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New Documentary Highlights Radical Voting Rights Struggle in 1960s Alabama

Lowndes County has remained a little-known part of civil rights history, in part due to its radical implications.

We look at “Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power,” a remarkable new documentary that shows how a small rural community in Alabama organized during the civil rights movement to challenge white supremacy and systematic disenfranchisement of Black residents, and would become, in some ways, the first iteration of the Black Panther Party. Lowndes County went from having no registered Black voters in 1960 — despite being 80% Black — to being the birthplace in 1965 of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a radical political party that brought together grassroots activists and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Co-directors Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir tell Democracy Now! the Lowndes County story has not gotten the attention it deserves compared to other chapters of the civil rights movement, in part because its lessons are “more threatening” to the political establishment. “It seems like it has been deliberately left out of the narrative of history,” says Gandbhir. We also speak with Reverend Wendell Paris, a former SNCC field secretary featured in the film, who says the organizing in Lowndes County reflected an understanding by residents that “they needed to band together to defend themselves.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

With the election — the reelection of Georgia Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock, the first African American Democrat elected to the Senate from the former Confederacy, and with voting rights on the chopping block at the Supreme Court in Moore v. Harper, a case that could upend democracy, we look now at a new documentary that examines how we got here. This is the trailer for Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power.

UNIDENTIFIED: Lowndes County was one of the poorest counties in the country.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: It was 80% African American, and in 1965 there were no Black people registered to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama.

LILLIAN McGILL: It was a dangerous time.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: People were followed. People could lose their jobs.

JOHN JACKSON: A lot of Black people came up missing. That’s why it was called Bloody Lowndes.

JUDY RICHARDSON: It is called that because of the absolute unrelenting violence if you’re trying to register to vote.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: They were literally putting their lives on the line.

JUDY RICHARDSON: And they still organized. And still they try and vote.

JAMES FORMAN: We wanted a movement that would survive the loss of our lives.

JENNIFER LAWSON: The strength will come from the work together.

COURTLAND COX: We weren’t just interested in the vote. We were interested in changing who ran the county.

JENNIFER LAWSON: In Alabama, you could have an independent party.

REV. WENDELL PARIS: This was a real effort to have Black people participate in government.

COURTLAND COX: The white establishment saw it as a fundamental threat. We saw it as a fundamental necessity.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: This is a play for power.

VANN R. NEWKIRK II: We live in a world that is so heavily shaped by that movement.

ARTHUR NELSON: We have to continue to tell the story of how we got to where we are today.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the new documentary Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, directed by Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir. Their film sheds light on the rarely told history of a grassroots movement in Alabama during the civil rights movement that would become, in some ways, the first iteration of the Black Panther Party. In this clip from the film, professor Hasan Jeffries describes the first time John Hulett and a group of fellow Lowndes County organizers attempt to register to vote. Lowndes County was 80% Black but, due to sustained campaigns of voter obstruction and white supremacist violence, had zero Black voters registered at the time.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: March 1, 1965, John Hulett, his wife, a group of 39 others that he had been talking to decide that we’re going to go down to the county courthouse and see if we can’t get registered to vote. He goes right into the registrar’s office. Carl Golson, you know, big old former football player, car dealer, he’s one of the county registrars. And he sees Hulett and these three other Black men barge in. “Don’t you know how to knock?” And Hulett’s like, “I didn’t come here to knock, I came here to register to vote.” I mean, that’s throwing down the gauntlet. You know, Golson can’t do anything but throw him out.

He also says, “If y’all are serious, y’all want to register, y’all want to do this, then leave all your names. We want to know who’s showing up, which of y’all had the gall to challenge white power.” They were literally putting their lives on the line. Every single one of those folk who showed up, they put their names on a sheet of paper, and they brought it back, and they gave it to Golson and said, “This is who we are.”

And then, two weeks later, a slightly larger group show up again, say, “Look, we’re back. Right? You have our names. You sent people to visit us. We lost some loans. We lost some businesses. But we’re back.” And after that second meeting, they realize: If we’re going to do this, then we need to be organized. And so, in late March, they formed the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights.

