BlackStar Film Festival: Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power

Film Review

Archival Photo, Library of Congress
Archival Photo of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization headquarters, Lowndes County, Alabama, 1966.

Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power is one of the most consequential films of 2022, particularly given the Republican’s ongoing assault on teachers’ ability to teach accurate American history; and the right’s attacks on civil and human rights, particularly voting rights and the right to protest, over the last decade.

Award-winning documentarians Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir artfully weave together original footage from Jack Willis with firsthand interviews with those who were there to tell the story of the fight for liberation on the outskirts of the struggle. Jack Willis was filming in Lowndes County in 1966 for his film “Lay My Burden Down.”

It tells the story of a bloody and brutal fight for freedom in a part of the country where black folks sharecropped on the same plantations their ancestors were brutalized as enslaved people just a couple of generations before. Though they made up 80 percent of the population, they couldn’t vote, held no political power, were paid in store credit at the “general store,” and could be beaten or killed with little if any consequences for the perpetrators.

I know the right would love to pretend otherwise, and I’m going to hurt their fee-fees, but we must be honest, Sharecropping was a euphemism for slavery; there’s just no other way to cut and remain truthful about the conditions these folks faced.

Even though Birmingham is only 90 miles north of Lowndes County, the civil rights movement might as well have been on the other side of the country in ’66. Without the means to enforce gains made in Washington and the cities, people in the rural south were on their own. “We didn’t have anything but each other,” said Lillian McGill, the former Sec. of Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights.

“What stood out to us about Lowndes County’s role in the Civil Rights Movement was that it was locally led,” said Gandbhir and Pollard. “A key piece of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee strategy was to build a community that could keep working on its own,”

The importance of this movie in our time can’t be understated given the way black liberation organizations, hell, all left-wing organizations, are dealt with by law enforcement to this day. The fight for freedom has never ended. The tactics of right-wing violence, manipulation of public opinion through the media, police infiltration, trumped-up police charges, falsification of evidence, and assassinations haven’t changed either.

We have only to look at the recent Black Lives Matter protests from a couple of years ago, the extreme surveillance, the arrest of Anthony Smith, the assassination attempt on Sasha Johnson in London, and the six Ferguson activists who have all died under mysterious circumstances since 2014. Maryland-National Capital Park Police were texting each other about killing Black Lives Matter protesters. Death threats were made against Rev. Darryl Grey, including finding an unmarked box containing a six-foot python in his car.

Of course, we have the MOVE bombing here in Philly, and the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of dozens of civil rights leaders, including Anthony (Ant) Smith, most recently.

Lines of people standing outside buildings in Lowndes County, Alabama, on election day, Nov. 1966. By Jim Peppler Southern Courier. ADAH. Library of Congress

The list goes on; there is a direct line between the right-wing and state violence and assassinations during the Civil Rights era and those of today. There is a direct link between Jim Crow voter suppression and its modern iteration in the Republican party.

The depth of archival video footage and first-person interviews with activists, witnesses, and historians makes for an intimate view of a tumultuous historical period from a rarely examined perspective.

We have a solid history of what happened in the north and the large southern cities like Birmingham, but to see the work in the rural south is a real treat that will add a more profound understanding to what we know about the struggle for Black liberation.

Having this account so well documented is particularly important given the right’s whitewashing of  Black suffering and the fight for freedom. We know about the effects of the Lost Cause mythology of the Civil War pushed for generations in southern states. What impact will the “CRT myth” have on future generations without powerful storytelling that presents an undeniable depiction of the horrors endured by Black Americans in the rural south that persisted into the modern era?

Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power‘s importance extends well beyond the historical value and lends context to the need to resist Republicans’ efforts to suppress the right to Vote in poor Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities to maintain white supremacist power.

This movie is a must-watch for all of us, every high school history, social studies or civics class, activists, non-voters, and even your crazy right-wing uncle or grandma!

About Cory Clark 42 Articles
Cory Clark is a Photojournalist and writer focused on Human Rights and other social issues. His work can be found in hundreds of media outlets from Philly Magazine to Fortune. He has been a long time freelancer for Getty Images, The Associated Press, and Association French Presse. Cory, his wife, and son are residents of East Germantown.

15 Comments

  1. The voter intimidation referred to in the video “The Origins of the Black Panther Party in Alabama” (inline above, or https://youtu.be/eL9po1jD8q4) were as disturbing as ever. Now, here locally, we see a new intimidation by the drug cartels which have taken root here in Philly. IMO, partisan drum-beating is muddying the waters, obscuring a clear view of the specifics. We can no longer afford that.

  2. John’s comment and the need for white power to distort history and facts is exactly why this film is so important. As I said the extensive use of archival footage, images and witness testimony makes their arguments mute.

  3. Perhaps the issue is reporting is not focused on the real criminals. This is why you see no articles. It is clearly obvious by the blatant widespread disregard for the law that this is organized at a cultural level.

  4. I don’t know it seems like the human and civil rights attacks by anti-democratic forces in the GOP are pretty well reported on, or were you referring to the corporate greed that is the root cause of people’s inability to afford to live? Maybe you were referring to the fact that there are five housing units for every single unhoused person individually, including children, or were you referring to the fact that there are millions of Americans that don’t have any mental/healthcare or that the US has the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world? Maybe you’re referring to the fact that the police are unable to close the majority of the murder cases in Philadelphia (whether that’s due to incompetence or because they could care less about what happens in poor black and brown communities outside of meeting their arrest quotas, you can decide for yourself).

    But you know what you are, right? There is a cultural component to all of this. It doesn’t lay at the feet of poor black, brown, and indigenous folks, though. It lays at the feet of white folks that would rather deflect, minimize, or blame everyone else just to ensure they never have to address the roles they play in perpetuating harms done to those they blame for the society they built on the backs of marginalized communities for the benefit of white people.

