The Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), also known as the Black Panther Party, was started in 1965 under the direction of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist Stokely Carmichael. In 1965, Lowndes County in Alabama was 80% black but not a single black citizen was registered to vote. Carmichael arrived in the county to organize a voter registration project and from this came the LCFO. Party members adopted the black panther as their symbol for their independent political organization.
More than half of the African American population in Lowndes County lived below the poverty line. Moreover, white supremacists had a long history of extreme violence towards anyone who attempted to vote or otherwise challenge all-white rule. Lowndes County Freedom Organization members didn’t simply want to vote to place other white candidates in office. Instead they wanted to be able to vote for their own candidates.
White voters in Lowndes County reacted strongly to the LCFO. In many instances, whites evicted their sharecroppers, leaving many blacks homeless and unemployed. Whites also refused to serve known LCFO members in stores and restaurants. Small riots broke out with the local police often firing only on blacks during these confrontations. However, the LCFO pushed forward and continued to organize and register voters. In 1966, several LFCO candidates ran for office in the general election but failed to win. While their attempt was unsuccessful, the LCFO continued to fight and their goal and motto of “black power” spread outside of Alabama.
The movement spread all over the nation. Two black Californians, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, asked for permission to use the black panther emblem that the Lowndes County Freedom Organization had adopted, for their newly formed Black Panther Party. The Oakland-based Black Panther Party became a much more prominent organization than the LCFO. Thus few people remember the origins of this powerful symbol with impoverished African Americans in a central Alabama County.
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981); Evans D. Hopkins, Life After Life: AStory of Rage and Redemption (New York: Free Press, 2005); http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/473.html.
Rebecca Woodham, Wallace Community College, Dothan, Alabama
The Lowndes County Freedom Organization or Black Panther Party, was a short-lived political party that formed in 1966 to represent African Americans in the central Alabama Black Belt counties. Though the organization failed to win any election, its influence was felt far beyond Alabama by providing the foundation for the better-known Black Panther Party for Self-Defense that arose in Oakland, California. Known for years as “Bloody Lowndes,” the county had a well-deserved reputation for brutality and entrenched racism. Although the population was roughly 80 percent African American, no black resident had successfully registered to vote in more than 60 years, as the county was controlled by 86 white families who owned 90 percent of the land.
Stokely Carmichael, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and who had recently coined the phrase “Black Power,” was dispatched to Lowndes County to register voters in the summer of 1965. SNCC members were losing faith in the nonviolent approach taken by other civil rights organizations, namely the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Carmichael found Lowndes’ rural black population armed and willing to defend itself. Carmichael and other organizers, however, were able to register only about 250 African American voters by August 1965, each of whom were required to pass a literacy test. After the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibited such measures to determine eligibility and provided enforcement provisions, the number of black voters increased, but so did white resistance and intimidation.
Carmichael was not the only one growing impatient that year. Local activist John Hulett was a founder and leader of the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights, and began seeking assistance from SNCC after being repeatedly refused help by the SCLC. Carmichael and other SNCC volunteers joined with Hulett’s fledgling organization, which was also trying to register black voters. The two groups redoubled their efforts following the murder of Jonathan Daniels, a white Episcopal seminarian and SNCC volunteer, on August 20. Given the extent of white resistance, however, group leaders doubted the effectiveness of trying to register blacks for the white-controlled Democratic Party. Instead, they formed a new, independent party at the county level; the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and attempted to register as many black voters as possible. Hulett served as the LCFO’s first chairman.
Alabama election laws required political parties to have an emblem so the new party chose a crouching black panther. Hulett explained that like a panther, Lowndes County African Americans had been pushed back into a corner and would come out “fighting for life or death.” The emblem was seized on by the media, and LCFO also came to be known as the Black Panther Party. Although the organization was, in theory, open to anyone, it became a de facto all-black organization, as no white voters wanted to join.