AMY GOODMAN: In a minute, we’ll speak with the directors and one of the people featured in Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power. Sam Pollard is a veteran feature film and television director whose work includes the groundbreaking Eyes on the Prize and Slavery by Another Name. Sam Pollard has edited over half a dozen Spike Lee films, including Four Little Girls and When the Levees Broke. We also spoke with co-director Geeta Gandbhir, an award-winning director, producer and editor. And in Jackson, Mississippi, we were joined by one of the people featured in the new film, Reverend Wendell Paris, former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After the Lowndes movement in Alabama, he founded the Southern Cooperative Development Group and is now with New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.

First, one more clip from the film. It shows how SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, first began working with the Lowndes County movement. There was no place for the SNCC organizers to gather, forcing them to make dangerous drives in and out of town, risking arrest or attacks by white supremacist vigilantes. In this clip, John Jackson describes how his father Matthew Jackson turned a small house on their property into a home base for the Lowndes County Freedom Movement and sanctuary for the SNCC workers, known as the Freedom House. Courtland Cox, a SNCC worker, and professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries then describe how, despite the modest facilities, continued organizing in Lowndes County would not have been possible without the Freedom House.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: When SNCC first comes into the county, they’re not staying in Lowndes County, Alabama. They’re going back to Selma, where SNCC’s regional headquarters was. And they’re spending the night there, and then they’re getting up early and coming back into the county. And that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to be on the highway.

JOHN JACKSON: He said, “My daddy had an empty house. Y’all come down there and take a look at it.” They came down, and my father and Stokely and them hit right off. The first thing he said to them, “There’s no restroom in the house. It’s sub condition. But y’all are welcome to stay here, and you don’t have to run back to Selma. They’re not going to come here and mess with you.”

REV. WENDELL PARIS: His land was clear. He didn’t owe any money in financing his crops.

COURTLAND COX: There was no indoor plumbing. There was no water. There was a pump in the back. They had a roof that leaked. And they had one butane gas heater in the house. So, when it got cold, you had to go into one room. But it was very, very important to us, because it allowed us to be in the county.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: And this becomes their Freedom House. This becomes the base of operations for SNCC activists for the next year and a half.

MUKASA DADA: They protected us and kept us alive. And all of the neighbors, people around had guns, and they would protect us. And they gave us guns to protect ourselves.

REV. WENDELL PARIS: Since the federal government is not going to protect us, since the state government is not going to protect us, and since the local government is not going to protect us, then we have the right and the responsibility to protect ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that’s Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power. That last voice, Reverend Wendell Paris, former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After the Lowndes movement in Alabama, he founded the Southern Cooperative Development Group and is now pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.

But, Wendell, go back to then, what you were just describing, and talk about what was happening and the kind of danger you faced as a SNCC organizer, and the movement you found already in Lowndes that was not getting the kind of attention that other places were around it, from Selma to Montgomery.

REV. WENDELL PARIS: Well, it’s important to know that Lowndes County is a part of what’s called the Alabama Black Belt, and it’s a Black Belt that stretches from the Sumter County, the westernmost county, all the way across to Barbour County, the hometown of George Wallace, along the Georgia line. It’s an area where you have this concentration of Black people. The Black Belt is named because of the fertile black soil. So, Black people were brought to the area to pick the cotton.

So, Lowndes County, Bloody Lowndes, as it was known, one of those areas where you had families such as the Jackson family and whole communities that had begun to stand up and recognize that in these communities, where there basically were all types of vigilantism, and led largely by the political officeholders — the sheriffs, the chief of police and, well, all of the law enforcement officials, as well as those other elected political positions, such as the probate judge, which not only runs the elections but also handles matters of chancery in the state of Alabama — and if you — they’re talking about a land grab, and you’re talking about dispossessing people, then your movement needed to reach not only those officers of the — law enforcement officers, but you needed to also make sure that you could get your people elected to vote — excuse me, elected to office and then to vote and become a part of the whole apparatus. In fact, if you have the numbers and you have the local organized people, then you ought to take control. We believe in majority rule in this country. So, if you’re 80% of the population, then you ought to rule. So, that’s kind of the — that helps to form the thinking that went into the establishment of what took place in Lowndes County.