    Every time I hear the GOPers talk about marginalized people, I hear LBJ in my head saying one of the greatest truths about white folks, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

    You are no different, just another fragile white person, afraid to have an equitable playing field on which to compete. Hell, I’ll even bet you think you’re some sort of alpha male too. That’s just how basic you come off. Pathetic!

    • Perhaps a more succinct and less snarky way to say all this is to paraphrase Killer Mike “I wanna stop the violence (Crime), but I can’t ask someone to put down the gun unless I’m ready to feed (house, provide medical/mental health care, dignity and a living wage for) them.”

  5. That was a rather lengthy ‘kill the messenger’, ad hominem attack. It does not address my point, which I will re-state: The damage being done to BIPOC lives by corruption and organized pervasive crime is far, far greater than that done by ongoing diminishing vestiges of jim crow. And, to emphasize a partisan ‘fix’ for problems (vote D, or R) merely propagates the two-party power structure which supports the corporate greed you cite, as well as corruptions which rob poor BIPOC and poor white folk.

    A quick google search for “organized crime in Philadelphia” does indeed turn up some interesting situations, and I found this 1985 DOJ abstract illuminating, noting that we don’t seem to find revelations that the situation has been rectified, so I would not assume it magically got better. There was something in one of the articles about one specific type of corruption among builders, related to gentrification I inferred. I mention this as an example of one of the forces which is making life tougher for poor folk, be they BIPOC or otherwise.

    But all that aside, feel free use a movie as a basis to write the usual about the usual bad guys, us boomer white folks. It’s your time, do what you want. But I will retain my freedom to express my opinion that “vote D, or Vote R” merely prolong many decades of the same old suffering. I am merely suggesting that we 1. give the partisan politics a break, and 2. look fresh at what may be hiding in plain view.

    It’s convenient laying all the blame at the white folks. But not all white folks, and not very many really have ever had the political power to propogate the harms done to BIPOC folk. That power has always been squarely in the hands of the political class and those who pull their strings. Regardless of color, creed, religion, national origins. Now has the political class been mostly white? Yes, until recently. That is not the same as saying most whites are part of the political class.

    And to conclude with a reference to the Killer Mike bit, the housing, health services, etc would be far more abundant in an environment where corruption was not siphoning it off. Partisan politics is a trap, a smoke screen behind which all the ills of the past will continue.

    • Ok Boomer…I couldn’t help it; you left yourself open.

      I really am trying hard to be nice, though. But if I’m honest, your white fragility grates my patience, which I admit is very limited.

      It is not an ad hominem attack to point out the racism and ignorance in the thing you are saying, and your inability to self-reflect says everything about you and nothing about what I wrote.

      This entire conversation began with a film review that I wrote on a film about the civil rights era efforts of a small Alabama county fighting for voting rights and representation, the importance of this film in the context of EVER GROWING AND RAMPANT VOTER SUPPRESSION and attacks on other human and civil rights. It had NOTHING to do with any other aspect of the entrenched poverty and racism faced by communities of color, but I was patient and responded to each of your comments because that’s part of my job.

      …I was going to run through your points, but then I realized I would just be feeding into your attempts to cloud the issue, which is the fascistic/racist attacks on voting and other fundamental human rights by one side of the political equation. This isn’t a both-sides thing. The GOP and their allies are the ones enacting voter impression laws, using voter intimidation, striping women of the rights to their bodies, and trying to overturn Brown V. Board. It is the GOP that stood in the way of real criminal justice reform that addresses the JIM Crown nature of policing.

      This isn’t a left V right thing. This is a right V wrong thing, a Democracy V authoritarianism thing, a racism v equality thing, and there is only one right side of history.

      Now, if you want to have these conversations, they can be had, but when and where they are appropriate, they aren’t being used to distract from the conversation. I have a whole laundry list of articles that some of your points would have been at home in the comment section. I suggest you go read those and we can talk about it, I also suggest you take some time and self reflect on your seeming low grade racism and also would sujest reading The New Jim Crow, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution,and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism for starters. If you can’t afford any of these I can lend you any of my copies from my library, I’m sure my editors would be happy to arrange it in an effort make our community better.

      • Great reading list! I’d like to add two favorites of my own that kinda speak, I think, to John’s frustrations with the political part of all these real issues the country is facing. The first is called “Listen, Liberal” by Thomas Frank and the second is “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Together, these books lay out how we got here and why doing the right thing these days is going to be a political fight until our leaders are governing in good faith.

        • I probably could have listed more, but about half of my library is already packed, and I have too many books to know all of their titles off the top of my head. I know I have a lot of comparative histories and books on systemic racism and mass incarceration. I think I have a couple on the lost cause and even the rise and fall of the 3rd Reich.

  6. The level of civility (name calling, labeling, etc) in this conversation indicates many things. I.e the nature of discourse is in itself absolutely fascinating. Thank You for that. Good luck, conversation complete.

    • Thank you for your comments, it has indeed been fascinating but I’m not sure for the reasons you think.

      • I did say, “I know the right would love to pretend otherwise, and I’m going to hurt their fee-fees, but we must be honest, Sharecropping was a euphemism for slavery; there’s just no other way to cut and remain truthful about the conditions these folks faced.” So no one can say they weren’t warned.

  7. Ms. Fillmore, Please, go on. What do you think are the fascinating elements of the discourse? Please also if you would, comment on what you think my reasons for being fascinated are. It is all good, merely data, part of learning. Thank You.

    • Thanks, I’m good. You said yourself the conversation is complete, and I’m more than happy to hold you to your word. Anyways feels like all the oxygen’s been used up in this thread already. Let’s start fresh on another post sometime! It’s been real.

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