The American Historian

A History We Can Use: “Freedom Politics” for “We the People”

Emilye Crosby

Editor's Note: This is an expanded version of the article that appears in the print edition of this issue. This version includes a detailed section of more digital resources available for teaching the civil rights movement and the beginning of a document-based lesson on the Voting Rights Act and the beginning of Black Power using Lowndes County, Alabama, as a case study, which can be found in its entirety at Teaching for Change.

In April 2020, Wisconsin voters faced a stark choice between risking their lives and accepting disfranchisement.[1] While many people were dismayed and angered as fellow citizens caught between the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic and politically-charged court decisions were forced into this awful decision, it has not been that long since African Americans collectively faced similar choices. Throughout much of the rural South, trying to vote—or even register to vote—required tremendous risk.[2] Unfortunately, most of my students know very little about this history and, having been spoon-fed a superficial story of race in the United States, most assume that whatever problems did exist were taken care of by the civil rights movement. One white student explained that he came to college convinced the worst thing African Americans experienced in Jim Crow was separate water fountains.[3] Textbooks reinforce the idea that a nonviolent movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to convince white people of good will to embrace racial equality. In this telling, the 1965 Voting Rights Act marks a triumphant end to the movement, where racism is conquered except for a few obvious Klan types.

This version of history makes it hard for students to understand the continuing link between race and voter suppression today or the steady stream of racist killings they see in news headlines and their social media feeds. If they accept the typical textbook portrayal of a country steadily expanding rights and eliminating racial (and other) barriers, how can they make sense of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African Americans and other racial minorities? How can they understand persistent race-based economic inequality and housing discrimination? Or why most of them attend schools that are largely segregated and unequal, with resource levels linked to race (something they may need help to recognize)?[4] Like the dispatcher who answered a 911 call about Ahmaud Arbery, shortly before he was lynched in the midst of his daily jog, they might ask the obvious question: "what was he doing wrong?." And what was Breonna Taylor, a young Black EMT, "doing wrong," that Louisville police killed her in her own apartment, after she and her boyfriend had gone to bed? 

These are just the latest in-your-face examples that made the news. But anyone who is paying attention is seeing one case after another of black people—including some of our students—confronted, challenged, arrested, attacked, and worse for studying, drinking coffee, making a delivery, going to a store, swimming, jogging, or, essentially, living-while-black.[5] Our students, hampered by narratives of progress and the threadbare myth of a post-racial society, desperately need information and tools for developing a more complex grasp of history and how it has set the stage for the persistent racism that shapes the present and which, without intervention, will limit our collective future.

Author's note: As I was finishing this essay, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police as bystanders filmed and pleaded on his behalf. As readers almost certainly know, the cumulative weight of police and vigilante murders along with the persistence of structural racism, clearly evidenced in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, triggered intense, sustained, and ongoing (as of this writing) protests across the country and throughout the world. These events made the above paragraph out-of-date before the essay was finalized. As I considered how to respond, I discussed it with several SNCC veterans whose history is at the heart of this essay and the work it is based on. While the current moment demands a response, we thought that leaving the paragraph as is, rather than revising, might be a more appropriate way to acknowledge the incessant, unrelenting nature of these murders and other racist encounters. It is horrifyingly impossible to remain current. Other Black men recently killed by police include Tony McDade, Dion Johnson, and Dreasjon “Sean” Reed. And now: Rayshard Brooks.
 

As we grapple with the challenges of "remote learning" and the many other disruptions that have accompanied COVID-19, some people may find "A Documents-Based Lesson on the Voting Rights Act: A Case Study of SNCC's Work in Lowndes County and the Emergence of Black Power" a useful digital resource for working with students on this history and helping them understand how it connects to today's world.[6] Developed with Teaching for Change to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, this case study uses primary sources to help students strengthen their close reading and analytical skills while engaging in the questions and debates that occupy professional historians. In Lowndes County, Alabama, the 80 percent African American community worked with the college-aged organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "Snick") to reverse almost a century of political disfranchisement, but this alliance between SNCC and local people in Lowndes wasn't just about voting or even electing African Americans to office. Historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries explains that SNCC linked their "egalitarian organizing methods" with the people's civil and human rights goals to create what he calls "freedom politics."[7]

Inner page of a pamphlet about the Lowndes election. SNCC uses the competing images of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization Black Panther and the Alabama Democratic Party White Rooster to catch voters' attention, while describing the LCFO's work and goals, what Hasan Kwame Jeffries calls “freedom politics."
 

Students in my upstate New York classroom—most of whom have never heard of Lowndes and for whom rural Alabama might as well be another world—are drawn to this history of ordinary people acting on their hopes for a better life, while learning new skills and making real some our country's foundational ideals. Claire Ruswick reflected that the Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP) demonstrated that "it is possible to have the kind of political participation and organizing necessary to form a government that actually represents the people" and added that the LCFP example was a much more helpful narrative of democratic possibility than the George Washington story typically emphasized with young children.[8] Despite its distance from most of their lives and experiences, the Lowndes history helps my students imagine themselves as historical actors, making it ideal for this moment rife with feelings of uncertainty and helplessness. 