Understand, there are those communities where people recognized that they needed to band together to defend themselves. And as Mr. Jackson’s daughter so well put it, Mrs. Hinson, “My daddy said to us, ‘These folks are coming in here, trying to help us get registered to vote. We’re going to let them stay in our house. And we can do that because I don’t owe them anything.’” And when you have that level of independence coming from the small farmers — and that’s largely what you had in Lowndes County was smaller farmers, 40 acres, more or less, but it brings with it — that land brings with it a level of independence that you don’t know otherwise. Well, that’s kind of the backdrop for me of being a resident of the Alabama Black Belt basically all of my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Geeta Gandbhir, one of the things you do in this film is feature women’s voices. I’m looking at The Washington Post from years ago, and the first line is “By all rights, Ruby Sales should have been killed on Friday, Aug. 20, 1965.” Can you set up this clip in Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power of Ruby?

GEETA GANDBHIR: So, Stokely Carmichael, you know, later known as Kwame Ture, had a complete disregard for white authority and an irreverence that I think really inspired her. And at 17, which is, you know, incredibly young and incredibly brave, she went down to Lowndes County and was arrested shortly after she arrived there. And she and a fellow activist, Jonathan Daniels, who was white and had also come down — had come down from the North to support the movement, along with a few other folks, were walking. They had been released from — you know, they were held in the local jail for a few days and then were subsequently released without notice, without warning. Suddenly, they were told to leave, or, you know — or they were threatened. It was basically “Get out of here, or we’re going to — or I’ll blow your brains out,” you know, by local law enforcement.

So they left and walked down the road to a small store, where — they were thirsty. It was very hot. And they went — they tried to enter the store to get some soda. And Tom Coleman, who was the sheriff at the time, he basically threw open the door and — with a shotgun, and shot at Ruby Daniels (sic), who was standing — who was the first one to try to enter the store, and — I’m sorry, shot at Ruby Sales, who was the first one to open the store and — the door to the store. And Jonathan Daniels, as Ruby recounts, grabbed her and pulled her down and out of the way and took the shot, and subsequently was killed. And another white, I believe, pastor was also injured in the shooting. And so, it was a murder. Jonathan Daniels was literally murdered.

And this is, again, another one of the stories we don’t hear much about. I mean, we have heard about the murders of other civil rights workers, particularly civil rights workers during the freedom struggle, but this one, not so much. And I think that, again, it’s sort of a purposeful — it’s purposeful, in that the story of Lowndes County, again, perhaps a story that is more threatening or dangerous to the powers that be because of the type of organizing that it involved, it seems like it has been deliberately left our of the narrative of history.

AMY GOODMAN: Stay with us. When we come back, we’ll bring you that clip of Ruby Sales and more from this remarkable new film. The film is called Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power. We’ve been speaking with Geeta Gandbhir, who is co-director, with Sam Pollard, of the film. Back in 60 seconds.

(break)

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at this remarkable new documentary about the local movement for voting rights during the civil rights movement that’s rarely included in history books. It’s called Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, directed by Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard. We spoke to them on Friday along with the Reverend Wendell Paris, former SNCC field secretary. In this clip, we meet Ruby Sales, organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in Lowndes County, Alabama.

RUBY SALES: In the first day, I was in the county registering voters, and the sheriff put a gun to Stokely Carmichael’s head and said, “Nigger, tonight you will be in hell.” Stokely said, “And tonight hell will be integrated.” That was it for me. I was in.

I had come from this very sheltered environment. And suddenly I’m face to face with all the hedonist crimes of white America. It was nothing to be riding down Highway 80 and suddenly a pickup truck of white men pull from the side of the road and start chasing us with their guns hanging out the window. And Stokely Carmichael would have to drive 90 miles an hour to make sure that they wouldn’t kill us.

KWAME TURE: I mean, if fear is just going to immobilize you, you’re dead already. So there’s no fear here. I just have to learn to drive effectively, so that when they chase me, I’ll be able to dodge them, and they would have run into a truck or run into a ditch, or leave them in the smoke. There was no fear here. It was just clever response, survival instincts at its best.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Wendell Paris, you know Ruby Sales. How this shaped the movement from there on in?

