The march to Montgomery took place on Highway 80, a road that traverses Alabama’s Black Belt and narrows to two lanes east of Selma, when it enters Lowndes County. The court order permitting the demonstration stated only three hundred marchers could pass along this section of the road, as one lane had to be left open for traffic. Most of the spots were given to locals, with a few dozen reserved for King’s entourage and other visitors and dignitaries. Not among those three hundred selected was Stokely Carmichael, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, one of the leading civil rights groups of the day. But he went to Lowndes anyway, with Bob Mants, another SNCC member who had stood in the second line of protestors—immediately behind John Lewis—during the infamous Bloody Sunday attack on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“We trailed that march,” Carmichael later recalled. “Every time local folks came out, we’d sit and talk with them, get their names, find out where they lived, their address, what church, who their ministers were, like that. So all the information, everything, you’d need to organize, we got.”
Lowndes County—where, incidentally, Selma director Ava DuVernay spent her summers while growing up—was rigidly segregated and feudal. Twelve thousand of its 15,000 residents in 1965 were African American. Many worked as tenant farmers on plantations or commuted to domestic jobs in Montgomery. County politics was a strictly white affair since blacks were barred from registering to vote; there was no record of a single African American voting in Lowndes County in the twentieth century.
Carmichael and Mants returned to Lowndes on March 27, 1965—two days after the march to Montgomery ended. They were joined by three others from SNCC. While the organization had canvassed in the area before, these early efforts were looser or less systematic, “a little more scatter gun,” according to Judy Richardson, who was among those visiting the county that day. “What the march allowed us to do was get into better contact with folks who were already activated, who had already thought about organizing around voter registration in Lowndes County.”
In the coming weeks Richardson and the others knocked on doors and met with people, often early in the morning, to review electoral procedures and encourage turnout at mass meetings. They lived in Selma to start, until a couple, Emma and Mathew Jackson, Sr., donated a house for their use. Its four rooms made for a spartan headquarters. The structure sat on cinderblocks, was equipped with one butane heater but no refrigerator or plumbing, and its roof was so shoddy organizers were obliged to carry pots into bed each time it rained.
But comfort was the least of their concerns, for the specter of mob violence trailed their every move. In August of 1965, Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian from New England who attended the march to Montgomery and stayed in Alabama to help SNCC, was gunned down in Hayneville in Lowndes County. Anyone providing help to SNCC faced retaliation. Shots were fired into the Jacksons’ home, and their sixteen year-old son lost his job as a bus driver for sharing the activists’ leaflets with his passengers. Sharecroppers who had been seen at mass meetings or tried to register were sent eviction notices.