“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.
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!