Whether the issues at the heart of this history seem familiar or new to our students, the central lessons of grassroots organizing, leadership development, and the potential for ordinary people to have some say in their lives—what is often referred to as the “organizing tradition”—couldn't be more relevant in today's world.[9] With the broad-based Movement for Black Lives—including relatively new, youth-driven groups like the Dream Defenders and BYP100, and their older siblings such as the Highlander Research and Education Center and Southerners on New Ground—leading the way, the egalitarian, organizing approach that SNCC utilized so effectively in Lowndes has been growing in visibility and popularity.[10] The 2016 election further intensified and expanded emphasis on grassroots organizing and citizen action while drawing more attention to what remains a fierce struggle over access to the ballot.[12] Students interested in taking action on the issues of the day—whether racial justice, climate change, gun violence, or something else—are likely to find useful insights and inspiration in this history as well as a better understanding of our nation's past.

The sense of efficacy inspired by the achievements of other "ordinary people" is reinforced in this case by an emphasis on skills development. As much as possible, I want my students to learn history by being historians. This seems even more important when the content they are learning challenges what they have absorbed from popular culture and when we are all navigating an overwhelming abundance of information. Assuming access to a computer and highspeed internet (which COVID-19 reminds us we can't and shouldn't assume), within seconds of searching for almost anything, our students have at their fingertips what might feel like an oppressive mountain of information and possibilities, ranging from excellent to awful. Whether we are talking about history or the news, how can we help students process, prioritize, assess, and use information?

The first page of a SNCC political education pamphlet preparing new voters for the May 1966 primary election in Lowndes County, Alabama, where the Lowndes County Freedom Organization gained enough votes to become an official independent political party and earned a spot on the Fall ballot. The mainstream press began calling the Lowndes County Freedom Organization the "Black Panther Party” and lectured SNCC and their local allies for supposedly turning their back on the Democratic Party to build an independent party that they characterized as separatist and violent. SNCC and Lowndes activists stayed focused on local issues, vividly illustrating the electoral stakes by pointing to the slogan representing the Alabama Democratic Party, “white supremacy for the right.”
 

With the trend toward flashy and fast where we spend much of our time skimming and scrolling, it can be quite valuable to help our students slow down and dig in. There are no quick fixes, but historical thinking skills will help students sift through the options, thoughtfully consider competing interpretations, identify and reject superficial accounts and "fake news," and develop their own evidence-based interpretations. As students gain confidence in their ability to analyze, synthesize, and interpret the primary sources from Lowndes County, they will be more prepared to assess and work with a wide range of information. Having used primary sources to learn about Lowndes and, in the process, rethink their understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and history more broadly, they will be more independent and better citizens.

The Lowndes story is also rich for introducing and exploring the kinds of questions crucial to the study of history. The Voting Rights Act is a useful hook for helping students think about top-down and bottom-up approaches to history and for considering chronology, periodization, and the intersection between national and local. What was more significant—the Voting Rights Act or the mass action that forced President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to act? Should we understand the Voting Rights Act as the end of the movement or a useful tool in the continuing struggle? Students might consider whether this is primarily a story of continuity or change and if the Lowndes movement is better understood as civil rights or Black Power. Is that even a helpful question or the best approach? The conceptual framework of "freedom rights" that Jeffries developed through his analysis of Lowndes County from Reconstruction to the present offers one way to help students go beyond dichotomies to think carefully about goals and tactics over time.

Lowndes's location directly between Montgomery and Selma, both of which are closely associated with Dr. King, begs for comparison. Students can contrast SNCC's organizing approach, which opened up leadership to women and others typically overlooked, with King's preference for mobilizing through the hierarchical leadership of well-educated men. Students can also dig into the effectiveness of nonviolence as a philosophy and tactic in Lowndes. Hint: neither was particularly relevant or helpful and, as in so much of the rural South, armed self-defense was an obvious and essential tool that helped people live long enough to pursue freedom through a wide range of tactics. This offers a great opening for a concrete and precise discussion of tactics that can help move students beyond a vague assumption that a ubiquitous (but often poorly defined) "nonviolence" was the movement tactic. A King-centric version of the movement tends to dominate most popular accounts, but the rural experience epitomized by Lowndes may be more typical. While Lowndes is representative in this sense, its particular history is also as significant as any of King's major victories.[12]

Lowndes County, Alabama, woman with a typical weapon used for self-defense. (1965). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Look magazine, Photograph Collection, LC Look-Job 65-2434

It is hard to imagine what could be more important to understand at this moment than the story of ordinary people claiming their right to vote and using it collectively for the good of their community. Some people may also know that the well-known Oakland Black Panther Party was inspired by and named for the LCFP's snarling Black Panther ballot symbol and informal name. This connection can help introduce students to a couple more key pieces of this history—the persistence and pervasiveness of structural inequality, evident in both rural Alabama and urban California, and the role Lowndes played in launching Black Power. While for many people Black Power is defined by the urban North and Stokely Carmichael's powerful oratory, Carmichael's public call for Black Power was rooted in SNCC's less visible but equally powerful organizing in the rural South.[13] Lowndes, which played a critical role in SNCC's thinking about Black Power, can be especially effective for introducing students to Black Power when done with an explicit exploration of white power. In Lowndes, that included a sheriff who deputized virtually every white man over twenty-one—to be a white man was to be "the law"—and a Democratic party that embraced the slogan, "white supremacy for the right."[14]

SNCC field secretary Stokely Carmichael, best known for his public pronouncements on Black Power, played a central role in organizing the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. He is pictured here with a Lowndes County resident at the May 3, 1966 primary.

