Lowndes County: The Road to Black Power

Dir. by Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhi

Co-Director of “Lowndes County: The Road to Black Power,” Sam Pollard

In “Lowndes County: The Road to Black Power,” the acclaimed filmmaking duo of Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir offer a revisionist take on the Civil Rights movement and the origins of the Black Panther Party. Unlike so many accounts of the period’s activism, the documentary — now streaming ont Apple TV, and coming soon to Peacock — decenters familiar characters like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to focus on how ordinary Black Alabamans joined forces with Stokely Carmichael, the young leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to rise and become extraordinary, often militant exemplars of participatory democracy.

Pollard is uniquely suited to tell this story. Since 1990, he and his longtime collaborator Gandbhir have been among the keenest-eyed chroniclers of the African American experience, producing a wide-ranging body of work that includes celebrated films about Sammy Davis, Jr., Martin Luther King, Arthur Ashe and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

Truthdig recently spoke with Pollard by phone about “Lowndes County,” the surprising origin of the Black Panther Party logo, his longtime creative collaboration with Gandbhir and more.

What happened in Lowndes County, Alabama?

The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery passed through the county, which was 80% African American. Members of the community — people like John Hulett, Lillian McGill, John Jackson and others — joined up with the SNCC, led by Stokely Carmichael, to empower themselves. It’s an opportunity to look at how important SNCC was, and its [other leaders such as] Courtland Cox, Jennifer Lawson, Judy Richardson, Bob Mants and others. It’s an untold story. It’s been a privilege to tell it.

You said at an L.A. screening that one of your SNCC sources told you, “Don’t make another mediocre civil rights film.”

As Geeta said at the screening last week, that was a challenge. We had to step up, and I think we did. We didn’t want to make another just typical civil rights film. We wanted it to be special.

In what way?

Many people think the high point of the civil rights movement was the march from Selma to Montgomery, with Dr. King leading the charge. What people don’t realize is members of SNCC led this other charge in Lowndes County.

It’s an opportunity to look at how impactful an organization like SNCC was in understanding that you don’t always have a Dr. King leading the charge. Community could also be in charge. You see this in the unfolding of “Lowndes County.” The community gets together every week in that church [to] talk about strategy, how to make things happen, in terms of empowering themselves with the right to vote. And they had the support of Stokely, Jennifer Lawson, Bob Mants, Courtland Cox and others.

For years we looked at the civil rights story as basically Dr. King and SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, leading the charge. That’s not true; there were other organizations. Besides SNCC, there was CORE [the Congress of Racial Equality], the Urban League, the NAACP, they were all involved.

A still from Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhi’s “Lowndes County: The Road to Black Power.”

While Dr. King and SCLC pursued a strategy and philosophy of nonviolence, Lowndes County seemed to have been more militant and some Blacks there were armed.

The thing to remember is that many African Americans in the South were armed, particularly in Alabama. They were always armed. It was always about self-defense. People should understand that even when SCLC went into communities, those communities always had guns. Guns and shotguns were the exception in the North, in both the white and the Black community. 

Most people think that the Black Panthers started in Oakland, California with Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. But tell us about their forerunner in Lowndes County. 

The Black Panther Party [logo] in Lowndes County came about because the Democratic Party had a rooster as their symbol. So, when the Black community, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization decided they needed a symbol because they wanted to be able to tell Black people, ‘This is who you should vote for’, [and] it wasn’t going to be the rooster, that was the symbol [printed on the ballot] of the rightwing Democratic Party. What would be the image that would be a very powerful image for the Black community in Lowndes County? They came up with the panther. They knew that when it was time to vote, the [candidate with] the black panther emblem was the one they should be voting for. 

Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton heard about this and decided to take that symbol and named their organization the Black Panther Party. Stokely left SNCC and, for a minute, became a part of the Black Panther Party [circa 1968, as “Honorary Prime Minister”]. Just for a minute; then he left [in 1969 for Africa].

Tell us about the role that Stokely played in Lowndes County and in the broader civil rights movement?

