"It's Very Simple: We Intend to Take Over Lowndes County," Interview With Alabama Black Panther Party Organizer, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) 1966.
Originally published in The Movement, February & March, 1966.
— When SNCC reports on the Power Structure of Alabama one of the things they stress is that Alabama isn't really run by the politicians, it's run by the businessmen, the corporations, the people who have the economic power. Do you feel that Negroes getting voting power is going to change the real power?
"I don't know that it will. One of the things we question now in Alabama is whether the vote will make propertyless people equal to property owners. I was told in college, and in my political science textbooks that the way to get the roads fixed, to get better streetlights, and jobs and better housing, is through the vote, I don't know that for a fact. And that's what I've been telling people in Alabama, we're about to find out."
— Do Negroes in Alabama feel — do you feel — that Negroes will be able to get real improvements in their everyday situation through the vote?
"There are a number of things that come into play here. Number one — the attitude of the country has changed enormously. We've had the passage of several bills, these bills have changed the atmosphere of the country. But they haven't made any change on a concrete basis for Negroes. There are, for example, a number of Negroes that have gotten jobs in the Poverty Program, and a few Negroes that have gotten jobs on Wall Street. Beyond that they haven't got very much.
"What the Negroes in Alabama want to see now is whether the vote can bring them the changes they want to see in their everyday living. Whether they're disillusioned remains to be seen, they've never voted before.
"We're organizing people around their own interests and trying to hold political power inside the community. Not outside of the community, as it lies throughout the country ...
— What issues do you organize around?
"The first issue is poverty. And lies. It's very easy to organize around lies, because this country lies. This country has been saying that if you work hard every day you can make it, That's not true. Negroes work from sunup to sundown and they make $2 a day. So that's a lie. A hardworking person doesn't make it, it's the person with money who makes it,
— How do you change that?
"We're not sure. You organize people. You change the emphasis of the vote. You create a new organization that is not tied to the Democratic Party. All your power will rest within the community. Each county organization will be an entity unto itself, so it isn't geared to outside of the county politics.
"Today we have a county political executive that gears its politics to the politics outside the county. Ours would be geared inside the county, so the money that's coming into the county will be controlled by the people of that county.
"We've been doing some exciting things within the political spectrum. For example, every weekend we take people over to Atlanta. Last weekend we took over 150 people to Atlanta. At the Research Department we taught to people what the duties of the Sheriff are. The following weekend we do Tax Assessor, and then we go on to the duties of the officials on the county level. The people come back to Alabama, and they then conduct the same workshops in their community.
[See Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) Political Education Primer.]
"What that means is that there are now in Lowndes county about 400 people who know what the duties of a sheriff are. All of those 400 people feel qualified to run for sheriff. So you will in fact not have someone running for sheriff who can out lie the other, because that's what campaigns are all about, you know (one man gets up and says he will not escalate the war in Vietnam and the other says he will, and you vote for the one who lies the best and keeps an honest face). So you won't have that in Alabama.
"More than that, once the Sheriff is elected, he can't step out of his bounds because everybody knows just what his duties are."
— Who controls politics in Lowndes County?
"The courthouse. Negroes have to gain, control of the courthouse. We're changing everything. We make no bones about it. In the Black Belt counties of Alabama (for example Lowndes County, where 80% of the people are black, whites run and control everything, every single thing. The courthouse has come to be an oppressive tool"
— Negroes are afraid of it. When they go there to pay their taxes they go with their hats in their hands.
"Now we're going to change that, and the only way to change that is to get rid of all those whites. It's very simple — we're taking over the political machinery. The political machinery now in existence is tied to the Democratic Party. That Democratic Party holds in it a [Senator] Kennedy — it also holds In it a [Senator] Eastland. It holds an [Attorney General] Katzenbach and a [Governor] Wallace. When those four guys sit down at a table and talk and they make a compromise, Negroes get hurt. We have to make it so that Negroes don't get hurt. "The Democratic Party has showed just where they stand. They told the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party — we don't recognize you, but we recognize [Mississippi Governor] Coleman and [President] Johnson and all the other racists in power in Mississippi. So we said to them — fine, in Alabama we don't recognize you. We're the power in these counties and that's the way it has to be."
