Book Review Archives

Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt

By: Hasan Kwame Jeffries
Reviewed by: Nancy Wilstach
New York University Press, 2009
$39, Hardcover

It should come as no surprise that Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries’ account of the struggles and hardships faced by African-American Lowndes Countians is a well-researched and scholarly work. After all, he is an assistant professor of history at Ohio State University. Unexpected, however, are the heartache and anger the story evokes.

Jeffries takes readers to Lowndes County, Alabama, in the 1960s, a place and a time where and when being black was already a dangerous condition. Then, Lowndes became a laboratory for self-government with the help of Stokely Carmichael and other members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Virtually a part of the Third World much more than the first, these were brave people who worked with SNCC to form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). People without cars, telephones, or indoor plumbing—some of whom were evicted from sharecropper shacks and found themselves living in a tent city—founded an all-black and independent political party symbolized by a snarling black panther. The Black Panther may have gained international notoriety as the emblem of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, but that black panther was born in Lowndes County—in stark poverty and amid violent intimidation by whites. By the second half of the twentieth century, white police and sneaky arsonists had replaced public spectacle lynchings as the means Lowndes County’s whites employed to control their black neighbors. Jeffries matter-of-factly recaps some of the most terrifying episodes from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s in setting the stage for the eventual revolt that resulted in an all-black independent party, followed by a black takeover of the local Democratic Party.

Although blacks were an eighty percent majority of the Lowndes population, they could not vote in 1965. When they launched their struggle for political freedom as a path to economic and social parity, the LCFO founders were willing to be non-violent, if the whites would let them. As it turned out, armed men took turns standing watch outside mass meetings, and blacks slept with a shotgun or rifle close at hand.

And Jeffries’s lively and accessible history keeps us turning the pages to find out what happens next. Mar 2010

A retired newspaper reporter, Nancy Wilstach did undergraduate work at Alabama State University before eventually graduating from the University of Montevallo.