Thursday, February 11, 2016

Alabama's Black Belt Helped Form Black Panther Party
Stokely Carmichael at Vanderbilt University in 1967.
Marty Roney, Montgomery (Ala.)
Advertiser 6:43 a.m. EST February 1

HAYNEVILLE, Ala. --The Black Power Movement has its roots in Alabama’s Black Belt.

Named for its dark, fertile soil, the crescent shaped region bisects Central Alabama. It was here in the antebellum days that King Cotton reigned supreme. In the mid-20th century, it saw the birth of the modern Civil Rights Movement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.

Lowndes County, a rural, economically depressed county nestled between historic giants Selma and Montgomery, often gets short shrift when it comes to history’s roll call.

The Lowndes County Freedom Organization was formed in “Bloody Lowndes” in 1966, in response to the disenfranchisement of the overwhelmingly black population there, writes Rebecca Woodham, in the online Encyclopedia of Alabama. The history chair at Wallace Community College in Dothan, Woodham is recognized by the Alabama Archives and History as an expert on this period in Lowndes County history.

Although 80 percent black, no black person had successfully registered to vote there for more than 60 years due to the violent reaction of white landowners, Woodham writes. The LCFO, a local independent political party, registered black voters and gave them an option to the Alabama Democratic Party.

The group chose a crouching black panther as its symbol.

“Stokely (Carmichael) was working in Lowndes then with SNCC to register voters,” said Lowndes County Probate Judge John Hulett Jr. “They saw the panther symbol and liked it.”

The Black Panther party was a black nationalist group operating in the United States beginning in 1966. Here are five things you didn’t know about the Black Panthers.

Hulett’s father, John Hulett Sr. was a key leader in the civil rights struggles in the county. Alabama election laws required that political parties had a symbol. The elder Hulett explained at the time that like a panther, Lowndes County African Americans had been pushed back into the corner and would come out “fighting for life or death,” Woodham’s article goes on.

The media dubbed the LCFO the “Black Panther Party.”

The spirit of the LCFO moved across the nation. The party’s slogan of “Black Power” and its black panther emblem also spread, Woodham writes. Both were adopted by activists Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, another SNCC veteran of the Lowndes County effort, when they organized the Oakland-based Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966.

The moves left some ill will in Lowndes County, Hulett Jr. said.

“My father, and others, didn’t like the militancy of the Black Panther Party out in California,” he said. “Their party was a political party, they didn’t encourage the use of violence.”

The LCFO ran seven candidates vying for sheriff, coroner, tax assessor and the board of education. All lost in the 1966 general election, and the LCFO subsequently merged with the Alabama Democratic Party.

Hulett Sr. was elected sheriff in 1970. He held the post for 22 years before being elected probate judge for three, six year terms. The younger Hulett now serves as probate judge.

The focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and recent campus protests in the media has made Hulett think back to those violent days. He was all of 12 in 1965.

Closer look at Black Panthers

“It’s terrible to be called a racial slur,” he said. “But back then in Lowndes County, blacks couldn’t walk around at night. If black folks were walking on the road at night and saw headlights, they hid in the ditch. You had better, or you might wind up gone.

“We haven’t done what the Bible told us to do, we haven’t taught our children well. All the old foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement are almost all gone now. At least now these young people have the right to vote. It’s sad that they don’t seem to understand the amount of sacrifices paid to get that right to vote.”

Progress has been made, in the nation and in Lowndes, he said. But work remains to be done.

“We have a black sheriff in Lowndes, a black probate judge, the majority of the county commission is black,” he said. “So yes, progress has been made. But to this day whites and blacks don’t do anything together in Lowndes County.

“We have to come together to move Lowndes County forward economically. We have to get more jobs here for our young people, black and white. There’s one color that matters, and that’s green and that’s money.”

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