— What pressure has been brought against you on the county and state levels?
"Well, there have been shootings an regular violence, but we're getting used to that now. Aside from that, they've been using all kinds of propaganda — it's Black Muslim, it's black nationalist, it's splitting the Negro vote. People don't seem to be bothered by it, 'cause we've had white nationalism for so long. While two wrongs don't make a right, it doesn't seem that anyone is willing to right the wrong that has been done for so long except Negroes. And they'll have to right it as they see fit — and that's what they'll do."
— What's your timetable?
"November 8th. November 8th we're going to take over all the political offices that are open."
— Are there enough Negroes registered in Lowndes County now for you to do that?
"Yes, there are. And we have until 45 days before the November election to register. We will have them registered."
— What are the steps for getting on the ballot?
"If you are forming an independent political party you don't vote in the Democratic or Republican primaries. It is Illegal, you can't vote in two primaries. On the same date as the regular primaries, we will have a county convention. We want all the Negroes to come to elect their slate of candidates. Sixty days before the election, the names will go on the ballots, the regular ballots. And our symbol, the Black Panther, goes on too, so people who can't read or write can see the symbol.
"You can't be called a political party until after you vote. After the vote, if you receive 20% of the vote, then you're a recognized political party. We're now called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. After November, we'll be called the Lowndes County Freedom Party."
— Why are you organizing on a county-to-county basis, instead of taking all the Black Belt Counties and forming one organization?
"For one, Alabama has a unique law that allows for such Organization on a county level. Secondly, I feel very strongly about local politics. If you organize on a state level, things get too confused and you lose a lot, and if you organize on a national level, the same thing happens, there are too many compromises you have to make, too many of what people call "political decisions," and what happens is that the powerful people make those decisions and the other people just get stepped on.
"If you control your county level then you control everything else. We're not interested in the state level. If you control the county level then you're in a position to bargain. You can tell whoever you're bargaining with — this is what we want. If you go to the state and you don't have the power then you just have to get what you can. Once you have the power, I don't care 'whose government you're under — George Wallace or James Eastland — they still have to meet your power on that level."
— What is the white strategy for keeping in power?
"They have Negroes who are saying that the Democratic Party is the salvation for the Negro race. They have Negroes who are saying that we're trying to split the Negro vote. And up until Sammy Younge was shot, they had Negroes who kept saying look at Tuskegee, look how nice it is. After Sammy was shot, they couldn't say that, and we organized a Freedom Organization in Macon County.
"The other strategy is what Wallace introduced into the legislation to try and keep Negroes from voting in any way that he sees fit, and that was what he asked for, in his own words, on the floor of the legislature."
— What happened to that?
"It passed 7 to 2 — a study in what they call "ways to keep the Negroes from voting." But it's all irrelevant. In 1966, there are going to be black people sitting in those offices come hell or high water."
— How many county offices are open for election this November?
"We filed a suit in Lowndes County to make all offices void as of Nov, 8, because those people were elected by illegal means, by murder, that's how they got those offices, by disenfranchising 8O% of the population. If the justice of this county is as we have known it to be, and they do not rule in our favor we'll [still] have the sheriff, tax assessor, two school boards and tax solicitor open for voting."
— What will the response be from the Democratic Party? Will they run Uncle Tom candidates to split the Negro vote?
"I'm sure they will do that. I'm sure that pressure will come not only from the state Democratic Party but from the national Democratic Party. When Johnson gave the Voting Rights Bill, the assumption was that all those votes would go into the Democratic Party and they wouldn't have to worry about the South. That's just not true with these independent political parties, if Negroes don't vote in the Democratic Party. I am sure they will use all sorts of means to stop the independent political organization.
