael and Hamilton, why were Carmichael and others in SNCC opposed to having white organizers in Lowndes County?
- Carmichael and Hamilton write: “The fight at that point was waged simply in terms of being able to establish within the black community a sense of the right to fight racial oppression and exploitation.” (p. 265) (This is around March 1965.) How does this point to both what the movement was able to accomplish and what remained to be done?
- According to Carmichael (with Hamilton), what did the act of registering to vote mean/ do for African Americans in Lowndes County?
- Carmichael (with Hamilton) argues that “The Democratic party did not give black people the right to vote; it simply stopped denying black people the right to vote.” (267) Why is Carmichael’s point significant? How does it relate to what we know of the movement in Lowndes County?
Carmichael was elected chair of SNCC in May 1966, based on his leadership in organizing the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and is best known for publicizing the phrase “Black Power.”
He published this piece in Fall 1966 to fully explain what SNCC meant by Black Power to a broader audience. He explains that “Black Power can be clearly defined for those who do not attach the fears of white America to their questions about it. We should begin with the basic fact that black Americans have two problems: they are poor and they are black. All other problems arise from this two-sided reality.” Drawing on the Lowndes example, he asserts that Black Power:
means the creation of power bases from which black people can work to change statewide or nationwide patterns of oppression through pressure from strength–instead of weakness. Politically, black power means what it has always meant to SNCC: the coming together of black people to elect representatives and to force those representatives to speak to their needs. It does not mean merely putting black faces into office. . . . Most of the black politicians we see around the country today are not what SNCC means by black power. The power must be that of a community, and emanate from there. (pp. 283-84)
He addresses economics issues, insisting that one overriding problem in the U.S. is that “a powerful few have been maintained and enriched at the expense of the poor and voiceless colored masses.” He calls for the development of cooperatives and explains that “the society we seek to build among black people, then, is not a capitalist one. It is a society in which the spirit of community and humanistic love prevail.” (p. 286)
He also calls for whites to organize against racism and in poor white communities toward an eventual coalition between poor Blacks and whites around shared economic interests.
Optional questions for the reading:
- What does Carmichael identify as the key problems facing African Americans?
- How does he define “Black Power”?
- How does he respond to those who say “we must forget color”?
- How does he critique liberal whites?
- What role does he say that whites should play?
- What does he say specifically about the kind of economics and politics he and others in SNCC are calling for when they use the phrase “Black Power”?
6) Courtland Cox, “What Would It Profit a Man?” 1966.
Courtland Cox was another SNCC field secretary and Howard University graduate. He wrote this piece after the VRA to explain the rationale for organizing independent county-level political parties rather than encouraging southern Blacks to join the existing Democratic Party. Cox emphasized that “The right of people to make decisions about their own lives is the most fundamental right that a member of a democratic society can have.” He also uses some northern communities to make it clear that voting alone was insufficient for addressing entrenched problems. This reading is very useful for helping students understand freedom politics in the context of the specific problems people in Lowndes County faced. Teachers can also connect the specifics in this reading to the documents from 1960 and the March on Washington in 1963 to help students think about the continuity (or not) of issues over time and help students analyze which forms of racial discrimination the CRA and VRA addressed directly and which they did not.
Optional questions for the reading:
- What does Courtland Cox identify as the key issues facing African Americans in Lowndes?
- Why does he argue for the organization of an independent political party?
These materials, created by Courtland Cox and Jennifer Lawson of SNCC, use an illustrated cartoon format to introduce new voters to voting, politics, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization candidates and the duties of elective offices.
Optional questions for the reading:
- What do these political education materials emphasize?
- What do they identify as problems?
- What solutions do they propose?
- How do they introduce people to voting and the political process who have been blocked from it for about a century?
- How do they introduce candidates for various positions?
- Do you think they represent what Hasan Jeffries calls “freedom politics”? Why or why not?
Jack Minnis worked in SNCC’s research department and found the Alabama law that SNCC used to create the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. This pamphlet, written in 1967, details SNCC’s organizing and political education work, and includes excerpts from some of the political education material.
Optional questions for the reading:
- What does Jack Minnis emphasize about the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization?
- What do you think is significant about the political education materials?
9) Hasan Kwame Jeffries, “A Story Too Often Untold,” in Bridges: The Story of the Voting Rights Struggle in Selma & the Black Belt ed. Connie Tucker (Selma, AL: Imani Press, 2015), pp. 104-7.
Jeffries describes some of the key moments in Lowndes County in 1965 and 1966 as African Americans went from being completely disfranchised to organizing an independent political party.
Optional questions for the reading:
- What does Jeffries emphasize about the Lowndes County struggle?
- Why is it important?
- Can you identify specifics from the primary sources (first hand accounts) you are reading that illustrate his points or arguments?