The new party hoped to get enough people to vote in the upcoming 1966 election that African Americans might be elected to office and assist the county’s impoverished black population. SNCC had always focused on education as a means of securing civil rights, and the LCFO followed suit. It organized political education classes and registration drives and published a booklet that informed citizens of the potential problems they could face if they registered. The LCFO experienced constant criticism from the Democratic Party, as well as the SCLC, which felt that blacks should vote in the Democratic primary. The recent decision of the Democratic Party to increase its filing fee for candidates to $500 solidified the activists’ resolve to form a completely new party, regardless of the criticism.
After much effort, more blacks were registered to vote than whites. The majority of these new voters, however, were sharecroppers, and they faced hostile responses from land-owning whites through evictions that left them homeless and unemployed. SNCC and LCFO leaders organized a “tent city” to house the displaced sharecroppers and helped them find new work and homes.
In May 1966, the party held its primary, with seven candidates vying for sheriff, coroner, tax assessor, and the board of education. Though both SNCC and LCFO continued to win the support of Lowndes County African Americans, the new party could not overcome the deeply entrenched racism of “Bloody Lowndes.” Each of the seven candidates lost in the general election in November of 1966, and many African Americans believed it resulted from plantation owners pressuring their black sharecroppers to vote for white candidates or not at all. After the election, SNCC organizers, including Carmichael, who went on to lead SNCC in 1966, gradually drifted out of Lowndes County. In 1970, the LCFO merged with the statewide Democratic Party, and former LCFO candidates won their first offices in the county. In that election, four years after the LCFO’s defeat, John Hulett was elected sheriff of Lowndes County, a position he would hold for 22 years, before serving three terms as probate judge of Lowndes County.
The spirit of the LCFO endured despite its defeat. Similar “freedom organizations” appeared across the country. The party’s slogan of “Black Power” also spread throughout the nation, and its black panther emblem was adopted by activists Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, a SNCC veteran in the Lowndes County effort, who together organized the Oakland-based Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966. There was no formal relationship between the LCFO and the later organization, and Hulett and others resented the use of their symbol to represent an organization that encouraged the use of violence. The latter organization became much more well-known than the LCFO due to its openly militant rhetoric, but its foundation was the LCFO’s principles of self-empowerment and grass-roots activism.
Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Cobb, Charles E. Jr. On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 2008.
The Lowndes County Freedom Organization, produced by the University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Gaillard, Frye. Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Jeffries, Hasan K. Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. New York: NYU Press, 2009.
On July 10, 1964, a group of African American men in Jonesboro, Louisiana led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick founded the group known as The Deacons for Defense and Justice to protect members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) against Ku Klux Klan violence. Most of the “Deacons” were veterans of World War II and the Korean War. The Jonesboro chapter organized its first affiliate chapter in nearby Bogalusa, Louisiana led by Charles Sims, A.Z. Young and Robert Hicks. Eventually they organized a third chapter in Louisiana. The Deacons tense confrontation with the Klan in Bogalusa was crucial in forcing the federal government to intervene on behalf of the local African American community. The national attention they garnered also persuaded state and national officials to initiate efforts to neutralize the Klan in that area of the Deep South.
The Deacons emerged as one of the first visible self-defense forces in the South and as such represented a new face of the civil rights movement. Traditional civil rights organizations remained silent on them or repudiated their activities. They were effective however in providing protection for local African Americans who sought to register to vote and for white and black civil rights workers in the area. The Deacons, for example, provided security for the 1966 March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi. Moreover their presence in Southeastern Louisiana meant that the Klan would no longer be able to intimidate and terrorize local African Americans without challenge.
The strategy and methods that the Deacons employed attracted the attention and concern of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which authorized an investigation into the group’s activities. The investigation stalled, however, when more influential black power organizations such as US and the Black Panther Party emerged after the 1965 Watts Riot. With public attention, and the attention of the FBI focused elsewhere, the Deacons lost most of their notoriety and slowly declined in influence. By 1968 they were all but extinct. In 2003 the activities of the Deacons was the subject of a 2003, “Deacons for Defense.”
Lance Hill, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Deacons for Defense and Justice in Africanaonline.