"It also will become a very dangerous thing if the idea spreads. For example in Lowndes County, the Dan River Mill has a building there, and that's just tax-free. Suppose we got a tax assessor in, and she taxed the Dan River Mills? Which we intend to do, on the basis of the profit they make."
— Dan River would probably move out of the county.
"So be it, we'll have lost nothing. But what if that idea spreads?"
— Let's talk about it spreading. What about counties in Alabama that have 30%, 20%, 10% Negroes — what is your strategy there?
"The first thing you do is that those Negroes organize themselves in their own interest. Negroes Vote in the Democratic Party across the country, but they're not organized within the Democratic Party. That's why in Chicago, [Mayor] Daley doesn't have to do anything, because Negroes are going to vote Democrat.
"So if those Negroes organize themselves, then they have a weapon. Then even with 10% of the Negroes voting, you have some kind of voice. That's what we doing. We're organizing Negroes to consolidate all the gains they've made in the last six years. In the last six years Negroes in this country have come a long way, and it would be silly to throw it all away over the question of whether you vote Democratic or Republican. That's irrelevant. You want to see that the things you have been asking for get done.
"If they do organize themselves, I'm sure they will find some voices in other organizations in the white community who probably have the same problems they do. But they have to be organized."
— Do you see any chance, then, on the state level?
"Of course, if you organize Alabama Negroes, that's 30-35% of the population. If those Negroes are organized into one solid block, the rest of the people voting will split in factions. There are three factions: the Republican Party, which is putting a lot of money into Alabama this year trying to make its gains; and with the Democratic Party we have a split between the Wallaces and the Jim Clarks and the Richmond Flowers. So you have three factions fighting for that 65% of the vote. And you have 35% of your vote solid. If you can't at least control the state, you have a very very powerful bargaining weapon. And the same thing with that 10% of the vote. If it is well organized you become a very strong bargaining force."
[At the time of this interview, term limits barred Governor George Wallace from runing for re-election. In his stead, his wife Lurleen was on the ballot as a stand-in candidate. Challenging her in the Democratic primary was state Attorney General Richmond Flowers, a "racial moderate" who had opposed some of Wallace's extreme segregationist policies and on occasion prosecuted cases against the KKK. In his primary campaign, Flowers explicitly sought support from Black leaders and voters — support that could only be made manifest if Blacks voted in the Democratic Primary rather than participating in independent political organizations such as the LCFO. In the primary, newly-registered Black voters carried seven of the 20 Black-belt counties for Flowers, but Lurleen Wallace swamped him everywhere else, cruising to an overwhelming 54% to 19% victory state-wide. She was then elected Governor in November.]
— How do you see the Freedom Organization movement spreading from county to county?
"We're sending Negroes from the organized counties all over Alabama to talk to other Negroes and organize them. That's buffering the people In Alabama who have been saying that SNCC has been splitting the Negro vote, because now you have Negroes from Alabama who are saying that other Negroes should join the freedom organization. If counties that have large Negro populations are strong, I don't see why they couldn't make political deals to help out the county next to them."
— When you talk about moving outward from Lowndes County, do you reject the notion of coalitions entirely?
"No, I don't reject coalitions; what I say is that Negroes have to realize that when you form coalitions, you aim towards what people call "national interest," and national interest is never the same as Negro interest. So they have to maintain their own interest first, then certainly they can form other coalitions.
"But I don't see any coalition forces in the country that SNCC could hook up with today, or that LCFO could hook up with. Aside from the MFDP there is no force today. We can hook up, for example, with the Delano strikers [in California], but I'm saying there is no established force we can hook up with. We can hook up with new movements, insurgent forces. That's being done. SNCC has workers in Delano, working on the grape strike. That's to our interest to, see that those sort of groups spring up."
— Do you think that a Negro party, organizing around economic interests, could tie up with poor whites around purely economic issues?
