As the civil rights struggle shifted from the ability to vote to issues like housing discrimination, busing, and affirmative action, consensus on the best course of action began to splinter. At the same time, many blacks became impatient with Martin Luther King’s nonviolent ethos. The leader who would first articulate the new era’s defiance was Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Singer Nina Simone called him the most handsome man in America.[i] He had been a freedom rider, then worked to register black voters Alabama. In March, when King marched through Lowndes County on the way from Selma to Montgomery, Carmichael approached all the blacks who came out to see MLK and got their contact information to register them.
Despite (or because of) the passage of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, Alabama was as dangerous as ever. On August 13, 29 civil rights activists protested a whites-only store and were jailed. When they were released on August 20, a white Episcopalian named Jonathan Myrick Daniels who had come down from Harvard to help with his wife attempted to enter Varner’s Grocery Store to buy a soft drink with a 17-year-old black girl. An engineer for the state highway department named Thomas Coleman was working as a special deputy at the door and pointed a shotgun at the girl. Daniels pushed her down and took the blast. Another civil rights worker tried to flee with Daniels’ wife, and the deputy shot him as well. The jury accepted the deputy’s claim that he had acted in self-defense, and he was acquitted.
Alabama was basically a one-party state, and the flag of the Democratic Party had the words “white supremacy” written on it. So Carmichael and the SNCC knew they needed their own independent political party, and in December they announced the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.[ii] They started holding voter drives and political classes for the residents, 80 percent of whom were under the poverty line. For their symbol, they picked a leaping black panther, claws bared. Even if the voter couldn’t read, they could see the symbol and know which way they should vote.[iii]
By the end of the year Carmichael had decided that whites could no longer occupy leadership positions in the SNCC and began formulating his concept of Black Power. “It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage … We have to do what every group in the country did — we gotta take over the community where we outnumber people so we can have decent jobs.”[iv] Instead of integration, many Black Power advocates wanted black-controlled institutions; some even called for an independent black state.
The following year, the Lowndes’ party logo and Carmichael’s call for Black Power inspired Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to found the Black Panther party in Oakland, California. They also drew on the example of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group of black veterans from World War II and Korea who formed 21 chapters throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to protect civil rights workers from the Klan with guns.
The voter drive finally succeeded because August 6’s Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests and sent federal examiners into the South to monitor elections. The Act became one of the most successful pieces of legislation in history, vastly increasing blacks’ presence in elections. Within months, more than 250,000 new black voters were enfranchised. In 1964, 6 percent of Mississippi voters were black, but five years later that number was 59 percent.[v] The number of black elected officials rose over the next twenty years as well, from 100 to 7200.[vi] Even Lowndes County had a black sheriff by 1970.
[i] Stephen Cleary, I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone, Google eBook.
[ii] Jo Freeman, “Making the Revolution – In One County,” seniorwomen.com, http://www.seniorwomen.com/articles/freeman/articlesFreemanLowndes.html, 2009
[iii] Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, Google eBook.
[iv] Miles, Hippie, Google eBook.
[v] “Johnson Signs Voting Rights Act,” history.com, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/johnson-signs-voting-rights-act
[vi] “The Prize,” nps.gov, http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/prize.htm