This introduction to white power works extremely well in conjunction with a discussion of de jure and de facto racism. With the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the movement was fairly successful at defeating de jure segregation and voting disfranchisement but, of course, what we call "de facto segregation"—which should be more accurately understood as institutionalized racism—remained. The Lowndes case study, together with a few earlier documents, provides a focused and manageable way to explore race-based structural inequality at exactly the moment when students have been taught to think the country has vanquished racism. This can transform students' understanding of what the movement did and didn't accomplish while providing a starting place for understanding persistent systemic white supremacy. 

In Lowndes County today, movement activists and those inspired by the 1960s movement continue to organize around a range of issues connected to racial and economic justice, while many SNCC veterans remain committed to the struggle and intensely interested in documenting and sharing their history. For example, SNCC organizers Courtland Cox and Jennifer Lawson—who developed a variety of political education materials, including "Us Colored People," which used a comic book format to teach previously disfranchised people in Lowndes about politics—were among the cofounders of the SNCC Legacy Project and one of its key projects, the SNCC Digital Gateway (SDG).[15] Students and teachers will find compelling and extensive resources on the Lowndes movement at the SNCC Digital Gateway, including a panel on "Organizing Lowndes County: Then & Now," that brings Cox and Lawson together with Catherine Flowers, director of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise CDC, Inc. A child during the 1960s movement, Flowers was strongly influenced by SNCC and today uses the organizing tradition to tackle "the root causes of poverty."[16] The SDG's “Today” section features SNCC veterans and (other) contemporary activists addressing persistent organizing questions, while the site's “Resources” section includes a number of panels featuring activists interacting across generations, ranging from SNCC to the Movement for Black Lives and more. (See Gateway Conversations and 2018 Closing Events.)[17]

Jennifer Lawson, a SNCC organizer who helped develop political education materials and who is currently working with the SNCC Legacy Project and the SNCC Digital Gateway, is pictured here in 1966 in front of the SNCC Freedom House, Lowndes County, Alabama. Photo by SNCC photographer Doug Harris, courtesy Jennifer Lawson.

The murder of George Floyd and the crowds of people pouring into the streets to demand justice—even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and possible violence from militarized police—provide forceful and poignant reminders of the persistence of structural racism and the determination of people to secure their human and civil rights.[18] While much of the nation's attention has focused on high profile police killings and urban protest, the issues are many and vary from community to community. In some of the rural communities that SNCC organized, the rallying cry "I can't breathe" reflects both the ongoing struggle for resources and opportunity and the intense fight for literal survival in the face of COVID-19. At the end of May 2020, for example, Lowndes had the state's highest rates of both COVID-19 infection and unemployment, while Southwest Georgia—where SNCC established one of its pivotal long-term projects—was among the nation's first rural COVID-19 hotspots. This outbreak was exacerbated by limited access to health care and rapid spread in poultry plants where workers already faced difficult working conditions and low pay.[19] Meanwhile, the demonstrations have spread to all fifty states and over 850 cities, as across the country people are standing up and defiantly refusing to accept the status quo.[20] In this fraught moment, the lessons we can learn from SNCC and the "ordinary" people they worked with are more important than ever. This history provides necessary context and useful tools for the work of building a society that really is grounded in “freedom politics” for "we the people."[21]

Digital Resources

One good place to start for digital resources for teaching social movement history and supplementing this case study is with Teaching for Change and their Zinn Education Project (jointly coordinated with Rethinking Schools). They worked with me to create and host "A Documents-Based Lesson on the Voting Rights Act: A Case Study of SNCC's Work in Lowndes County and the Emergence of Black Power" and have many additional lessons and resources for teachers. The Lowndes case study's resources section, updated and expanded in conjunction with this essay, includes suggestions for digital and other materials useful for teaching about Lowndes, SNCC, structural inequality, and other key themes.[22]

While some may find the Civil Rights Movement Archive or CRMvet.org site outdated and a little challenging to navigate, this labor of love created by movement veterans is an invaluable resource and was my go to place for the primary sources in this case study. I especially appreciate the photographs and extensive documents, while students often enjoy learning more about movement veterans and their thinking about past and present.[23] The Civil Rights History Project (CRHP), a joint effort of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), has almost 150 videotaped oral history interviews with movement veterans, including SNCC organizers Courtland Cox and Jennifer Lawson, who developed the important "Us Colored People" comic and other political education materials used in Lowndes County and this case study. The CRHP partners have other digital resources that might be of use to teachers, including the LOC's online exhibition, "The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom," that combines primary sources, historical context, and links to audiovisual materials and public programs. The NMAAHC's digital resources expand access to their exhibitions and include images of the almost 1000 items in their Civil Rights Movement collection. [24]

The Wisconsin Historical Society's Freedom Summer project is a rich resource for teachers and students that, despite its focus on Mississippi in 1964, has some engaging Lowndes documents. A few items that caught my eye in a quick search include a Southern Patriot article with a photo of Mrs. Alice Moore, an LCFP candidate for tax assessor who campaigned on the slogan "tax the rich to feed the poor," and a draft version of "Us Colored People" (which was recently auctioned for over $3,000 while authors Jennifer Lawson and Courtland Cox, who generously gave copies away to anyone who asked, search for a quality copy that can be used for reprinting).[25]