"That's an academic question, because the poor white is not organized. Once he is organized, then we could move."
— What makes you think you can keep that 35% a solid block?
"Those we are organizing are all sharecroppers. The Negroes who all their lives have been sitting with the whites are cut off from the sharecroppers; they have no power in that base. Those people have enough strength to move on their own.
"One of the things we learned from Mississippi, is that in Mississippi we did seek out coalitions — and that's what the price of coalitions is. We didn't seek any in Alabama, we just told people that they ought to realize from the beginning that they are isolated, and that whatever they do they have to do on their own and hope for the best. Maybe they'll win, lose, draw or tie, but once they start seeking coalitions, the power' not theirs anymore. It belongs to the coalesced force."
— I want to get back to my first question, about economic power. What if you had a black political structure in a county and a white economic structure? Do you see a way of breaking out of that?
"I have my own questions in my own mind; if I broach those questions people usually say I'm a leftist or a communist or an anarchist, whatever those terms mean. But it is clear to me that the Constitution of this country was written by property owners, and it was some time before people who didn't own property could vote. And I think that the property owners who wrote the Constitution wrote it for their own interest, not for the interest of the people who didn't own property.
"Now what happens when you have 90% of the people in Lowndes County who are property-less, and they now control politically the 10% of the people who own the county economically? I don't have any answers. Maybe some good American political scientist could answer the question for us. I don't see any Negroes anywhere better off in the ghetto, and they vote up there; they're still propertyless. Lowndes county is going to be very interesting as indicative of what could happen across the country when propertyless people begin asking those questions.
"In Lowndes County for example, Negroes who get evicted off their land have to live in tents because they voted, they see me every day and they say, "You told me to vote. You told me I'd get better houses, you told me I'd get better schools, you told me I'd be a first class citizen. Now I lost my house — you get me a house." You see, I can't just walk away, and say 'that's part of it,' those people need a house,"
— How do you handle that question?
"We've been trying to squeeze them in with other families, and we've spilt up their families. Negroes don't control the resources of this country. It means that Negroes are seriously going to have to confront the question of Vietnam. That money is going to have to stop going there and start going into Alabama. It's going to be in our interest to stop that war. Not even on a moral issue, but a very practical issue.
— How does your strategy apply to the cities, to the ghetto?
"It does apply. For example, in New York City, what Negroes have to do is organize. The political power in Harlem does not lie in Harlem, it lies outside. In Chicago it can be seen very clearly; the political power in Chicago lies in the Daley machinery, it doesn't lie inside the community.
"So what we're doing is something even Malcolm X was talking about. Political power has to lie within the community. And that's all: north, south, rural, industrial.
"People in Alabama are doing most of the organizing now — that's the way it should be. I will leave Alabama by the end of this year, and that work has to go on. It's one of the things I like about SNCC — whether it lives or dies, the organizations that it organized will continue."
— What did Negroes learn from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party?
"We recognize that people aren't impressed by demonstrations: they're impressed by political power; that is what the MFDP understood. And they understood that you can't go out for coalitions, because coalitions are formed by people who have their interest at stake, not yours. And when you go into coalitions with somebody who's already established, there isn't much you can get from them, but there's a lot they can get from you. That's what they learned at the Mississippi Challenge.
"And they also learned that there's no such thing as justice in this country, in the courts, because the people who were recognized by the national government as being the official party were the racists, were the criminals, were the murderers.
"So the MFDP learned that you start at rock bottom, with no one but each other, and that's where you go. You don't look for anybody who's established. you look for people like yourself, who are starting out, people like the farm workers in Delano."
"I don't work for the Federal Government. When I start working for the Federal Government they'll pay me $25,000 a year. I work for SNCC at $10 a week, and my job is to organize people to overthrow the governments that are now oppressing them, not to organize them to beg for money from the Federal Government. If they control these county government offices, they won't have to beg for money. They'll just take it. (http://www.crmvet.org/info/lowndes1.htm)