10) Hasan Kwame Jeffries, on “freedom rights” and “freedom politics,” excerpts from Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in the Alabama Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2010), pp. 4, 8, 177.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries’s book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in the Alabama Black Belt, is an excellent community study of Lowndes County, Alabama. Starting with the period immediately after Emancipation, he identifies what he calls “freedom rights,” the “civil and human rights” that freed people identified and sought for themselves. (p. 4)
These rights included those enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and in various state constitutions, such as freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, and the right to due process, keep and bear arms, and vote. They also included rights that everyone is born entitled to, such as the right to own property, choose employment, enjoy economic security, marry and start a family, move without restriction, and receive an education. (p. 8)
Jeffries’ traces the Lowndes County Black struggle for “freedom rights” from Emancipation through the 20th century. The bulk of the book focuses on the modern Civil Rights Movement, including SNCC’s organizing and the development of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Jeffries explains:
The LCFO enabled people whose views had been suppressed since Reconstruction to express them publicly. This alone was a remarkable accomplishment. The party, however, did more than give a voice to the voiceless. It also introduced freedom politics, which offered its adherents a more democratic way of doing things. Instead of privileging the interests of the social and economic elite, it made the needs of the poor and working class a top priority. Rather than limiting leadership to a handful of people, it democratized decision making. It also rejected wealth, whiteness, and previous political experience as prerequisites for holding office. The LCFO’s most significant achievement, therefore, was its ability to elevate the political awareness of African Americans to levels seldom achieved by others in the movement. (p. 177)
My students find Jeffries’ work compelling and the Lowndes County experiment with “freedom politics” inspiring. The excerpts included here focus on the concepts of “freedom rights” and “freedom politics.” (Sadly, even in Lowndes, “freedom politics” eventually gave way to the more common, politics-as-usual, centered around individual gain rather than the collective good.) While you can access key excerpts on this link, the entire book (or key chapters) would be appropriate for advanced students and is a wonderful resource for teachers.
Optional questions for the reading:
- How does Jeffries define “freedom rights”? According to Jeffries, where does this concept come from?
- What is “freedom politics”?
- How does it relate to “freedom rights”?
- What is the difference between “freedom politics” and regular politics?
- How did the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization relate to what Jeffries calls “freedom politics”?
Many of the questions below are based on the readings in the following sets. There is another set of questions for individual readings. Some of the readings are more central to the lesson than others. The questions begin with a focus on content and information and then move toward analysis and interpretation. The following questions build on each other. Some are essential to others that follow, but teachers can pick and choose the ones that they want to focus on.
Document Set One: Baker, Atlanta students, and Lewis/ SNCC March on Washington
Document Set Two: Cox, Hulett, Carmichael/ Hamilton, and Carmichael
Document Set Three: SNCC Political Education materials, Minnis, and Jeffries
1. Using Document Sets One and Two, answer the following questions:
- What do the authors identify as the key issues facing African Americans?
- Do they address tactics? if so, what tactics do they suggest or plan to use?
2. After students have discussed the first question, they should discuss the similarities and differences in emphasis in the documents, paying attention to when they were written. What are the similarities? What are the differences? Consider both issues and tactics. With this set of questions, teachers can guide students to consider the continuity and change from the beginning of the mass movement in 1960 through the period immediately after the movement’s most important legislation.
3. Teachers should introduce students to (or remind them of) key elements of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and help students consider whether the new legislation dealt directly with specific problems facing African Americans. Based on your reading of Document Sets Two and Three, what were the key issues facing African Americans in Lowndes? Did the CRA and VRA address these issues? If not, did the legislation provide tools that people could use to tackle those problems? This is a useful place for introducing students to both the importance and limitations of federal legislation; it is necessary, but not sufficient for dealing with the structural inequality that has accompanied white supremacy.
4. Students are often taught that the movement is synonymous with nonviolence and that nonviolence was (or should have been) in some way mandatory. This close reading exercise can be very helpful in teaching students to think more precisely about tactics. Nonviolence is really just the absence of violence. The tactic that civil rights activists sometimes used was “nonviolent direct action.” Similarly, it is important to help students understand that while nonviolent direct action could work fairly well, especially against segregation, it was harder to use it to change voting discrimination or economic inequality. One could challenge segregation in lunch counters, pools, churches, buses, etc. by putting one’s body into that space and refusing to leave. If enough people took that step and did it consistently enough, they could have a strong, fairly quick, impact. Segregation of public spaces was vulnerable to “direct action.” It was and is more challenging to figure out how to use nonviolent direct action protest to have the same kind of immediate impact on or create a similar disruption of housing segregation, school segregation, or police brutality, for example. People could organize pickets or marches to draw attention to the issues, or even hold sit-ins at schools or police stations, but their action was much less likely to have an immediate impact, either through policy changes or somehow upending decades of inequality.