The most relevant digital resource and one that should be of considerable interest to anyone interested in studying, teaching, or learning more about the Civil Rights Movement or organizing today is the SNCC Digital Gateway, mentioned above. Subtitled, “Learn from the Past, Organize for the Future, Make Democracy Work,” the website is a collaboration of SNCC veterans, Duke University, and movement scholars (including me) that uses an inside out, bottom-up approach led by movement veterans. The SDG is built around hundreds of approximately 500-word profiles of people, organizations, events, and aspects of SNCC's work that include embedded primary sources.[26] The profiles at the heart of the site are found in People, Timeline, and Inside SNCC sections. The Map section shows all of the SNCC projects and clicking on a location leads to a curated set of people and of events housed under the Timeline section. Similarly, the home page offers those interested in the central themes of the Organizing Tradition, Voting Rights, and Black Power a starting place with a set of carefully chosen profiles of (often lesser-known) people and events. The extensive profiles throughout are supplemented by SNCC veteran-curated materials housed in the Our Voices section, including gems like Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer's autobiography, "To Praise Our Bridges," and SNCC-created filmstrips, including one on the Delano, California farm workers strike, created at the request of their counterparts organizing the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union.[27] The Today section offers short audiovisual pieces featuring SNCC veterans and contemporary activists discussing ways they approach crucial issues, while the Resources section includes recordings of recent conference panels and public presentations, some of them featuring intergenerational conversations. Teachers might find the Digital Primary Sources page in the Resources section especially helpful, with its links to almost two dozen websites housing digital collections of primary documents.[28]

For those interested in learning more about SNCC’s work in Lowndes, one obvious starting place on the SNCC Digital Gateway is to locate the county on the Map of SNCC projects. Whether you start there or with the People or Timeline sections, you will find relevant profiles of key people and events. Visitors can read about SNCC's first foray into the community, their voter registration work, and several key moments in the LCFP's evolution, along with Stokely Carmichael's election as SNCC's chair just weeks after the Lowndes County Freedom Organization held its first primary election. Carmichael, Lawson, Cox, and SNCC organizer Bob Mants, who made Lowndes his home, are profiled in the People section, along with Lowndes activists Lillian McGill (a key organizer), the Jackson family (which provided SNCC their first home in Lowndes and became their movement family), and John Hulett (the first African American in Lowndes to register to vote and the first elected sheriff since Reconstruction), among others. Hulett's powerful May 1966 speech in California is one of the key documents at the heart of the case study.[29]

Most of the SDG entries link to more content within the site and embed primary sources with links to their home repositories. Here users can read them in context and further explore the sometimes extensive digital collections of project partners. In addition to documents, the site is filled with movement era photographs and links to rich audiovisual materials. For example, the website draws on material from three SNCC conferences organized by SNCC veterans in 1988, 2000, and 2010. Recordings of the full 1988 and 2000 conferences are available on the Digital Primary Sources page in the Resources section, while the 38 DVDs from the 2010 conference can be purchased from California Newsreel (with streaming options) or streamed through Films on Demand. Both the 1988 and 2010 SNCC conferences featured panels that discussed the Lowndes County movement. Students might also find the 1988 session on Women in SNCC especially noteworthy as SNCC women took on and challenged the ways they had been portrayed by scholars--an issue that remains of concern to many SNCC women. While the SNCC 40th anniversary conference (2000) didn't have any panels specific to Lowndes or Alabama, it was organized around Ella Baker, the organization's political mother, and can help students understand how and why SNCC developed the organizing approach that was so central to the LCFP's "freedom politics." In addition to using a wide range of existing interviews and recordings, the SNCC Digital Gateway project created new audiovisual material that included individual and group oral history interviews and panel discussions. This content can be found embedded throughout the Our Voices and Resources sections.[30]

The Inside SNCC section is devoted to the inside story of the organization. The "Story of SNCC," written by SNCC veteran and SDG participant Charlie Cobb, offers a seven-part introduction and overview of the organization's history, while topics like the Freedom Schools and Freedom Singing, located under the subheading Culture and Education, are profiled with primary source links.[31] Several pages in the Inside SNCC section expand on Lowndes. For example, the Lowndes County Freedom Party is profiled under Alliances & Relationships, while SNCC's extensive political education efforts in Lowndes are featured on the Political and Economic Education page of the Culture and Education subsection. In addition to sharing a copy of "Us Colored People," this profile includes background about why and how SNCC used the cartoon format for political education.[32] While profiles make up most of the Inside SNCC section, there are several pages that feature AV, including an almost 11 minute original profile of Ella Baker titled "Bigger than a Hamburger" found on the Mentors & Local People page.[33] In addition, the SNCC Culture subsection features almost 30 short videos—many of them quite funny—of SNCC veterans talking about the organization's internal culture or what it meant to be "SNCCy."[34] While the People section and events (found under the Timeline section) might seem like a more recognizable and accessible starting point for exploring, the Inside SNCC section offers a rich and nuanced introduction to the organization through the lens of the people who made it. The examples I have offered here barely scratch the surface. Among other things, this section would be a great starting place for students looking for paper or thesis topics and for activists looking for a concrete introduction to movement culture and the work of organizing.