REV. WENDELL PARIS: Yeah, well, yes, I knew Ruby Sales. What hadn’t been mentioned is that she was a student at Tuskegee, where I also was a student at that time. And our organization, the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League, which was the student organization aligned with the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, we had all gone into Montgomery and into — well, we had eight fellow students arrested in Selma. And after that, then the student body decided that we would go into Montgomery to protest what was happening in Selma and also to protest the actions of Governor George Wallace, who had actually called for the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Perry County, Alabama, Marion, Alabama, which was where the Selma to Montgomery March really started. It didn’t start in Selma; it started in Marion, Alabama. And why were they were marching in Marion? Because even with a federal court order, even with a federal court order, the Board of Registrars in Perry County said, “We are not going to allow you to register to vote.”

So, the problem that we see in Lowndes County wasn’t just suffered by Lowndes County alone, as, again, all of the state of Alabama — George Wallace called for the killing of civil rights workers. The New York Times reported that he called for, in ’63, what turned out to be the killings of the four young girls in Birmingham. George Wallace did that. George Wallace called for the killing of somebody in Perry County, and the state troopers ended up killing Jimmie Lee Jackson. So, that’s what we had. We had to come to the point of recognizing that, as students, you needed to move forward and do something. So, Ruby, as well as myself, Jennifer Lawson, who you featured there, and, well, Bob Mants — I guess he had just left being a student at Morehouse. But all of those folks gathered there in Lowndes County as a result of what had taken place historically in the state of Alabama, and certainly on the heels of the Selma to Montgomery March. So we knew Ruby from that respect. She was an energetic student at Tuskegee that joined the movement and has remained involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Wendell Paris, you are wearing a shirt, as you were in the film, that says “Black Voters Matter,” which takes us to today as we look at the kind of organizing and the dangers faced in the 1960s, yet still people organized, to what we’re seeing today. Out of the 2022 midterm elections, the first Black Democrat to represent the former Confederacy in the Senate, Reverend Raphael Warnock, has just been reelected. The significance and what gives you hope today?

REV. WENDELL PARIS: Certainly. Well, what we see is a continuation of the struggle. You know, a lot of people say, well, the civil rights movement has ended. And that is in error. The civil rights movement has not ended. There are other segments of the movement that have come to the forefront. Well, we have recognized that, you know — well, one song that we sang in SNCC and in the movement was “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.” The struggle continues. Mrs. Ella Baker taught us that we must continue to organize, until we have a full citizenship status in this country. What you need to understand is that the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as important as it is and was, is a temporary measure. It is a temporary bill. We still do not have full voting rights in this country. So there is still work for us to do. And Julian Bond, who also worked in Lowndes County and was a student at Morehouse and was one of the first to go into the Georgia Legislature in 1965, December of 1965, all of those folks who were engaged in our movement recognized that we weren’t just in for a two- or three-year lifetime — two or three years of struggle, but we were there for a lifetime. So, the lifetime struggle for full rights as not only citizens, but as full human beings, is still before us.

We worked with folks in Southwest Georgia who were also a part of SNCC, in 20 counties of Southwest Georgia, for the election there in 2021 to get both Mr. Ossoff and Reverend Warnock elected. We moved the needle from about 20 counties, where we had a tenth — we move from a 10% to a 22% increase in the election runoff, is what got them elected. If you can have those kind of movements in a runoff election, then you know that a lot of work that has been done and is still being done on the ground. So, you have to have, and you have to maintain, a movement base at the local level. And you build on that base.

The reason Lowndes County was so important was because you built local people, you built indigenous people to take the leadership role. And you always need leadership, but who’s going to provide that leadership? So, Lowndes County is a perfect example of local people organizing and continuing to organize and sustain the movement, and that’s what we’re seeing being so successful in Georgia.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end with the two directors. Sam Pollard, I wanted to ask you that question again, about the significance of embracing the term “Black Power,” which is part of the title of this film, Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power. The Black Panthers as the symbol for Lowndes County, which the Black Panthers adopted, the organization.