Teachers might help students understand the complexity and challenges related to using nonviolent direct action by taking the list of issues generated through answering question one above and then asking students how they might use nonviolent direct action to tackle each of the issues. Teachers can then help students understand the importance of other tactics that, while they do not employ violence, do not rely on the same kind of “nonviolent direct action” that drove the sit-ins. See the next question for helping students understand this in relation to the organizing that SNCC did around voting and political education in Lowndes County.
5. Teachers can help students identify other tactics besides nonviolent direction action by using the readings related to SNCC’s work in Lowndes County (Document Sets Two and Three). Ask students what tactics SNCC and local people in Lowndes County used to pursue the issues that they identified in answer to question one above? what were their specific goals and strategies?
With this, I emphasize that SNCC used “organizing,” which included canvassing, building relationships, and intensive political education. SNCC activists were encouraging people to register to vote, to form a political party, and to develop their own leadership ability in order to take charge of their lives. They believed that by doing this, African Americans in Lowndes could use their electoral majority to address problems like poor schools and economic inequality, things that were hard to get at through sit-ins.
6. Starting with excerpts from Bloody Lowndes by Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries and his “A Story Too Often Untold,” identify how Jeffries defines “freedom rights” and “freedom politics.” Can you see a connection between his definition of “freedom politics” and Ella Baker’s “Bigger than a Hamburger”? For this, consider Baker’s comments on leadership and decision-making.
Based on the Lowndes County documents created at the time (documents 4-8), identify specific examples that illustrate either the pursuit of “freedom rights” or the practice of “freedom politics.”
7. Using SNCC’s political education materials (documents 7 and part of 8), identify the things SNCC emphasized in their political education. How do these connect to “freedom politics”?
8. After the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed Congress and were signed into law by President Johnson, the issues facing African Americans in the South became more similar to those in the North. Most of the “legal” basis of white supremacy had been eliminated and what remained were the issues of enforcement and the structures that reinforced inequality. Teachers who want to emphasize this can demonstrate the parallels in relation to issues like educational inequality and segregation, housing segregation, and police brutality. They can also draw connections to contemporary issues using some of the resources identified below.What did Black Power mean to SNCC organizers? How was their understanding of it related to their work and experiences in Lowndes County? What did Black Power look like in Lowndes County, from approximately March 1965 through Nov. 1966 (as African Americans began to both organize and exercise their collective right to vote)?
9. What did Black Power mean to SNCC organizers? How was their understanding of it related to their work and experiences in Lowndes County? What did Black Power look like in Lowndes County, from approximately March 1965 through Nov. 1966 (as African Americans began to both organize and exercise their collective right to vote)?
Additional Resources For Students
1. Lowndes excerpt from “The Time Has Come” episode Eyes on the Prize II by Henry Hampton, et al. (Alexandria, VA: Distributed by PBS Video), 1989.
This short video clip (just over 4 min. from an hour-long segment) is a narrative account of SNCC’s work organizing the LCFP and the group’s use of the Black Panther symbol. It could be shown in class and, among other things, students can hear directly from Stokely Carmichael, John Hulett, and John Jackson (who was a high school activist when the movement began in Lowndes) and watch people voting in the Lowndes County Freedom Organization nominating convention. The entire two-part 14-episode Eyes on the Prize series remains a very important resource. My students continue to find it compelling. You can buy an educator version of the 14 hours from PBS.
2. “The Lowndes County Freedom Organization, 1965-66: ‘Vote for the Panther, Then Go Home,'” in Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s ed. by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer (New York: Bantam, 1990), 267-82.
This chapter closely follows the Eyes on the Prize segment on Lowndes County, using oral histories to provide a compelling narrative account.
3. “‘Ordinary People’: Alabama and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization,” in A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC ed. by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 87-109.
This collection of oral histories is from a 1988 SNCC conference. The chapter focuses on the Black Belt in Alabama, including Selma and Lowndes and it includes good first hand accounts of key events and issues. Teachers might select one or two interviews to illustrate particular aspects of the history that they would like to highlight. Videotape from this conference can be accessed online.
4. Gloria House, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Urbana: University of Illinois press, 2010), 503-514.
This is a first-hand account by Gloria House, a SNCC field secretary who worked in Lowndes County. A graduate student at Berkeley, she came South to Selma and moved from there to Lowndes. This reading from Hands on the Freedom Plow is the one most directly relevant to Lowndes County, but the entire collection, edited by six SNCC women, is a very valuable resource.
5. Emilye Crosby, “The Selma Voting Rights Struggle: 15 Key Points from Bottom-Up History and Why It Matters Today,” Teaching for Change.
This article can introduce students to some of the bottom-up civil rights history of Selma (Lowndes’ neighbor) immediately preceding the Voting Rights Act. It includes useful context on SNCC and African American voter registration history.
