SNCC makes contact in Lowndes County
Many SNCC activists were skeptical when, following the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion, Alabama, SCLC proposed a protest march to the state capitol in Montgomery. Stokely Carmichael predicted “a bunch of media hoopla and confusion.” He was also concerned for the safety of the marchers, who would be traversing “the most backward and violent county in Alabama”–Lowndes County.
The violence of “Bloody Lowndes” was largely responsible for the fact that, despite being 80 percent Black, only one Black person was registered to vote there. But there were already signs that things were changing. Just days before Bloody Sunday and the first attempted march, 39 local people caused a stir when they tried to register to vote. Two weeks later, local Blacks formed the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights in the hope that SCLC would launch a voter registration drive in the county.
Anticipating that Lowndes County locals who turned out for the march would be the key to gaining a foothold in the county, Carmichael and fellow SNCC organizer Bob Mants trailed the march to introduce themselves. “We’d sit and talk with them,” remembered Carmichael, “and these would be the strong people we could work with.” The SNCC workers met with John Hulett–the one Black registered voter–and other LCCMHR members, who were, at first, skeptical of these outsiders who promised to bring the Movement to Lowndes. Carmichael explained, “the minute we walked in with a program for a movement and they could see the program was a clear program that would work, they immediately seized the program.”
Carmichael and Mants returned to Lowndes just two days after the march ended along with a cadre of SNCC organizers who began distributing leaflets at the local Black high school. They were immediately confronted by the sheriff and his deputies, who said, “You shouldn’t be here and you could be arrested.” Carmichael was defiant. “If you’re going to arrest me, do it. If not, don’t waste my time.” A local legend was born; “Freedom Riders” had come to the county. Mants remembered that “it was from that point on that we were able to begin to organize in Lowndes County.”
John Jackson, a sixteen-year-old student and a bus driver for the school, was impressed by Carmichael’s bold attitude. He remembered that after school that day, “I went home and I talked to my father about it.” He asked his father if the SNCC workers could stay at an empty house the family owned. “My father met with them, and I think he kind of liked those fellows or he was about like me, half crazy.” Either way, the Jackson family allowed the young organizers to use the house as their headquarters.
During their first weeks in Lowndes, SNCC activists deepened their ties to the community. SNCC’s Martha Prescod Norman remembered, “I don’t think anybody who spent more than a second in Lowndes didn’t know the Jackson family and respect them for their courage and their tremendous determination.” Gloria House added, it was “really quite phenomenal that those of us in our twenties … could go and work on a daily basis with sharecroppers – communicate, build these bonds, share and love, trust each other.”
Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1967).
Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (New York: Scribner, 2003).
Charles E. Cobb, On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2008).
Cheryl Greenberg, ed., A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
Henry Hampton, et al., eds., Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s(New York: Bantam Books, 1990).
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
Paniel E. Joseph, Stokely: A Life (New York: Basic Civitas, 2014).