The Our Voices section, which doesn't follow the profile plus primary source format, was curated by SNCC veterans working closely with project staff and is worth exploring in some detail. The Learning from Experience subsection houses the film strips and Hamer autobiography mentioned above. While my students find all of the elements of Our Voices compelling, women and gender remain of particular interest. A good place to start for more on Women in SNCC is with two 13 minute pieces curated by Judy Richardson, a SNCC veteran, Eyes on the Prize producer, and co-editor of Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts By Women in SNCC. The short films are accompanied by context and links to a few relevant People and event profiles.[35] Our Voices also includes several five part subsections related to Lowndes. The Black Panther section highlights SNCC's work in Lowndes through embedded AV clips and primary sources, including political education materials.[36] The Lowndes County section explores this history through project team interviews with local activists—past and present—and includes one page featuring Unfinished Business.[37] The Our Voices section on the Emergence of Black Power addresses Lowndes in its Political and Economic Power subsection.[38] Finally, as mentioned above, the Resources section has a range of useful materials, including a page with links to important collections of digital primary sources and recordings of both the 2018 Closing Events (related to the SDG grant) and Gateway Conversations. In addition to those already mentioned, the latter includes a 2015 intergenerational conference on Voting Rights that brought together activists from a 50 year span. You can also find three podcast episodes spearheaded by younger activists involved in the broader SDG project, a bibliography of books by SNCC veterans, and, for those interested in similar projects, a paper on Lessons Learned, titled"Building Partnerships Between Activists and the Academy.[39]



A Documents-Based Lesson on the Voting Rights Act: A Case Study of SNCC's Work in Lowndes County and the Emergence of Black Power

Introduction and Context

The Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law on August 6, 1965, was a significant victory for the Civil Rights Movement, southern African Americans, and American democracy. It outlawed many of the strategies that had been used by white supremacists to disfranchise Black citizens and included provisions to facilitate the registration of new voters. The Justice Department implemented a pre-approval process for potentially discriminatory voting laws and had the authority to send federal poll watchers into communities to monitor key elections. Together with the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) ended most of the remaining legal forms of white supremacy. Although this was tremendously important, it did not end all forms of racial discrimination, many of which were—and are—strongly embedded in the structures of our society.

Especially in the years immediately after its passage, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act remained a big problem and white supremacists continued to use their economic and political power, along with extra-legal violence, to intimidate potential Black voters. In many ways, however, with the implementation and enforcement of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the issues facing African Americans in the South and North became more similar and included longstanding problems of educational segregation and inequality, employment and housing discrimination, and police brutality. (Unfortunately, many of these problems remain today, 50 years after this landmark legislation.) African Americans, South and North, used the vote as one tool among many to organize for full equality and self-determination.

TEXTBOOK APPROACH

Most textbooks and narrative histories of the Civil Rights Movement portray the Voting Rights Act as both a major victory and the end of the Civil Rights Movement. They tend to shift their focus away from the South and turn their attention to urban riots/ rebellions and Black Power, which they typically connect to Malcolm X, the Oakland-based Black Panther Party, and sometimes Stokely Carmichael. Whether textbooks use the Voting Rights Act or the assassination of Dr. King to mark the end of the movement, they generally have little to say about civil rights organizing after 1965. In addition, most authors identify what happens after the Voting Rights Act as a negative shift — from the good, southern Civil Rights Movement to the bad, northern Black Power movement.

There are a number of problems with this. It tends to obscure some of the common goals and interconnections between the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and mis-characterize them both, but especially Black Power. Ending the story with the enactment of this legislation — even though it was extremely important — also downplays how much work remained on important issues (some of which are still unresolved). To quote Courtland Cox, one of the young activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), the vote was “necessary but not sufficient.” See here for more information on SNCC.

Lesson Description

This lesson uses a case study of Lowndes County, Alabama and three SNCC-related documents from the early 1960s — just before and after the Voting Rights Act — to explore the impact of the Voting Rights Act (and 1964 Civil Rights Act) on every day southern Black citizens: What did the legislation mean to them? Did they achieve their goals? The way textbooks present the Voting Rights Act, it is easy to imagine that the new law took care of all remaining problems over night. Was that true?

The reading choices and questions below are drawn from work I have done with students over the past twenty years of teaching at SUNY Geneseo. I have used these assignments in a variety of classes on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, as well as ones focused on the skills of writing, historical interpretation, and historical research. I have honed this material over time and find that students respond extremely well to these particular documents and to the sets of questions I have included here. The questions are critical for helping students analyze and understand the specifics so they can then use the details to make sense of the larger issues that are historically significant.

Many of the key aspects of this lesson challenge the “master narrative” presented by most textbooks and help students begin to understand the complexity of history. It also introduces students to “real people” and strengthens their skills. I generally find that students are much more receptive to rethinking (or learning new) history that challenges what they’ve been previously taught (or learned through popular culture) when they are doing the analytical work themselves. For this lesson, the content and approach are interrelated. When it works well it can also help students feel a stronger sense of efficacy. Not only do they begin to feel more confident in their own academic ability, they are learning about young people (and others generally dismissed by society) taking the lead in making our country more small-d democratic.

OBJECTIVES

Using a close reading of the assigned documents, careful analysis, and guided discussion, teachers can help students do the following:

  • Be able to identify key goals of Civil Rights Movement activists and be able to recognize the continuity from the early 1960s through the period after the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
  • Be able to identify some of the issues or problems that were not resolved by the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. If desired, teachers can bring this up to the present. (See more information about the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.)
  • Identify specifically how white power worked in Lowndes County, Alabama, in the period immediately before and after the VRA (approximately 1965-66). Begin to think about how “white power” or white supremacy was the context for the emergence of Black Power.
  • Understand what the phrase Black Power meant to the people in SNCC who used and popularized it and how their understanding of Black Power was influenced by their work in Lowndes County.
  • Understand the need for different tactics in different situations. For example, what was tactically effective for desegregating a lunch counter probably would not work for voter registration.
  • Understand what historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries means by the phrase“freedom politics.” What is important about it in relation to SNCC and Lowndes County, Alabama? How does it differ from politics in Lowndes County before SNCC’s organizing? How does it differ from most politics in our country?