6. Emilye Crosby and Judy Richardson, “The Voting Rights Act: Beyond the Headlines: Twelve Things You Should Know,” Teaching for Change.
This article can introduce students to some of the broader context for the Voting Rights Act and its significance.
A useful and short introduction to the “master narrative” and the importance of teaching the Civil Rights Movement from the bottom-up.
2. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, “SNCC, Black Power, and Independent Political Party Organizing in Alabama, 1964-1966,” Journal of African American History (Winter 2006), 171-93.
This essay draws on Jeffries’s award-winning book, Bloody Lowndes, and demonstrates the ways that SNCC’s call for “Black Power” in June 1966 was grounded in the organization’s work in Lowndes County.
3. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, “Remaking History: Barack Obama, Political Cartoons, and the Civil Rights Movement,” in Civil Rights History from the Ground Up ed. by Emilye Crosby (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 259-77.
This short, accessible essay uses cartoons from Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign to illustrate typical popular misunderstandings of Civil Rights Movement history and provides insight into a more accurate approach. Jeffries touches briefly on Black Power.
4. Emilye Crosby, “‘This nonviolent stuff ain’t no good. It’ll get ya killed.’: Teaching about Self-Defense in the African-American Freedom Struggle,” in Teaching the Civil Rights Movement eds. Julie Buckner, Houston Roberson, Rhonda Y. Williams, Susan Holt (New York: Routledge, 2002), 159-73.
This essay is written for teachers and I discuss some of the important themes and readings related to teaching armed self-defense in the Civil Rights Movement.
5. Emilye Crosby, excerpt from “Conclusion: ‘Doesn’t everybody want to grow up to be Ella Baker?’ Teaching Movement History” in Civil Rights History from the Ground Up: Local Struggles, a National Movement, pp. 455-61.
In this essay, I draw on student writings to talk about what students can learn from studying bottom-up Civil Rights Movement history. This excerpt focuses in particular on students’ engagement with Hasan Kwame Jeffries’s work on Lowndes County, particularly “Black Power” and the concept of “freedom politics.”
6. Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (New York: Scribner, 2003), chapters 20-23 (on Lowndes County, being elected SNCC chair, the Meredith March, and Black Power).
Ready for Revolution is Carmichael’s memoir, written with Thelwell and published after his death. The chapters on Lowndes and Black Power are engaging and thoughtful first-hand accounts of these events.
7. Online resources. Here are a few particularly good online resources.
One Person, One Vote. The website focuses on SNCC and voting rights and includes profiles of SNCC staffers and local people in Alabama, Mississippi, and Southwest Georgia. The website was a pilot project created through the collaborative efforts of the SNCC Legacy Project, Duke University Libraries, the Center for Documentary Studies, and movement scholars. The same group is currently working on an expansion of that effort called “SNCC Digital Gateway: Learn from the Past, Organize for the Future, Make Democracy Work.”
The Civil Rights History Project, co-sponsored by the Library of Congress Folklife Center and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, has approximately 100 recent interviews that are available in video and transcript form. There are many important interviews. For this lesson, the interview with Courtland Cox may be most helpful.
8. Northern connections.
For teachers interested in comparing the issues in the South with those in the North after the CRA and VRA, a good place to start is “Beyond Dixie: The Black Freedom Struggle Outside the South” in The Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, vol. 26, no. 1 (Jan. 2012). See also, “Black Power” in The Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, vol. 22, no. 3 (July 2008).
9. Contemporary connections.
For teachers interested in making connections to contemporary issues, a good place to start would be with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay, “The Case for Reparations,” which explores the structural basis of housing discrimination and its contemporary impact. ProPublica’s series on school segregation, which also looks at housing, is another very helpful resource for exploring the historic roots of today’s segregation. Teachers can use these materials to help students understand both the importance and the limitations of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in African Americans’ pursuit of equality.
In addition, The House We Live In, the third episode in Race: The Power of an Illusion, provides an excellent introduction to the ways structural inequality is built into our society. A brief introduction is available in the trailer.
Nick Kotz’s review of Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, provides a brief, but helpful, overview of how New Deal programs and the GI Bill disproportionately benefited whites. (New York Times, Aug. 28, 2005)
The New York Times editorial, “How Segregation Destroys Black Wealth,” points to the persistent and far-reaching problems associated with housing segregation and discrimination. (New York Times, Sept. 15, 2015)
10. Key Dates
Acknowledgements: I thank Kathleen Connelly, Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Deborah Menkart, and Judy Richardson for their always helpful feedback and suggestions.
Emilye Crosby is professor of history and coordinator of Black Studies at SUNY Geneseo. She is the author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi and editor of Civil Rights History from the Ground Up. She is working on a book length project, Anything I Was Big Enough To Do: Women and Gender in SNCC, with a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Read more.