Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP)
The southern civil rights struggle is full of ironies. In Alabama, the illiteracy rate was so high that state law required political parties to have a visual symbol. The Democratic Party’s symbol was a white rooster, often displayed with the phrase “White supremacy for the right” written above it. So, in Lowndes County when local Black citizens and SNCC organizers formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), an independent political party in 1965, they chose a snarling black panther as its symbol. “The black panther is a vicious animal, as you know,” John Hulett, one of LCFO’s founders explained, “He never bothers anything, but when you start pushing him, he moves backward, backward, and backward, and then he comes out and destroys everything that’s in front of him.”
In Lowndes County and under the banner of the black panther, local citizens realized they could collectively use their political might to control local political institutions.
LCFO had its roots in SNCC’s earlier voter registration work in Mississippi and Southwest Georgia. In those places, the organization was confronted with the systemic and violent ways that the local and state Democratic Party stymied Black political participation. The problem was systemic.
SNCC activists in Mississippi developed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as part of their response to this. It was a parallel political party aiming to replace Mississippi’s Democratic Party and force the national Democratic Party to acknowledge the racism of its “Dixiecrat” affiliate in the state. However, at the Democratic National Convention in 1964, the party denied the legitimacy of MFDP and hence preserved the power of the lily-white state party.
SNCC began discussing an independent party. And while the MFDP continued to seek recognition from the national Democratic Party, a small group of SNCC organizers went to Alabama during the Selma-to-Montgomery march to pursue this idea.
Most of the march passed through Lowndes County, well-known for its discrimination and violence against Black people. It was 80 percent Black but only one eligible Black citizen out of 12,000 was registered to vote; he was Mr. John Hulett, who would help found LCFO. SNCC wanted to encourage an independent Black political party and found many Blacks in the county sympathetic to the idea.
Through intensive grassroots organizing, SNCC and LCFO developed a supportive constituency of local people. Their work involved bi-weekly political workshops that featured comics explaining the roles of various local elective positions, day-to-day conversations on front porches and in living rooms and kitchens, and continually bringing people to the county courthouse to register to vote.
By the spring of 1966, assisted by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Blacks formed a majority of the voting population in Lowndes County. In county elections that year, roughly 900 Blacks of the 2,000 recently registered voted for LCFO candidates. While none of these candidates won their elections for a variety of reasons that included intimidation, LCFO did receive enough votes to qualify as a political party and officially became the Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP).
Five years later, LCFP supporters elected John Hulett as sheriff, and Mr. Charles Smith, another local leader, as county commissioner. Local activist, John Jackson, became the mayor of Whitehall, a small town in Lowndes. In this sense, LCFP empowered local Black citizens to fight for tangible political power at the county level in order to transform their communities in concrete ways.
Stokely Carmichael and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (New York: Scribner, 2003).
Hasan Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
Hasan Jeffries, “SNCC, Black Power, and Independent Political Party Organizing in Alabama, 1964-1966,” Journal of African American History (2006), 171-193.
Interview with John Hulett conducted by Blackside, Inc., Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University.