The Little-Known Roots of ‘Black Power’

Sixties-era Lowndes County, Alabama, explains much about race and voting rights in America today.

arial shot of Lowndes County
Lowndes County, seen here in "Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power" (Greenwich Entertainment)

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A new documentary, Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, looks at a pivotal chapter of the civil-rights movement that shaped how we think and talk about race in America to this day. The film, inspired by the work of the Atlantic senior editor Vann R. Newkirk II, comes to select theaters and streaming platforms on December 2. (You can watch the trailer here.) I spoke with Vann about how the legacy of Lowndes County informs the present.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

“Bloody Lowndes”

Kelli María Korducki: You say in the documentary that “to understand why we’re having conversations about reparations, and why the racial wealth gap exists, you can do no better than looking back at Lowndes County.” Why is that?

Vann R. Newkirk II: Lowndes was a majority-Black county in Alabama, and yet it was ruled by a white elite who saw that it was conducive to their own interests to not allow those people who lived there to vote, to have a say. That fact still reverberates through the outcomes in the county today. You still see very high poverty rates and lower life expectancies than in other places.

We like to think about this history of racial oppression in America as being something that was a very long time ago, in black-and-white pictures. The filmmakers Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir talked to people who are still alive—not just living, but vibrant presences—who were in Lowndes County as grown adults and were not able to vote. And so you can see through their lifetimes, through the trajectories of living people, both the historical wound and how it’s manifested in the present.

Kelli: Lowndes County’s chapter in the civil-rights movement isn’t as well-known as others, but it is, as you note, monumental in shaping that story. Can you explain why it was so influential?

Vann: A lot of the history of the movement is told in spaces that aren’t so extreme as Lowndes County. They’re in the South and things are bad, but in the first part of the 20th century, Lowndes is a place where you have a strong majority-Black population that is ruled by this almost feudal elite—and ruled not benevolently, but by a regime of naked violence, of lynchings and beatings and brutality, that keeps people in check by fear alone. Its nickname at the time was “Bloody Lowndes.”

Then there’s the Stokely Carmichael connection. Stokely (later known as Kwame Ture) was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when they were in Lowndes County. When he left the chairmanship, he became a sort of an adviser for the founding of the Black Panther Party. And they took their inspiration from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which had used the black panther as a symbol. They chose that as a symbol because it was sort of intimidating, and it showed that they were trying to seize power for themselves. That message—the icon and the symbolism there—inspired Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale and their comrades in California to found the Black Panthers.

Kelli: Where does Lowndes County fit into today’s conversations about race and anti-Black racism in America?

Vann: First of all, although these events happened after the Voting Rights Act was instituted in the U.S. [in 1965]—these were people organizing under the auspices of seizing rights that were newly guaranteed to them by the Voting Rights Act, but being denied by white citizens—it’s unclear that, if people had not initiated campaigns like the ones in Lowndes County, if we actually would have a clear understanding of what the VRA did and who it protected.

One important thing to know about the Voting Rights Act is that a lot of our understanding of what it can and can’t do is based on enforcement, after people like the Lowndes County Freedom Organization chose to make themselves heard. So it wasn’t an automatic thing, like “We passed the VRA; you guys can vote now, and let’s call it a day.”

Beyond that, if you really think about the trajectory of our discourse around race, you think about the importance that, say, the Black Panthers have had: the meaningfulness of “Black Power” as a slogan, and how it created a new racial pride among Black folks. The fact that we even call Black folks “Black”—that wasn’t a given. It came out of Black Power, both the slogan and the organizing principle it became. And that was rooted in Lowndes County.

Kelli: If there’s any one thing that you would hope that people who see this documentary come away with, what would that be?

Vann: The most important thing is that the filmmakers were talking to living people, people who themselves witnessed intense brutality and murder in the name of just trying to exercise the right to vote—you know, the one thing that we are told is the most American right. So many portrayals and presentations of the civil-rights movement give us the sense that it’s a bygone era. But being able to see these people’s faces, seeing what they’re still carrying with them, should prompt us all to think about and reconsider our assumptions about how durable democracy is, and what it takes to create and defend a democracy. Or whether we even live in a democracy. Those are the questions that I hope people who watch the film will think about.


Today’s News
  1. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point—its sixth interest-rate increase this year.
  2. Emails sent by Trump’s lawyers reveal that they viewed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as their best chance at delaying the certification of the 2020 election by issuing an order that would cast doubt on Georgia’s results.
  3. Russia announced that it is rejoining the UN-brokered Black Sea grain initiative after pulling out of the deal a few days ago.


Evening Read
The Phillie Phanatic baseball team mascot.
(Hunter Martin / Getty)

The Phillie Phanatic’s Biggest Phan

By Elaine Godfrey

I do not care much for America’s pastime.

Maybe it’s my Millennial attention span or my general aversion to spitting, but for me, the sport is hard to watch. Every inning lasts an eternity, and sitting through nine of them is like waiting for Astroturf to grow. Still, I will admit to enjoying a few things about baseball. I have always loved hot dogs and sitting outside with friends. I love the pink glow of the sunset over Community Field in my hometown. I love that scene in Field of Dreams where Doc saves the little girl and Shoeless Joe tells him he was good.

And more than anything, I love the Phillie Phanatic.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
A portrait of filmmaker James Gray
Filmmaker James Gray. (Mark Sommerfeld / NYT / Redux)

Read. A poem for Wednesday, by Virginia Konchan.

"Overwatered the fire lilies. / Underwatered the aloe. / Prayed to the sun god / to dispel my gloom."

Watch. James Gray’s new film, Armageddon Time (in some theaters), a movie suffused with both love and guilt.

Play our daily crossword.


Vann suggested some related reading by Stokely Carmichael—or, as he made sure to emphasize, “Atlantic contributor Stokely Carmichael.”

“We published an excerpt from Black Power, the book by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, called ‘Dynamite.’ It's in our archive,” Vann explained. You can read that excerpt, which was originally published in the October 1967 issue of the magazine, here.

Vann also moderated a riveting panel discussion on Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power at The Atlantic Festival in September. Footage of the event can be found on the magazine’s YouTube channel, and it’s well worth a watch.

— Kelli

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.