Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Equality and violence in Alabama, 1960s

image: Ben Shahn photo of Arkansas sharecropper

Creating civil and political rights for African Americans in the 1960s required courage and persistence by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.  The system of Jim Crow assured subordination in fundamental rights and needs for millions of rural southern black people -- the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to use public amenities, and the right to a decent education.  This system was held in place by the threat and reality of violence -- beatings, lynchings, shootings, and pervasive threats against individuals and families.  This kind of violent environment made it particularly difficult to see the road from subordination to equality.  The people of Lowndes County, Alabama, played a key role in this journey.  This is the core message of Hasan Kwame Jeffries' excellent recent book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt.  "Bloody Lowndes" was considered the most repressive and most violent area of black suppression in the South.  So success in achieving African American voter registration and elected representation would be an important step forward.

Here is how Jeffries describes the county:
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. (Introduction)
Jeffries tells the story of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) and its effort to succeed in registering the black population of the county.  The struggle for equal rights in Lowndes County was nationally important, and SNCC activist Stokely Carmichael played a central role in the sustained effort.  This independent political party struggled to register black voters in order to gain elected offices for black candidates. The LCFO -- represented by the image of the black panther -- struggled for two years against violent opposition, attempting to exercise rights created by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  (Huey Newton and Bobby Seale eventually drew inspiration from the LCFO and its symbol in the establishment of the Black Panther Party in Oakland.)

Racist violence in Lowndes County was common, and it is instructive to listen to oral histories of people who were there.  One example is Professor Gloria House, who participated in the SNCC effort to mobilize the county as a young Berkeley graduate student who "went south".  Here is an interview in which she offers a first-hand account of one particularly violent incident in Lowndes County. It is an important and dramatic testimony about the period.  Dr. House describes the arrest of a small group of SNCC workers; their imprisonment in the local jail for two weeks; their release; and the murder of one of the SNCC workers at the hands of white extremists.


A crucial part of the story of Lowndes County that Jeffries tells is the role that forcible resistance played.  The example of nonviolent protest was available, of course, through the strategies and actions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But in the face of shotguns, torches, and ropes, the tactics of vigils, demonstrations, and boycotts seemed inadequate to the task.  Part of the success of the LCFO movement in Lowndes County was the clear statement by ordinary people in the county that they would not be intimidated, and that they would defend their rights and their lives with force if necessary.

It is interesting to compare Jeffries' detailed study of the struggle in Lowndes County with the more general treatment of the movement in Doug McAdam's Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.  McAdam looks in detail at the factors across the South that facilitated or impeded the movement for civil and economic rights.  But Lowndes County doesn't come into his narrative directly.  More generally, the factor of "forcible resistance" doesn't play much of a role in his theoretical analysis.  Generally his view appears to be that forcible resistance was largely counter-productive to the movement, in that it stimulated vastly greater white supremacist response (142).  This question is worth examining in detail; there is a commonsense logic that implies that a population that makes clear its willingness to use force to defend itself against violence would deter violent attack.  So we might speculate that populations with this willingness to use force in self-defense would be more successful in establishing a zone of rights in local society.

It is important to recognize clearly and honestly the degree of violence that was exercised through the rule of the Jim Crow South, and the role that armed self-defense sometimes played in the struggle for equal rights.  It is one of the remarkable achievements of the American civil rights movement that its leaders and followers were able to steer their course towards freedom in a way that ultimately quieted the appeal to violence on all sides.

(Here is some background on Lowndes County, Alabama (link).  The ChangeDirection blog has a good multi-part series of posts on Stokely Carmichael's evolution as a leader in Lowndes County and nationally.)

2 comments:

Julie P. said...

Jeffries' perspective is important both for highlighting the use of armed self-defense in paving the road toward legal equality, and for documenting another case in which local organizing fomented local movements that, aggregated, gave depth and real power to the national struggle for civil rights.

John Dittmer's Local People and Tim Tyson's Radio Free Dixie: Robert Williams and the Roots of Black Power also both offer excellent histories of local freedom movements with national repercussions and activists' necessary use of force.

Incidentally, Tyson's award winning second book-- a memoir and history of the struggle for racial justice in his hometown of Oxford, NC-- has just been released as an independent film ( Blood done sign my name: A true story).

Daniel Little said...

Julie,

Thanks for these great references. I agree with both your points. The second point is part of the reason I was interested in connecting this to McAdam's book, since he's somewhat more "macro" about the struggle.