Bloody Lowndes

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Hasan Kwame Jeffries. Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt. New York: New York University Press. 2009. pp. 348. ISBN: 978-0-8147-4331-7

Summary

In his book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, Hasan Kwame Jeffries argues that the effectiveness of the American Civil Rights Movement can only be properly understood by looking at events at the local level and how they interacted and differed from the larger national movement. Jeffries believes that “It was neither apocalyptic events nor movement messiahs that set the stage for radicalization of black politics, but rather the slow and hard work of organizing” (p. 141). In Jeffries opinion, this radicalization is what brought needed change in Lowndes County Alabama.

Jeffries begins his narrative with an explanation of “freedom rights” which includes fundamental civil rights and basic human rights including “the franchise, quality education, and the chance to earn a decent living” (p. 37). The rural black community in Lowndes County struggled for these rights since emancipation which led to the formation of a “local organizing infrastructure.” Early and modest successes within the county included the establishment of the Calhoun School in 1892, which “provided black children with an education that exceeded public school standards in every way,” The establishment of the Calhoun Land Trust in 1895, which provided land and reasonable mortgages to black farmers, and the establishment of the White Hall Community as part of the New Deal Resettlement Administration. In all of these cases, the black community found limited prosperity as a separate and independent community outside of the local white political and economic structure.

Jeffries also focuses on the importance of the experience gained by future African American leaders in Lowndes County who left the area to work on the Gulf Coast or in Detroit during the Great Depression and WWII where they gained organizing experience in labor unions as well as other struggles for basic rights of African Americans. Jeffries also explains how Lowndes County residents supported large Civil Rights events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Selma March. When the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR) was formed in 1965 in the hopes of registering African Americans to vote in Lowndes County, Jeffries explains that the leaders of this new organization were non-traditional. Religious leaders, teachers and black professionals avoided the new organization due to the overwhelming physical and economic impact any association with the organization could have on them due to white backlash. Because of this, the LCCMHR leadership was primarily working class. A large number of leadership positions were also held by women.

The leaders of LCCMHR rejected the nonviolent approach of the SCLC and began working with Stokely Carmichael and SNCC. LCCMHR advocated armed self-defense and the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP) in the hopes of taking control of key local government positions which could easily happen if the African American majority in the county were able and willing to vote in elections. The LCFP with help from SNCC stopped voter suppression in the county and worked for school integration by working with the federal government as well as providing financial support to those who were evicted or lost jobs due to support of the movement. The organizations also provided political education workshops, made working class issues a top political priority and went door to door to gain support from the local population. Although many in the local black community supported the LCFP commitment to “democratic decision making and its de-emphasis on professional qualifications as prerequisites for running for office,” the election of 1966 had limited LCPF success due to white intimidation of black voters.

LCPF succeeded in influencing policy as well as electing John Hulett to the position of Sheriff in 1970. Despite this, the party lost influence in the 1970’s due to the introduction of “a new kind of black politics, one that privileged mobilizing voters over educating them, ranked individual interests higher than group interests, and placed winning reelection above fighting for freedom rights” (p. 244). Because of this change in strategy, many LCPF leaders moved to the Democratic Party. Jeffries concludes that “when African Americans started looking exclusively to politicians to lead the fight for freedom rights and made the Democratic Party their primary vehicle for advancing the struggle, collective action stopped almost completely” (p. 245).


Commentary

Dan Curry, Spring 2014

In his book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, Hasan Kwame Jeffries provides a unique and important perspective on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. He provides ample evidence of how the movement was influenced both from the top-down and bottom-up. He seamlessly incorporates the discussion of gender roles in his narrative. He provides a clear explanation of how African American interests and strategies differed between National and local leaders as well as professional and working class members of the African American community. His use of images, such as a comparison between the typical home of a sharecropper and the typical home of a Calhoun Land Trust property owner, are also integral to supporting his argument.

One area where Jeffries could have added detail and analysis was the early experiences of LCPF leaders with labor unions. A more detailed example of inclusion as well as discrimination in labor unions and the lessons future LCPF leaders learned from these experiences would provide a more detailed setting for the main narrative. Despite this minor criticism, Jeffries provides an important perspective necessary to properly understand the American Civil Rights Movement.

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