Compelling Civil Rights Story

Jeffries_BloodyI have long been captivated by stories of the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up in a rural Mississippi county with a complicated history of oppression, racism, protest, mass movement, individual courage, profound change, and unmet expectations. My sister Emilye Crosby, a professor of history at Geneseo College in Geneseo, New York, wrote a book about this history, A Little Taste of Freedom. A few years ago, shortly after her book was published, I attended a conference in our hometown with Emilye and met Hasan Jeffries, a young academic working on a history of Lowndes County, Alabama. About a month ago, Emilye gave me a newly minted, newly signed copy of Hasan’s book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. I devoured it.

jeffries57This book tells a complicated story, but it is one well worth digging into. The African Americans of Lowndes County, with on-site support from members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), formed an independent political party called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. One of the SNCC organizers was Stokely Carmichael and the party’s symbol was a black panther. The work that went into party formation, voter registration, candidate recruitment, voter education, and campaigning galvanized African Americans who had for years faced terrible violence at any press for equal treatment under the law or push for economic opportunity.

The education efforts around local government could serve as models for engaging civics lessons today. Unfortunately, the lesson — completely learned¬† — includes the limitations of representative democracy, the human flaws of elected officials, and the endurance of economic inequality. Dr. Jeffries has written an important book. It provides context for decisions about whether to work within the two-party structure or form an independent party, how class and social stature affect people’s willingness to form alliances and take risks, and for the much better known, but perhaps as poorly understood, Black Panther Party that Carmichael later led.

A few weeks ago, Dr. Jeffries and Emilye were both in Mississippi for an oral history workshop and the three of us had lunch together. He shared stories of his many research trips to Lowndes County, how each one led to more information, a different group of people, and a different take on the same events. He will be back in Mississippi in October at The Fannie Lou Hamer Institute at Jackson State University. A reading/signing will be held Wednesday, October 7, at Lemuria bookstore in Jackson.

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