Political & Economic Education
One often overlooked aspect of SNCC’s organizing is the creativity invested in political and economic education. Lowndes County, Alabama was a clear example of this. There, in 1965 SNCC organizers designed and distributed comic books to educate people about local elected officials, so they could take charge of their communities. In the comics, SNCC “got people to believe” in their power to affect change by building a base of political power. Us Colored People, written by Courtland Cox and illustrated by Jennifer Lawson, showed how a character named “Mr Black Man” became politically awakened, registered to vote, and ultimately county sheriff himself. The comic book explained the political strategy: “The way to deal with [police brutality] is get a new sheriff, who accedes to your view of the world.”
Even before the arrival of SNCC organizers in the spring of 1965, there was already a determined community with leaders like John Hulett, who had been steadily building a base of Black political power in Lowndes. They emphasized political independence, rather than political integration. A year after the Democratic Party failed to seat the MFDP, SNCC was focused on building political power at the local level. Cox understood, “The Democratic Party is willing to include Negroes, but not junkies, bums, workers or the dispossessed and poor.” Encouraging local political participation was central to SNCC’s political education efforts. It focused on the lived realities of local people–what they experienced, what they sought to change in their communities, and how they would take over local elected official seats.
So why comic strips? “We knew that people were not going to sit down and read law books,” Cox explained. And if people couldn’t read–educational access and thus literacy rates were extremely low in Lowndes–they could follow along the pictures and learn the important content. The comic books broke down the duties of local officials, like the Board of Education, tax collector, and coroner, and featured photos of community members running for those positions. As Jennifer Lawson described the tactic, “it was important to put in the minds of people running for office it was something that they could do.” The comic books showed a political reality that spoke to the needs of the Black community; one cartoon told the story of Black poll inspectors being appointed by a Black police officer.
In December 1965, 25 local people headed to SNCC’s national office in Atlanta for the first of a series of political education training workshops, organized the workshops around local politics. “There is no point focusing faraway on glamorous offices which leave the local situation unchanged,” explained Jack Minnis, director of SNCC’s research department. With the sheriff, tax collector, and school board seats up for election in November 1966, they focused on the abuses of powers that had occurred and how the white establishment worked through every elected official to disenfranchise the Black community.
As the legal responsibilities of local officials became clear to people, so too did the systematic and illegal acts by their white elected officials against the Black community. Minnis remembered people’s realization that the unsolved murders of Black people they had seen throughout their lives “could never have gone uninvestigated and unpunished” without the coroner’s “connivance” and “collusion.”
SNCC’s political education efforts helped communities realize their ability to elect their own officials, and it didn’t stop there. After redefining their sense of possibility of local politics, communities crafted cooperative projects to change the conditions in which they found themselves and redefine power structures.
Across the south, Black farmers banded together in economic cooperatives to better their livelihoods. “Doing it the hard way earns us something of our own,” the West Batesville Farmers Cooperative of Holmes County, Mississippi proclaimed in 1965. Later, in 1969, Fannie Lou Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County to empower people to take control of their economic reality, complete with its own “pig bank” funded in part by the National Council of Negro Women.
These economic cooperatives, owned and managed by Black farmers themselves, reversed the power structure of white landowners hoarding profits from their workers that plagued the South. While the economic projects were difficult to maintain in the face of powerful purchasers and landowners, they succeeded in strengthening self empowerment and Black independence. As Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “I wouldn’t take nothing for our golden pigs.”
Charles E. Cobb Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2008), 244.
Cheryl Greenberg, ed., A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 109.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
Interview with Courtland Cox by Joseph Mosnier, July 8, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress.