Black power. These two words continue to terrify and galvanize, as they have for over 50 years, a large swath of white people in America. Just in the last few years, various misunderstood or misrepresented meanings for Black power have led to calls for censorship in schools and libraries, out of fear that white Americans who learn the true history of our country might feel bad. Elected officials in many parts of the country are working to limit or diminish voting rights in historically Black counties. Just weeks ago, during the midterm elections, there were many reports of intimidation at the polls, specifically in areas heavily populated by Black voters.
Viewers who watch the new documentary Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power will be reminded that history is repeating itself. Despite the passage of The Voting Rights Act in 1965, there were parts of the US where as a Black person, registering to vote meant risking or even losing their life. Nowhere better exemplified that sad truth than Lowndes, an impoverished county outside Montgomery, Alabama. In a place where 80% of the population was Black but not one registered voter was Black, how could a law that seemed like meaningless ink become something something that bettered the lives of Black citizens? The answer was Black power.
Without a rise of Black power in the 1960s, thousands, possibly millions of Black would-be voters would have never seen themselves in office, or in law enforcement, or any number of other essential roles that would change the longterm experience of and increase opportunity for Black people in America.
Co-directors Geeta Gandbhir & Sam Pollard combine powerful archival footage and often emotional interviews with some of the most influential agents of change during the civil rights movement. Unlike famed activist Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the term Black power, most of the interviewees are not world renowned. They are former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who worked not only for the voting rights act of 1965 to be put into practical use, but to elect qualified Black professionals to offices that would make the lives of Black people safer and better.
There are great archival clips of Carmichael, an energetic and impassioned young organizer and head of SNCC, talking about what Black power really means. He said, “If you want to end the brutality of the sheriff, you need to become the sheriff.” He knew getting Black people into positions of power in the government was essential. He also knew the relative value of the collective, rather than one charismatic leader, in gaining agency for Black citizens, (something he was taught by his mentor Ella Baker). With that in mind, Gandbhir and Pollard allow us to hear from so many more people who were there. The filmmakers show a number of activists involved with SNCC at the time, speaking of their own experiences. These are people who, together, had a huge influence over the trajectory of the civil rights movement beyond the passage of the Voting Rights Act. We hear from brave folks like SNCC member and first Black man to run for sheriff of Lowndes County John Hulett, key SNCC leader Courtland Cox, former SNCC field secretary Willie Ricks (now going by Musaka Dada), and Reverend Wendell Paris, who worked with Fanny Lou Hamer in the Mississippi Freedom Summer movement. Paris is quoted in the film as saying, “Women were the backbone of the movement. For every man there were five powerful women”, and one of the best aspects of Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power is just how many Black women are represented in the film, like SNCC principle strategist Lillian McGill, Ruby Sales, SNCC field organizer and artist Jennifer Lawson, former NAACP key member and SNCC co-founder Ella Baker, and filmmaker/activist Judy Richardson. There are also SNCC clips that show lots of Black female organizers, something not often shown in civil rights footage. It’s a pleasure to see so many Black women who were key influencers of the civil rights movement getting recognized.
Though Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power is extremely educational and enlightening, even to folks who think they know a lot about the civil rights movement, it is not as tight in its editing as it might have be. The narrative gets a bit less focused as a result. Still, that is more than made up for by the interviews, which are offered from the heart. This film is both the sort of documentary that certain boards of education would fight tooth and nail to keep from being played in schools, and exactly the kind that should be required viewing at every high school across the country.
4 out of 5 stars.