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.
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.”