‘Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power’ Review: Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir Grippingly Trace the Roots of Black Suffrage

A suspicious pattern emerges when Election Day nears in the United States. Leaders of the competing political parties begin a begging campaign, urging Black voters to head to the polls and cast their ballots for candidates often largely uninterested in their needs. These officials appeal to the morality of the historically disenfranchised masses, insisting that a nation that does not normally care about them can’t save itself without their votes. The disingenuous performance drains the sincerity from efforts to get out the vote, makes it too easy to take for granted the long, winding history of the Black suffrage movement and obfuscates existing barriers to real freedom.

Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, a powerful and intimate new documentary by Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI) and Geeta Gandbhir (I Am Evidence), is a timely reminder of the legacy of voting rights in the U.S. and an inspiring testament to the power of community organizing. The film chronicles how residents of Lowndes County, a violently segregationist area in Georgia, secured their right to vote and tried to change conditions within their racist district. Inspired in part by the journalist Vann R. Newkirk II’s reporting in The Atlantic, Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power combines archival footage with interviews of those with living memory of the struggle to tell a compelling story of self-determination.  

Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power

The Bottom Line

A compelling reminder of collective organizing’s power.

Release date: Friday, Dec 2
Directors: Geeta Gandbhir, Sam Pollard

1 hour 30 minutes

It’s fitting that Pollard and Gandbhir begin their documentary with words from civil rights activist Ella Baker, a woman who played major roles in organizing for the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker possessed an unequivocal belief in Black self-determination and prioritized the potential of the working class over charismatic leaders. “When people value what they can do,” she says in an archival clip shown early in the film, “they don’t have to look around and find a great leader to do it for them.”

The Black people of Lowndes never waited for permission. Galvanized by one of their own — a young John Hulett, who returned to Lowndes in 1965 to tend to family after spending years in Birmingham working with the NAACP — community members decided to register to vote. At the beginning of that year, nearly a century after the 15th Amendment granted all men the right to vote and more than 40 years after the 19th Amendment gave women that chance, the county had zero registered Black voters. That number is staggering considering Black people made up 80 percent of the area’s population.

To understand this level of disenfranchisement, Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power uses testimonies from Black and white Lowndes locals to establish an affecting portrait of a deeply bifurcated community. Black people like John Jackson, Arthur Nelson and Catherine Coleman Flowers recall their families living and working on land owned by rich white residents to whom they were permanently indebted. They discuss the entrenched caste system, the poverty, how the county’s violent reputation earned it the name Bloody Lowndes. Contrast this with the language used by white locals like Carolyn Haigler Ikenberry or Margaret Davis, who describe their county as “peaceful,” “idyllic,” and don’t remember talking about race growing up, and you have a picture of America — both then and now.

The interviews, interweaved with the archival footage by editor Viridiana Lieberman, force viewers to connect the dots, to see how one place could produce competing realities. It’s not difficult to imagine, then, why the Black residents of Lowndes County were met with extraordinary, even violent, resistance when they tried to exercise their right to vote. Historians Hasan Kwame Jeffries and William Sturkley provide additional context about the intimidation tactics used by white racists — from stalking to professional retaliation — to not only prevent Black people from voting, but also stop other white people from helping them.

This did not deter Black residents of Lowndes, who, in late March 1965, organized themselves and founded the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights. They met every Wednesday evening to discuss their plans for enfranchisement and to air grievances about the town’s political and social structure. It’s only after forming their own group that the Lowndes residents sought outside counsel.

The doc complicates the mainstream narrative about a harmonious Civil Rights Movement by revealing the evasiveness of its most popular leaders. As Jeffries explains, Black residents looked to the SCLC for guidance, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr avoided establishing a presence in Lowndes because of its reputation. Help came in the form of Kwame Ture (known then as Stokely Carmichael) and other SNCC activists who, while participating in the Selma to Montgomery March, decide to stop in Lowndes (one of the counties on the trail) and help Black people register to vote.

SNCC’s participation further fueled the active Lowndes movement, but its introduction to the narrative threatens to destabilize the intimacy of the documentary. The context required to explain SNCC and Ella Baker’s role in the organization, to discuss Ture and his comrades, means that Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power goes off on more than one tangent. They are, for the most part, informative, but the digressions coupled with the erratic timeline jumps mean viewers must work a little harder to hold on to the film’s main and most interesting thread. After all, it’s the battle within Lowndes — between Black and white community members — and the organizing efforts that are the most instructive.

The language that the surviving white participants reach for in their interviews eerily echoes the language used to describe contemporary uprisings and struggles for liberation. Ikenberry and Davis speak of phantom “outside agitators,” a phrase viewers will remember was repeatedly deployed by elected officials and news pundits to describe demonstrations across American cities in 2020. What do such patterns reveal about the distance between where we were and where we are?

The gift of Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, which was written and partially developed by writer and producer Dema Paxton Fofang, is how it positions voting rights as the beginning of the struggle, not the end — a lesson that gets lost in the clamor around present-day electoral politics. Once Black Lowndes residents were able to vote, they organized to get people from the community into elected positions within the county. Watching the SNCC and Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights employ tactics to help their community is nothing short of incredible. When the state Democratic Party refused to recognize their candidates, they created their own party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and logo — a black panther. (There is a thrilling historical link between them and the Oakland-based Black Panther Party, which the film briefly addresses.) When people within the community struggled to understand the different official positions, the organizations created comic books and zines to help explain the purpose and requirements of each job. Each perceived obstacle was met with innovative solutions — a testament to the creativity that organizing neighbors can unleash.  

Although the surviving Black residents of Lowndes speak proudly of their accomplishments (many are moved to tears by their progress), Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power doesn’t end on an optimistic note. Its conclusion brings viewers to present-day Lowndes, which hasn’t sustained many of those early changes because of systemic white supremacy. But appraising the county’s history and recognizing that it was individuals within that community who brought about that change should be, more than anything, a rousing call to action.

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