There is long-established iconography surrounding civil rights activism in the American South, particularly in the long-politically charged state of Alabama. From the Montgomery bus boycott to the historic Selma March, the images circulated in our visual media history have spotlighted the most visible figures of their time and offered narratives from extraordinary figures – political leaders like Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – at the forefront of social change.
In Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, directors Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard uncover a broader context of civil rights action in Alabama. One of the poorest counties in the country, Lowndes is a close neighbor of Selma and Montgomery, cities that historically have been much more visible in terms of their citizens’ political activity.
Focusing her lens on the grassroots organization in Lowndes – a county so structurally and physically violent towards its black residents that it has been dubbed “Bloody Lowndes” – “MLK/FBI” Director Pollard and “I Am Evidence” Filmmaker Gandbhir decentralizes the kind of myth that surrounded civil rights activists of the time. What they offer instead is a collective history of a majority black-led movement in Lowndes County that fought for civic power for its black residents.
We are in the midst of the civil rights struggle and learn that in 1965 the Lowndes Borough was 80% black but had zero black registered voters. We learn about the exploitative practice of sharecropping and how it effectively replaced the function of slavery in the Alabama region. The focus here is on the SNCC – the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee – and within it the constellation of activists, citizens and residents who formed the social fabric of Lowndes County.
We hear from the well-known figures, of course – Stokely Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis and King – but what Pollard and Gandbhir do best with Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power is to take a look at what the fight is really looking for Black Power in Alabama County. It is a powerful method of historiography that refuses to erase everyday people, all those characters who resisted this struggle, all those who were on the front lines at any moment but have been erased from the stories they helped create.
Rare archival footage is incorporated into the film’s historical narrative with an all too rare grace – the images we see here lend themselves to a deep and nuanced understanding of Lowndes County at the time; not just the collective, collaborative effort, but also the mapping of community and anti-Blackness as it materializes in everyday life.
That’s a quirk that’s more than welcome — what Pollard and Gandbhir certainly achieve with their film is a sharp focus not just on collective action, but a method of storytelling that is sophisticated and a look at a precise moment of the previously overlooked political history raises . It’s a reminder that history needs to be retold and revisited, and that the work of combat needs to be regenerative and, above all, connected.
“Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power”
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes
To play: Lammle Monica, Santa Monica
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-12-05/review-lowndes-county-road-to-black-power-documentary-sam-pollard ‘Lowndes County’ review: The grassroots of Black power