Background for Teachers

Before reading this background text and the rest of the lesson description, we recommend taking the time to print the student readings. They are a useful reference as you read the lesson. To facilitate the printing, here is a list of the readings. (The readings are also listed later in the lesson, along with descriptions and optional student questions.)

GRASSROOTS PERSPECTIVE

In some ways Lowndes County was typical, as one of many places where the VRA triggered local movements across the South organized around newly accessible voter registration and longstanding grievances. And clearly the Voting Rights Act was going to have a big impact on Lowndes because the community was 80 percent African American with no Black registered voters before its passage. (In contrast, more than 100% of eligible white voters were on the voting roll, one of the ways that whites tried to retain power.) But Lowndes was also particularly important because SNCC engaged in intensive organizing and political education with local Blacks. According to historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries, “SNCC organizers developed a unique political education program for Lowndes County residents that used workshops, mass meetings, and primers to increase general knowledge of local government and democratize political behavior.” (Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes, p. 145) As part of this effort, SNCC helped local Blacks organize the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, LCFO (later Lowndes County Freedom Party, LCFP), an independent political party. This alliance between SNCC and local people in Lowndes wasn’t just about voting or even politics as usual. Jeffries explains that SNCC linked their “egalitarian organizing methods” with the people’s civil and human rights goals to create what he calls “freedom politics,” an approach which rejected traditional American politics and instead emphasized acting on the community’s best interests. For example, the LCFP developed its platform before nominating candidates and the candidates who stepped forward reflected and came prepared to implement the community’s goals. (See student reading # 7 SNCC Political Education Materials and student reading # 8 by Jack Minnis, “Lowndes County Freedom Organization: The Story of the Development of an Independent Political Movement on the County Level.")

BLACK POWER

SNCC’s intensive organizing effort in Lowndes was also at the heart of their move toward Black Power in 1966 and this case study will help students understand the basis for Black Power. It emerged from SNCC’s southern organizing and was grounded in experience, not the angry rhetoric and emotional outbursts emphasized by textbooks. It is important for students to consider what Black Power meant to those who were using and publicizing the phrase. Moreover, when I teach Black Power, I always start with the white power structure. In Lowndes, in the period immediate before and after the voting Rights Act, white power is very obvious. Though they made up less than 20 percent of the population, whites held all elective offices and controlled the vast majority of the land. The sheriff deputized virtually every white man over 21, so to some extent, to be a white man was to be “the law.” (See student reading #4 by John Hulett, “How the Black Panther Party Was Organized.”)

I find that starting with the white power structure helps students avoid falling into some of the common misunderstandings of Black Power, including that it is “reverse racism.” In addition, people sometimes argue that civil rights activists turned their back on their white liberal allies, the national Democratic Party, and the country, just as they were achieving their goals (such as the CRA and VRA). In contrast, as students will learn, for most young people in SNCC, Black Power was a positive development that emerged from their collective experiences, culminating in the Lowndes County independent party organizing effort. Black Power included several key concepts. According to SNCC’s Courtland Cox, it meant 1) “the power to define oneself; 2) the power to control one’s own condition and vote to control one’s own community; and 3) the power to use politics to enhance one’s own economic condition.” (July 6, 2015, meeting of SLP-Duke Digital Gateway Editorial Board) (See also, Stokely Carmichael, “What We Want” excerpt.)

It is important for students to understand that there are distinct differences between “white power” or “white supremacy” and Black Power. White supremacy, which is intertwined with any form of “white power,” is about creating and maintaining advantages for whites. In our country it is linked to slavery and Jim Crow and has been nurtured and shaped by discriminatory legislation and enforced by intimidation and even terrorism. Black Power has been about developing ideas and institutions that are responsive to the Black community. Black Power is not anti-white, though it is an important means of organizing to resist and dismantle white supremacy.

Editor’s Note: You can find the remainder of the case study at Teaching for Change here:

https://www.civilrightsteaching.org/voting-rights/documents-based-lesson

Author

Emilye Crosby is the author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (2005) and editor of Civil Rights History from the Ground Up (2011). She is professor of history at SUNY Geneseo and currently working on a booklength project, “Anything I was big enough to do: Women and Gender in SNCC.” She recently published a teaching essay, "Not that Kind of Tired: Rosa Parks and Organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott," in Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement ed. Hasan Kwame Jeffries (2019).

Notes

[1] The title quote “Freedom Politics” draws on Hasan Kwame Jeffries’ work on Lowndes County, Alabama, while my use of “We the People” is inspired by the framing utilized by Robert “Bob” Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). See, Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in the Alabama Black Belt (2009); “We the People” presentation by Robert “Bob” Moses, for Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th,  http://freedom50.org/we-the-people/; Sarah Warman Hirschfield, “SNCC Activist Bob Moses on Political Organizing, the U.S. Constitution,” The Daily Princeton, April 8, 2018.

For their help, feedback, and wordsmithing, I thank Deborah Menkart, Jennifer Lawson, Karlyn Forner, Judy Richardson, Robyn Spencer, and Kathleen Connelly. I also extend my gratitude to the SNCC veterans whose organizing in Lowndes is at the heart of this work and Hasan Kwame Jeffries, whose work on Lowndes has enriched my teaching and is crucial for understanding this history. I also extend my thanks and appreciation to SNCC photographer Maria Varela for generously allowing the use of her photographs and to Jennifer Lawson for sharing a personal photograph depicting her organizing work in Lowndes.

