‘You want it to outlive you’: an often-overlooked piece of civil rights history

Martin Luther King Jr and his infamous march from Selma to Montgomery is familiar to anyone with a glancing awareness of the civil rights movement. But on his way he went through Lowndes county, an often-overlooked hostile territory where a profoundly influential movement for equal rights was born.

Related: Rosa Parks: new documentary sheds light on a misunderstood figure

With impassioned talking head testimonials and a staggering treasure trove of never-before-seen archival footage, documentary Lowndes County And The Road To Black Power covers the 80% Black population in one of the poorest counties in the US who rallied to register their vote and be heard despite the constant and immediate threat of white supremacist violence. Lowndes is where the college kids who made up the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Sncc, pronounced snick) went to support the local community and help create the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). Their focus was to get Black people elected into positions of power and effect change. Because such practical and immediate goals were a threat to white power, these targeted activists had to arm themselves while moving through an area dubbed Bloody Lowndes.

On their election literature, the LCFO identified themselves with a logo borrowed from Clark-Atlanta University’s mascot: a panther. They were known as the Black Panther party.

Sncc’s story isn’t as widely circulated as say Martin Luther King Jr’s in the history books and popular culture. On a Zoom call with the Guardian, director Geeta Gandbhir, alongside co-director Sam Pollard, says that erasure is intentional. “It’s about a leaderless movement of folks organizing and claiming power in a way that is a threat,” Gandbhir says from her home in Brooklyn. “As Ruby Sales says in the film, Black power is a threat to white supremacy and to the white economic system everywhere.

“The Sncc veterans and also the local Lowndes county people were non-violent in theory, but they were going to defend themselves. They were carrying guns. That kind of movement, which ultimately was very successful and is the key to the freedom struggle, is seen as dangerous by folks who want to maintain the status quo.”

Gandbhir didn’t know the story about Lowndes county before writers and producers Vann R Newkirk II and Dema Paxton Fofang brought the project to her. She was down to direct, but wouldn’t take the project without Pollard because she felt it wasn’t her story to tell.

Gandbhir is Indian American. She cites Mira Nair as an influence, not just because the Mississippi Masala film-maker is a fellow Indian. Nair told stories about Indian Americans in relation to other BIPOC communities, not just in their own bubble where they can put on a performance as model minorities while their own anti-Black racism bubbles beneath the surface. Gandbhir carefully acknowledges that while she sees unity in the struggles shared by the BIPOC community, she understands the privilege she has that the Black community doesn’t.

Pollard, a veteran in the industry who cut his teeth as an editorial assistant on Ganja & Hess, has been telling stories about the freedom struggle since making his directorial debut on the PBS series Eyes On The Prize. Lowndes County And The Road To Black Power is far from his first collaboration with Gandbhir. They began working together editing Spike Lee films like Surviving The Game, Girl 6, Bamboozled and When The Levees Broke. According to Gandbhir, they met when she was working as an editorial assistant on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.

“That’s not true,” Pollard interrupts, from a recording studio in Hell’s Kitchen. “I only worked on Malcolm X for two weeks.” Gandbhir agrees, clarifying that she remembers him from when he came in to briefly help with the edit on Spike Lee’s epic biopic on the passionate civil rights era leader. “I don’t remember her at all,” he says, chuckling in defeat, the comfy groove created by their decades long working relationship is felt in the warm and comical back-and-forth.

“She was my apprentice editor, assistant editor, co-editor,” says Pollard. “Then she became a director and we started directing together. She’s always looking out for projects that she thinks will be interesting because of the social or political points of view.”

Together, Pollard and Gandbhir create a methodical portrait, capturing the accumulation of people, motives and goals that created the movement at Lowndes county. They also home in on what makes the story of Sncc, the LCFO and its unsung heroes like John Hulett, Ruby Sales and Judy Richardson stand apart from civil rights era narratives that celebrate influential individuals like Martin Luther King Jr. The Sncc succeeded by “organizing from the ground up, not lionizing anybody at the top”, says Gandbhir.

She points to an argument made by Kwame Ture, the Sncc organizer who coined the slogan “Black Power”. Then called Stokely Carmichael, Ture pointed out that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) would be lost without their leader, Martin Luther King Jr. “That is the danger where the people didn’t necessarily feel that they themselves had the actual power to impact change,” Gandbhir explains, adding that Sncc’s model ensured that every individual organizer or citizen exerting their voting power recognized why and how their voice matters. “As they say, strong people don’t need strong leaders ... You want the movement to outlive you. Ideally, you’re working yourself out of a job. That was Sncc’s concept of organizing and one that we need today.”

I turn the conversation to some of today’s activists, specifically those who have achieved internet notoriety. The day before this interview, Ziwe, the comic talkshow host who knows how to capitalize on awkward silences, aired her interview with DeRay Mckesson. He’s an activist who was on the ground at Ferguson, allied with Black Lives Matter and founded the police reform movement Campaign Zero. Ziwe asked Mckesson about a fellow celebrity activist Shaun King, who has been criticized for allegedly mismanaging money and capitalizing on his clout. Mckesson, who has also received his fair share of criticism, talked about how fame could erode activism, as Ziwe raised a pointed eyebrow at her guest. A chyron onscreen punctuated the irony, paraphrasing the famous activist as saying: “Fame is bad for activism.”

I ask Gandbhir and Pollard, given the tenets learned from Lowndes county, about their thoughts on these activists and some of the organizational criticism in today’s movements. Pollard shakes his head, letting out a big “nooooo”. He’s exerting his influence as the wise owl role in the conversation, simultaneously responding to me and warning Gandbhir that it is not her place to respond.

“We’re film-makers,” says Pollard. “It’s not our job to use our film to critique present-day movements.”

I take the query a step further, asking about their thoughts on bad faith players like Candace Owens, the conservative commentator who got Kanye West’s ear, works to discredit movements like Black Lives Matter and sows doubt regarding George Floyd’s murder. Lately, we’ve been inundated by YouTube ads for Owens’ documentary, spreading her arguments to the algorithmically vulnerable.

Pollard and Gandbhir remain wary about addressing any specific players, but remind why it’s important to tell truthful and impactful stories like Lowndes County; stories they feel, again, were suppressed by the powers that be for a reason.

“Disinformation and propaganda has always been a tool used to suppress, oppress and destroy communities and civilizations,” says Gandbhir. “It’s how certain groups feel that they can win.

“One group tells you it’s raining. The other group tells you it’s not raining. Our job is to go outside and see if it’s raining. That’s how I look at it. That’s what we try to do in the storytelling.”

  • Lowndes County And The Road To Black Power is now out in US cinemas with a UK date to be announced