Stokely Carmichael was from New York City and went to Bronx High School of Science and Howard University. He and a group of other African American students, like Courtland Cox, went South to challenge the segregation in the South. He had a different style, he had a more aggressive approach. He understood the philosophy of Dr. King and SCLC, but he said in Mississippi, “We want Black Power” — Black people had to empower themselves socially, politically and economically. For many white people at that time, he was a frightening figure. 

He never really got his due in media and American film. I think this is a great opportunity to get a sense of who Stokely Carmichael was as a leader, as an orator and as an activist. 

SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael speaks to the crowd during the final rally of the March Against Fear at the Mississippi State Capitol. During the speech Carmichael introduced the slogan “Black Power!” to a wider audience, exposing the rift between him and Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Tell us about the role of women in Lowndes County?

A great scene in the film is when the Rev. Wendell Paris and Willie Ricks [now Mukasa Dada] look at a picture on the wall, and Willie says, “The women were important, too.” And the reverend says, “Yeah, for every man there was eight or 10 women.” That shows you how important the women were. Both residents of Lowndes County, like Lillian McGill, and on the SNCC side, people like Jennifer Lawson and Ruby Sales.

The women were very active, always very strong and aggressive in the movement. In many cases in the SCLC and the same case in other parts of the movement. Think of Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. Very strong, activist women. They should not be considered secondary to the men in the movement.   

How do you see African American female leadership historically, up to the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements?

Always strong. The role of Black women in the movement, going all the way back to Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to the present day — Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Black women have always been active in the movement. I would be remiss if I didn’t say Rosa Parks. Up until Black Lives Matter, there’s very strong, very present women.  

How was it different co-directing with a woman, Geeta Gandbhir?

It isn’t different. Geeta and I are colleagues, soulmates, friends. We go back for years. I’ve known Geeta for over 25 years. We’ve worked together in the editing room, as co-directors and co-producers. We are completely in sync. We have a wonderful relationship.  

Towards the end of Lowndes County, you note that a number of Blacks went on to hold office there over the decades, but their economic position is unchanged. 

Capitalism can be an ugly animal. Capitalism has always had its way, pushing people out. People on the margin, keeping them on the margin. It’s insidious. 

What does “Black Power” mean in this current racial moment?

Black Power means what it meant when Stokely said it. It’s about Black people having a sense of self, of self-empowerment, politically, socially and economically. America is at a very tenuous place, politically and in terms of race. It frightens me. Will this country survive for my children and grandchildren?

A still from Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhi’s “Lowndes County: The Road to Black Power.”

“Lowndes County” ends with [Ruby Sales] quoting Dr. King: “I have come upon something that disturbs me deeply. I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house. I’m afraid America may be losing what moral vision she had.” Why end your film with these words?

African Americans grew up in this country in the ’50s  and ’60s figuring that if we become integrated into America, we could accept that life will be good, everything will be fine. All that we’ve gone through before the Mayflower, with slavery, what happened after Reconstruction, the rise and fall of Jim Crow, that life would be better if we were finally integrated into the system. The thing we need to remember, which Ruby Sales to me is really saying, is that: “America is really a place that’s full of poison.” 

January 6 shows you how tentative the notion of American democracy is. That it could almost be destroyed, broken, brought down by these lunatics who attacked Congress. We wanted to be part of America. But we didn’t realize how tenuous that might be.    

What’s next?

I’m finishing up a documentary that’s going to be on Netflix in mid-January about the legendary basketball and civil rights activist Bill Russell. Then in the spring, another feature-length documentary about the Negro baseball league. In the fall, a documentary feature I co-directed about a book written by the columnist Charles Blow called “The Devil You Know, A Black Power Manifesto.” As usual, I’m trying to keep my hands active and making films, which I love to do.

“Lowndes County: The Road to Black Power” is available to rent or purchase on Amazon or Apple TV, to rent on iTunes and Google Play, to purchase as a DVD and will be available to stream on Peacock in February. For details and more info see: https://bit.ly/lowndescounty

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.