by Alvin Benn
September 6, 2009
WHITE HALL -- Much of what happened during the historic
Selma-to-Montgomery march occurred along a 22-mile stretch of U.S. 80
in one of Alabama's most sparsely populated counties.
Historians tend to focus instead on much larger Dallas and Montgomery
counties, a source of displeasure for many of the 12,600 residents of
Lowndes County, especially those old enough to remember what happened
more than four decades ago.
That's about to change with Hasan Jeffries' "Bloody Lowndes: Civil
Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt."
A research project that lasted a decade for the Brooklyn-born
historian, it led him to Alabama dozens of times to interview
veterans of the civil rights era. He also spent countless hours
sifting through archival documents in what began as a doctoral
dissertation and became much more.
"I started coming to Alabama in 1998 when I realized I was onto
something special," said Jeffries, 36, a history professor at Ohio
State University. "What happened in Lowndes County became the basis
for my book."
When he spoke at the National Park Service's Interpretive Center in
White Hall a few days ago, he was greeted by a capacity crowd --
people who had good reason to applaud his efforts.
Some of them were vocally angry, too, feeling that Lowndes County has
been virtually snubbed by historians they feel are not looking at the
The trail is 54 miles long and Lowndes County accounts for 40 percent
of it. Along those 22 miles, some Lowndes residents were forced off
their land because they tried to vote, two white civil rights workers
were fatally shot and a political group rallied around the symbol of
the black panther -- a move that would later inspire the Black
Panther Party in California.
When the interpretive center opened a few years ago, its appearance
evoked outcries from Lowndes residents who took one look at the
building and saw a design that was part Edmund Pettus Bridge, part
Brown Chapel AME Church -- two famous Selma structures.
When Jeffries began interviewing those who were involved in the
voting rights movement, he heard concerns that Lowndes County's
contributions during that period appear to have been all but
forgotten by today's historians.
That's why much of his book focuses on the Lowndes County Freedom
Organization, a group that paved the way for the first successful
black political movement in Alabama during the 20th century.
In 1965, when marchers passed through Lowndes on their way to
Montgomery, not one black resident had been registered to vote.
Lowndes' small white population, which had always controlled politics
in the county, made sure that power was maintained by any means necessary.
Jeffries' research turned up numerous examples of terrorism,
including lynching and other forms of mayhem against black residents.
Most were sharecroppers who depended on white landowners for their daily bread.
"Sometimes you have to name names; sometimes you have to speak the
truth," Jeffries said during his speech at the facility. "What
occurred in Lowndes County in the past represented a reign of terror
by sheriffs and plantation owners."
He would soon discover black heroes who refused to be intimidated.
Two were Mathew and Emma Jackson, a White Hall couple who knew what
their involvement in the movement could mean to them and their large family.
A few days after the two tried to register to vote and were rebuffed
by white officials, a merchant told them that their credit would no
longer be honored at his store. He also demanded that they repay a
$10 debt he said they owed him.
"Mr. Jackson wrote the shopkeeper a check for the full amount and as
he handed it to his daughter to deliver, he resolved never to do
business with the man again -- a promise he kept," Jeffries wrote in his book.
Protests must have leaders. John Hulett, who became the county's
first black sheriff and probate judge and Bob Mants, an activist
leader who was elected to the county commission, stepped forward.
Jeffries also credits rank and file residents who became foot
soldiers in a movement that helped to change a nation by guaranteeing
voting rights to all Americans.
"Too often we are too ready to dismiss ordinary everyday people, to
dismiss their understanding of politics and local conditions," he
said during his address.
Jeffries feels as though
he's become an adopted son of
Lowndes County, and he can't wait to get back for more speaking
engagements and to meet the friends he's made through the years.
He'll be back at the State Department of Archives and History at noon
on Oct. 16 to discuss his book and sign copies during Archives Week activities.
Alvin Benn writes about people and places in central and south
Alabama. If you have a suggestion for a story, contact him at
875-3249 or e-mail him at email@example.com.