How Alabama’s Black Belt Helped Form the Black Panther Party

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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.”

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.

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Source: USA Today | Marty Roney, Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser