Lowndes County is a county of the U.S. state of Alabama. As of the 2010 census, the population was 11,299. Its county seat is Hayneville. The county is named in honor of William Lowndes, a member of the United States Congress from South Carolina.
Following Reconstruction and years in which blacks continued to be elected to local office, the white-Democrat dominated state legislature gained passage of a new constitution in 1901 that effectively disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. Requirements were added for payment of a cumulative poll tax before registering to vote, difficult for poor people to manage; and literacy tests (with a provision for a grandfather clause to exempt illiterate white voters from being excluded.) The number of black voters fell dramatically, as did poor white voters.
Population has declined by two thirds since the 1900 high of more than 35,000. The effects of mechanization and the boll weevil infestation, which decimated the cotton crops and reduced the need for farm labor in the 1920s and 1930s, caused the loss of jobs. Many blacks left the county in first half of the 20th century, in Great Migration to northern and midwestern industrial cities, where there were work opportunities. Young people continue to leave for towns and cities.
Civil Rights Era
By 1960 (as shown on census tables below), the population had declined to about 15,000 residents and continued to be about four-fifths majority black. The rural county was referred to as "Bloody Lowndes," the rusty buckle of Alabama's Black Belt, for white violence against blacks to maintain segregation. In 1965, a century after the American Civil War and decades after disenfranchisement via the 1901 state constitution, white supremacy was maintained by intimidation.
Although the census tables below show that population had fallen by more than half its 1900 high, blacks still outnumbered whites by a 4 to 1 ratio. Eighty-six white families owned 90 percent of the land in the county and controlled the government. With an economy based on agriculture, black residents worked mostly in low-level rural jobs. In the civil rights era, not one black resident was registered to vote before March 1, 1965.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in August of that year encouraged civil rights leaders to believe they could fight racism in Lowndes. "The Lowndes County Freedom Organization" was founded in the county as a new, independent political party designed to help blacks stand up to intimidation and murder.
Organized by the young civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in the summer of 1965 Lowndes residents launched an intensive effort in the county to register blacks to vote. SNCC's plan was simple: to get enough black people to vote so blacks might be fully represented in the local government and redirect services to black residents, 80 percent of whom lived below the poverty line. Carmichael and others organized registration drives, demonstrations, and political education classes in support of the black residents. The Voting Rights Act authorized the federal government to oversee voter registration and voting processes in places such as Lowndes County where minorities were historically under-represented.
On August 20, 1965, two protesters were shot, one fatally, in the county seat of Hayneville after being released from jail following a protest in a nearby town. A jury quickly acquitted Thomas Coleman of manslaughter after his claim of self-defense against the unarmed men; he was an unpaid white special deputy appointed by the county sheriff.
In 1966 after working to register African-American voters, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the first independent black political party in the county since Reconstruction, entered several local residents as candidates for county offices. It adopted the emblem of the black panther in contrast to the white rooster of the white-dominated Alabama Democratic Party.
Whites in Lowndes County reacted strongly against the LCFO. In retaliation for black sharecroppers engaging in civil rights work, white landowners evicted many of them, using economic blackmail to make them both homeless and unemployed in a struggling county. The SNCC and Lowndes County leaders worked to help these families stay together and remain in the county. They bought tents, cots, heaters, food, and water and helped several families build a temporary "Tent City". Despite harassment, including shots regularly fired into the encampment, residents persevered for nearly two years as organizers helped them find new jobs and look for permanent housing.
Whites refused to serve known LCFO members in stores and restaurants. Several small riots broke out over the issue. The LCFO pushed forward and continued to organize and register voters. However, none of their candidates would win the November 1966 general election. In a December 1966 edition of the Black Power magazine The Liberator, activist Dr. Gwendolyn Patton alleged the election had been determined by widespread ballot fraud, though it has been acknowledged that the election's outcome resulted from the pressure enacted by the local white plantation owners who employed the county's vast number of black sharecroppers. However, other candidates have since been elected after the LCFO folded into the statewide Democrat Party in 1970.
In White v. Crook (1966), Federal District Judge Frank M. Johnson ruled in a class action suit brought on behalf of black residents of Lowndes County, who demonstrated they had been excluded from juries. Women of all races had been excluded from juries by state statute. Johnson ordered that the state of Alabama must take action to recruit both male and female Blacks to serve on juries, as well as other women, according to their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The suit was joined by other class members from other counties who dealt with similar conditions of exclusion from juries. It was "one of the first civil actions brought to remedy systematic exclusion of Negroes from jury service generally."
The LCFO continued to fight for wider political participation. Their goal of democratic, community control of politics spread into the wider civil rights movement. The first black sheriff in the county to be elected since Reconstruction was John Hullett, elected in 1970.