SAM POLLARD: Well, I think one of the things that’s important to say is this, and I’m going to really just piggyback off what Wendell just said. You know, the struggle continues. And the notion of Black Power that Stokely so elegantly talked about in Mississippi is about the idea that it’s about political empowerment, economic empowerment. And that’s what Stokely was talking about. That’s what this should always be about, in terms of Black Power. And as people are — you know, people were terrorized when they heard that term from Stokely back in the ’60s. But they should not be, because it’s really for Black people to empower themselves economically and politically.

And the other thing to remember, too, is, as Wendell said, the struggle continues. Even though it’s fantastic that Raphael Warnock is now the senator, one of the senators from Atlanta, from Georgia, it doesn’t mean that you have to stop. You know, I mean, we know that there’s always people out there who are going to try to stop us from voting, stop us from being empowered in our communities. And we have to continue to fight and continue to continue the struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Geeta Gandbhir, if you can address this issue of the symbol of Lowndes County, not only the image, but what that also means for today, and what you learned in making this film?

GEETA GANDBHIR: Sure. I think, you know, what’s so interesting for me is — Sam mentioned that I didn’t want to make this film alone earlier, and I just wanted to give some context to that. To me, representation is incredibly important on a team, and I wanted to make sure that there was a director or co-director at the helm of this with me who had the lived experience of this time period, who was of the community, and also could, you know — had deep ties to the South. And I think there is so — that we, again, in the — the narrative of the civil rights movement has been, I think, shaped by, again, the powers that be. You know, the foundation of our country is ultimately white supremacist, Christian, patriarchal. And I think those are things that we have to consistently work to dismantle.

And in this film, we saw a movement that’s essentially, again, a leaderless movement that did that work. And it’s really this — there is a model here in this film that any community can follow when it comes to seeking, again, power. And in order to build a true democracy, we know that, as Ruby Sales so eloquently puts it, that Black Power and white supremacy cannot coexist in a true democracy. So, I think the onus is on all of us to work towards that within our communities. And again, what happened in Lowndes County doesn’t have to be specific to a community in the South, such as Lowndes County. This is a model for organizing everywhere.

And I think that’s what I really took away from it, the — you know, again, the bravery that the people of Lowndes County showed and continue to show today. Right? Lowndes County remains one of the counties in the country that has the highest voter turnout. And that, to me, is phenomenal. The goal, too, as Mr. Paris and so many others have said, the idea is to build a movement that survives the loss of our lives in our own communities. So I think that also is a really important point that I took away from that.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Geeta Gandbhir, award-winning director, producer and editor, co-director of Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power with Sam Pollard. Geeta recently directed the HBO series Black and Missing and won a 2022 NAACP Award for Best Directing and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. She has worked with filmmakers Merchant Ivory, the Coen brothers and Robert Altman. Sam Pollard is a veteran feature film and television director whose work includes the groundbreaking Eyes on the Prize and Slavery by Another Name. Sam has edited over half a dozen Spike Lee films, including Four Little Girls, about the bombing of the Birmingham church, and When the Levees Broke. We spoke to them on Friday along with the Reverend Wendell Paris, former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After the Lowndes movement in Alabama, he founded the Southern Cooperative Development Group and is now at the New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, where we spoke to him. Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power is now playing in theaters and streaming online at Apple TV and Amazon Prime.

We end with the words of Senator Raphael Warnock at his victory speech after his reelection last week.

SEN. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: There are those who would look at the outcome of this race and say that there is no voter suppression in Georgia. Let me be clear: Just because people endured long lines that wrapped around buildings, some blocks long, just because they endured the rain and the cold and all kinds of tricks in order to vote doesn’t mean that voter suppression does not exist. It simply means that you, the people, have decided that your voices will not be silenced.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Raphael Warnock is the first Black Democrat to be elected to the Senate from the former Confederacy.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now!’s Juan González is giving his final farewell talk today in New York before he moves to Chicago. He’s speaking today at 6:30 p.m. at the CUNY Graduate Center at 365 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Juan’s final speech will be on Latinos, race and empire. You can visit democracynow.org for more details. On Friday, he spoke at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies about 50 years of defending and chronicling America’s workers. And you can go to democracynow.org for his Columbia Journalism School address about his 40 years fighting for racial and social justice in journalism. Today’s speech at 6:30 p.m. will be streaming online. We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Denis Moynihan. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.