Highway 80 through “Bloody Lowndes”
Mount Gilliard Missionary Baptist Church on US Route 80 in Lowndes County, AL
Last week StoryCorps Griot facilitators set out on historic US Route 80 traveling from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama. Along the way we stopped for two days at the Lowndes County Interpretive Center to set-up a space for Lowndes County residents to share their stories. The Interpretive Center opened in 2006 as the first of three sites established by the National Park Service (NPS) to commemorate, preserve and interpret the events, people, and route of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March of 1965. As stipulated in its mission, the purpose of this Historic Trail is to serve “as a reminder of the right and responsibility of all Americans to participate fully in the election process and the maintenance of vigilance in protecting the right to vote.”
Highway 80 between Montgomery and Selma is a picturesque swath of bucolic tranquility. However, Lowndes County had long been dubbed “Bloody Lowndes” due to a reign of feudal brutality. One participant told of a plantation owner who boasted about murdering a young man who worked on his land. He tossed the body, like a piece of game, on the boy’s mother’s porch because the young man had enlisted in the Army and looked too happy to be leaving the fields.
Although the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, granted a form of citizenship, and the right to vote, respectively, many states did not recognize or respect the decisions of the federal government. These rights were swiftly snatched away by a Jim Crow system that denied African Americans their fundamental human and civil rights.
In 1965 15,000 residents, or 80% of Lowndes County, were Black, and not a single one was registered to vote. Intimidation, excessive poll taxes owed for every year of eligibility, and literacy tests that included questions like how many bubbles are on a bar of soap prevented potential voters from registering. A vast majority of the 15,000 African Americans in Lowndes County were sharecroppers. That meant they lived and worked on large plantations, some just as their enslaved ancestors had one or two generations earlier. In exchange for working the fields they were suppose to be paid for the crop they produced and picked. If they were even paid a fair wage, a careful system of credit at plantation stores, often the only place farmers were allowed to shop, kept them in debt, so year after year they owned more then they were paid. One participant remembered it being common for the plantation stores to allege you owned more then you did. And of course you could not argue with white owners. An elderly lady explained that even looking at a white man in the face could warrant a beating. Many plantation owners chose to pay their tenant farmers with “plantation coins,” special money that was only good at the plantation store. A hundred years after the passage of the 13th Amendment, Lowndes County was one of many strongholds throughout the country determined to control, through terror, a centuries old system of power.
Wright Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church on US Route 80 in Lowndes County
The participants who came to share their stories with the help of StoryCorps Griot had been born under this system and in the course of their life fought to obtain the right to vote and equal protection under the law. Much has been written by and about the prominent leaders and organizers of the human rights struggle known as the Civil Rights Movement. This movement was a true movement of the people. StoryCorps Griot is providing the foot soldiers – the everyday participants who made the movement possible – an opportunity to tell their stories.
One of these foot soldiers is Joseph Glover. Mr. Glover was 15 in 1965 when the movement towards equality in Lowndes County had gained forceful momentum. Mass meetings were secretly held on Sundays at churches around the county, like Mount Gilliard Missionary Baptist Church and Wright Chapel. Mr. Glover explained that people faced consequences as severe as death for participation in any activities considered subversive by the Klan or local sheriff department. He and his brother were determined to attend these meetings and any demonstrations.
In 1965-66 the Lowndes County Freedom Organization adopted a symbol of a stalking cat in opposition to the white-dominated County Democratic Party’s rooster emblem. The media described the symbol as a black panther. Under this symbol residents attempted to register to vote and place candidates on the ballot. White landowners retaliated by evicting sharecroppers who registered to vote, thought about registering to vote, or were linked to anyone thought to be involved in any voter rights activities. Local leaders and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worked to help get displaced families tents and other supplies to build a temporary “tent city” along US Route 80. The Lowndes County Interpretive Center now stands on the site.
Mr. Glover and his family were residents of tent city. He described the harsh conditions and imminent threat of violence that plagued the camp residents every hour of the camp’s two year existence. Mr. Glover was one of many young man who rotated sentry duties, guarding the camp from daily attacks. Candidly he remembered how almost daily the Klan and white landowners would empty round after round of rifle fire into the camp. With the help of SNCC and other local groups the Glover family was eventually able to find work and permanent housing.
StoryCorps Griot was proud to provide Mr. Glover and the residents of Lowndes County with a place to share their stories.
Thank you to Cathrine Light, Tina Smiley, and Cathrine Flowers for all your hard work organizing our stay at the Interpretive Center.
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