[2] Carol Anderson, "Republicans Could Use the Coronavirus to Suppress Votes Across the Country. This Week We Got a Preview," Time, April 8, 2020; David W. Blight, "Trump Reveals the Truth About Voter Suppression," New York Times, April 11, 2020; Carol Anderson, One Person, No Vote (2018).

[3] Daniel Bailey, quoted in Emilye Crosby, ed., Civil Rights History from the Ground Up: Local Struggles, a National Movement (2011), 456. For more about how my students understand the movement, see Emilye Crosby, "Introduction. The Politics of Writing and Teaching Movement History" and Emilye Crosby, "Conclusion. 'Doesn't everybody want to grow up to be Ella Baker?': Teaching Movement History," in Civil Rights History from the Ground Up, 1-39, 448-476.

[4] For COVID-19, see Adam Serwer, "The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying," The Atlantic, May 8, 2020; Sabrina Strings, "It's Not Obesity. It's Slavery," New York Times, May 25, 2020. For housing and education, see Nikole Hannah-Jones, "Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law," Pro-publica, June 25, 2015; Nikole Hannah-Jones, "It Was Never About Busing," New York Times, July 12, 2019; Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations," The Atlantic, June 2014, 2020; Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated Schools (2017); Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (2019). 

[5] For Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, see Margaret Burnham, "Was Ahmaud Arbery Lynched and Why Does It Matter?," Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project blog, Northeastern University, May 9, 2020; Larry Hobbs, "Dispatcher: 'What was he doing wrong?,'" Brunswick News, April 29, 2020; Richard A. Oppel, Jr., "Here's What You Need to Know About Breonna Taylor's Death," New York Times, May 30, 2020. For a few examples addressing "living while black," see Nikita Stewart, "The White Dog Walker and #LivingWhileBlack in New York City," New York Times, May 30, 2020; Michael Harriot, "'White Caller Crime': The Worst Wypipo Police Calls of All Time," The Root, May 15, 2018.

[6] Emilye Crosby, "A Documents-Based Lesson on the Voting Rights Act: A Case Study of SNCC's work in Lowndes County and the Emergence of Black Power," Teaching for Change, Oct. 2015.

[7] Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes, esp. 4-8, 145, 177.

[8] Claire Ruswick, quoted in Crosby, Civil Rights History from the Ground Up, 459.

[9] Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995); Robert Parris Moses in We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle (1990), 73-76.

[10] For one discussion of current activists and the organizing tradition, see Barbara Ransby, "Ella Taught Me: Shattering the Myth of the Leaderless Movement," Colorlines, June 12, 2015. The original Movement for Black Lives platform, with partner organizations, is no longer online, but you can find some details in the following blog and articles, including embedded documents with parts of the platform. "A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice," New Economy Coalition blog, Aug. 2016; "Fighting for a New Systemic Vision: Demanding Racial Equality," Democratic Collaborative blog, Sept. 21, 2016; The Movement for Black Lives new website has begun to incorporate aspects of the original platform. See Movement for Black Lives. More information about the referenced organizations can be found at their websites: Dream Defenders; BYP100; Highlander Research and Education Center; and Southerners on New Ground.

[11] Anderson, "Republicans Could Use the Coronavirus to Suppress Votes Across the Country"; Blight, "Trump Reveals the Truth About Voter Suppression"; Anderson, One Person, No Vote; Nsé Ufot, "Black Voters Are Key Witnesses to Crimes Against Democracy," New York Times, May 19, 2020. The following are just a few of the organizations working to track and mitigate voter suppression and/ or engage, register, and organize current and prospective voters: the Brennan Center, Fair Fight, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Woke Vote.

[12] For Lowndes County, see Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes. For an essay on teaching about armed self-defense, see Emilye Crosby, "'This nonviolent stuff ain't no good. It'll get ya killed.': Teaching about Self-Defense in the African-American Freedom Struggle," in Teaching the Civil Rights Movement eds. Julie Buckner, Houston Roberson, Rhonda Y. Williams, Susan Holt (2002), 159-73. For a discussion of the double-standard that insists that African American protesters use only nonviolence, even as the media tends to give more attention to violence, see this response to the uprising following George Floyd's death at the heads of police officers. Elie Mystal, "People Can Only Bear So Much Injustice Before Lashing Out," Nation, May 28, 2020. For a particularly nuanced exploration of protests past and present that challenges the tendency to “sort protesters and their strategies into acceptable and unacceptable categories,” see Robyn Spencer, Premilla Nadasen, and Leith Mullen, Scholars for Social Justice Coordinating Committee members, “The Fire This Time,” Boston Review, June 8, 2020.

[13] Hasan Kwame Jeffries, "SNCC, Black Power, and Independent Political Party Organizing in Alabama, 1964-1966," Journal of African American History, 91 (Spring 2006), 171-93; Donna Jean Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (2011); Robyn Spencer, The Revolution Has come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland (2016).

[14] Crosby, "A Documents-Based Lesson on the Voting Rights Act.”

[15] For ongoing Lowndes County issues and activism, see Jeffries, “Epilogue: That Black Dirt Gets in Your Soul: The Fight for Freedom Rights in the Days Ahead,” Bloody Lowndes, 247-52; For SNCC veterans, see the SNCC Legacy Project; “About,” SNCC Digital Gateway. For “Us Colored People,” see “Political & Economic Education,” SNCC Digital Gateway.

[16“Organizing Lowndes—Then and Now” panel, “Gateway Conversations,” SNCC Digital Gateway; Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise CDC, Inc. Catherine Flowers, “Unfinished Business,” SNCC Digital Gateway.

[17“Today,” SNCC Digital Gateway. For intergenerational conversations, see, for example, “2015 Voting Rights Conference” in Gateway Conversations, SNCC Digital Gateway and Philip Agnew and Aja Monet, “So Who Are the Dream Defenders,” in “Dealing with Power,” SNCC Digital Gateway. Several panels, keynote presentations, and a concert as part of the 2018 Closing Events feature younger activists; see 2018 Closing Events, SNCC Digital Gateway.

[18] There has been a huge outpouring of scholarly analysis addressing the massive wave of protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. For a curated list that includes the current moment and some context, see, Trish Kahle, “Teaching in an Uprising: Readings on Race and Democracy,” Black Perspectives, June 2, 2020. See also, Spencer, Nadasen, and Mullen, “The Fire This Time”; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “How Do We Change America? The Quest to Transform this Country Cannot Be Limited to Challenging its Brutal Police,” The New Yorker, June 8, 2020; Michelle Alexander, “America, This Is Your Chance,” New York Times, June 8, 2020.

[19] Lydia Nusbaum, “Lowndes County Has Highest Rate of COVID-19, Unemployment in Alabama,” WFSA News, May 29, 2020; Ellen Barry, “Days after a Funeral in a Georgia Town, Coronavirus Hit ‘Like a Bomb,’” New York Times, March 30, 2020, accessed June 1, 2020; Jeremy Redmon, “Hundreds of Georgia Poultry Workers Have Tested Positive for COVID-19,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 29, 2020. For one example of many making a connection between George Floyd’s last words, the ongoing struggle over police brutality and structural inequality, and COVID-19’s attack on people’s ability to breathe, see William Barber, "America Must Listen to Its Wounds. They Will Tell Us Where to Look for Hope," The Guardian, May 30, 2020.

[20] Janie Haseman, Karina Zaiets, Mitchell Thorson, Carlie Procell, George Petras, and Shawn J. Sullivan, “Tracking Protests Across the USA in the Wake of George Floyd’s Death,” USA Today, June 11, 2020.

[21] For “Freedom Politics,” see Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes. For “We the People,” see Hirschfield, “SNCC Activist Bob Moses on Political Organizing, the U.S. Constitution.”

[22] Teaching for Change; Zinn Education Project; Rethinking Schools; Crosby, "A Documents-Based Lesson on the Voting Rights Act." 

[23] Civil Rights Movement Archive.

[24Civil Rights History ProjectThe Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom. National Museum of African American History and Culture. Civil Rights Movement collection.

[25The Wisconsin Historical Society’s Freedom Summer collection. For Mrs. Alice Moore, see Robert Analavage, “Anatomy of a Black Panther: What They’re Saying in Lowndes County,” Southern Patriot, Oct. 1966. Students may enjoy seeing a draft of Jennifer Lawson’s and Courtland Cox’s “Us Colored People.” The case study uses the final version. The final and two previous drafts are available at CRMVet.org. For the auction price, see Swann Galleries, Sale 2503, Lot 137, March 28, 2019, (Black Panthers.) Us Colored People. Price Realized $3250.

[26About—SNCC Digital Gateway.

[27] Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, “To Praise Our Bridges,” Our Voices—Learning from Experience—Part 5. “The Farm Workers Strike,” produced by Maria Varela, Our Voices—Learning from Experience—Part 4.

[28Today. "Gateway Conversations," SNCC Digital Gateway; "2018 Closing Events" SNCC Digital Gateway; "Digital Primary Sources," SNCC Digital Gateway.

[29"Map," SNCC Digital Gateway"Alabama,"  SNCC Digital Gateway; Timeline—Freedom Parties to Black Power, 1965-1969, SNCC Digital Gateway. 

[30] The Resources—Digital Primary Sources section includes links to the 1988 and 2000 conferences. You can go directly to the 1988 SNCC conference, held at Trinity College. “Alabama Bound” features Lowndes County activists, among others. The panel on SNCC women is also on this site. SNCC’s 40th anniversary conference on Ella Baker is housed at Duke University. Recordings of the SNCC 50th anniversary can be purchased at California Newsreel and are available in libraries and through Films on Demand. Some of the recordings generated by the project are available through the Resources page. See, "Resources—Gateway Conversations," and "Resources—2018 Closing Events," SNCC Digital Gateway.

[31] Charlie Cobb, “The Story of SNCC,” SNCC Digital Gateway. "Freedom Schools," SNCC Digital Gateway. "Freedom Singing," SNCC Digital Gateway.

[32] For Lowndes Country Freedom Party, see "Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP)," SNCC Digital Gateway. For political education in Lowndes, "Economic & Political Education,SNCC Digital Gateway. 

[33] For the profile of Miss Ella Baker, see “Bigger than a Hamburger,” SNCC Digital Gateway.

[34] For clips on SNCC Culture or “How to be SNCCy,” "SNCC Culture," SNCC Digital Gateway.

[35] Judy Richardson, “Women in SNCC: Why She Joined,” and “Women in SNCC: Role Models,” in "Women in SNCC," SNCC Digital Gateway.

[36] For the SNCC perspective on working in Lowndes, see "Our Voices—Black Panther," SNCC Digital Gateway.

[37] For the perspective of local activists in Lowndes, see "Our Voices—Lowndes County," SNCC Digital Gateway.

[38] For the Emergence of Black Power, see "Political & Economic Power," SNCC Digital Gateway.

[39] See relevant tabs in "Resources," SNCC Digital Gateway.