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Letters From the Field
What Would it Profit a Man to Have the Vote and Not be
Able to Control it?
by Courtland Cox,
Field Secretary, SNCC
Late 1965 or early 1966
For many years Negroes, in the black belt of Alabama, have been
the victims of a vicious system of political, economic and
social exclusion. Political exclusion is maintained in many
ways — the denial of Negroes of the right to
vote, service on juries, access to any political office of the
white office holders, and naked brutality whether acting under
color of law or just a plan white sheet.
Economically, Negroes in the rural black belt have been the prime source
of cheap hard labor. They worked the large cotton holdings in Alabama,
hoeing, weeding, planting, picking for $3 a day, if they were lucky. It
they were tenants or sharecroppers they worked under verbal contracts
which were designed to always leave the black man in the red. Socially,
the Negro in the black belt of Alabama always had to leave some of
himself outside when talking to whites, for he knew that to become
"uppity" was to court death. The above history could be continued ad
infinitum for Alabama only represents a minor reflection of the history
of the black man in the United States.
The history of the Negro in the United States, while being a
chronicle of victimization, has also been a history of struggle.
The latest struggle being the brutalization that Negroes,
especially in the black belt of Alabama, received to pass the
Voting Rights Bill, a right already guaranteed by the 15th
Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Since 1961 Negroes in the South have been encouraged to register
and vote. They were encouraged by good citizens, civil rights
groups and the United States government. Negroes were told that they
should risk life and limb so that when they get the right to vote they
would be able to throw off the shackles that previously held them bound.
Many poor blacks in the rural and urban areas felt that if they would
register to vote and exercise that right they could do something about
poor education, unpaved roads, sheriff brutality, the economic and
political intimidation, the everyday social injustices, and, the whites
might even stop calling them "boy."
It even became fashionable in many areas to stand up for the
right to vote for "qualified" Negroes who had been
disenfranchised. After much pressure by the white community and
many thousand gone in the black belt communities, the Congress of
the United States passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as a
A few Federal registrars were sent to the South, and many Negroes
across the black belt, turned out to register and vote (to become first-
class citizens, to exercise their right to the franchise, and to
participate in the American dream.) Many asked, "Now that the Negro has
the right to vote, could he desire anything else?" Others asked, "What
would it profit a man to have the vote and not be able to control it?"
What would it mean for a poor Negro in the black belt to say, "I have
the vote and now I can vote Democrat or Republican?"
"How can my vote be used to get the things I risked life and limb to
If we look at the political situation of the Negro as it has developed
as a result of protest, many whites are willing to accept Negroes. But
they are willing only to accept Negroes who are considered "qualified"
by them. That is to say, Negroes who are of good education and middle-
class economic background. What has developed and is developing in the
South is what is known as bi-racial politics. Whereas before only whites
dominated the political scene, today bi-racial politics intends to
gather moderate whites and middle-class Negroes to define the art of the
possible — politics. To many in this country, this
integrated image is considered good development, however if we look at
the reality, this is a cruel joke.
Let us look at two communities in the North where, as in the black belt,
Negroes are in a high concentration, live in poverty, are the excluded
of the society, and have been promised participation in the American
dream (in the South by voting and in the North by definition of its
being north). In New York "image Negroes" are put up to be borough
president, to serve in many committees, judgeships and on many visible
and high positions. After the appointment of Negroes to high places many
sit back and admire the progress "they", the included, have
accomplished. They say, "What could 'you people' possibly want?" In
Watts its the S.O.S. (same old song). And the Negroes riot.
The fact of the matter is the Negroes, North and South, are not only
black but more importantly, at this stage of the game, poor. They riot
because in many instances this is the only political expression left
open to them. The tragedy is that when Negroes riot they are
politically seen but not heard. So the story of the plot often remains
the same. And they are continually excluded.
The question that faces those who work and live in the South is
can the pointed exclusion and fruitless striking out be avoided?
Are there any new forms that can be developed to give the poor
black a chance to make decisions and control his own political life?
It is now time for the protest movement to enter the realms of politics.
And by protest movement, we don't mean the narrow definition that is
given to CORE, SNCC, SCLC, and other such groups. The energy for this
political thrust has to come from the victims of this country's
political exclusion. It now becomes necessary to develop a political
environment where the organization and organizational participation of
people becomes more important than the politicians' platform. As it now
stands, politics is defined as the art of the possible, inclusive of
few, exclusive of many. The right of people to make decisions about
their own lives is the most fundamental right that a member of a
democratic society can have. And this is the perspective from which the
concept of freedom organizations evolved. The Lowndes County Freedom
Organization, alias the Black Panther Party, attempts to be such a
Lowndes County has a population, according to the 1960 Census, of 15,417
people. Of these, 12,425 are Negro, or 81% of the total county
population. Previous to March 1965, no Negroes in that county were able
to register to vote. After the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, 2,000
Negroes were registered to vote under the Federal registrar. However,
the whites having only 1,900 eligible voters have 2,500 eligible voters
on the books, or over 130% registration.
Most of the Negro families in Lowndes County make less than $1,000 a
year. Most of them are engaged in sharecropping and tenant farming. The
median school years completed by Negroes, again according to the 1960
census, is 5.1 years. Negroes in Lowndes County have all the elements of
deprivation associated with being a poor black.
In an attempt to satisfy their needs — involving
education, decent law enforcement, paved roads, decent housing, good
medical facilities, and all things that they hope for them and their
posterity — they looked to the county court house. The
question was how to get people into the political offices that control
the court house who would be responsive to their needs.
The Republican Party is non-existent; the Democrats, although officially
removing their motto of white supremacy from the rooster, made no other
changes in their long standing policy of racism.
[Under Alabama law at
that time, political parties were represented on the ballot by a symbol
so that illiterate (white) voters would know who to vote for. The symbol
for the Democratic Party was a rooster with the slogan: "White Supremacy
for the Right." It was in this legal context that the Lowndes County
Freedom Organization adopted a black panther as its symbol. See
The Black Panther Symbol.]
In fact, the Chairman of the Lowndes County Democratic Executive
Committee, Dickson, announced that the qualifying fee for the Democratic
primaries would be raised 900% from $50 to $500 for the offices of
sheriff, tax assessor, tax collector, and from $10 to $100 for the
offices on the board of education. The Chairman of this Democratic
Executive Committee is a defendant in a federal court suit seeking an
injunction preventing Lowndes County landlords from evicting Negro
tenants for registering to vote.
Although Negroes are the numerical majority in Lowndes County, the
Democratic party only provides them with white candidates who will
adhere to a policy of less racism. The Negroes of Lowndes County
want a political grouping that is controlled by them. They want a
political grouping that is responsive to the needs of the poor, not
necessarily the black people, but those who are illiterate, those who
have poor educations, those of low income, that is to say, those who are
unqualified in this society. To do this they had to form a group on the
county level, that represented their own interests.
It is going to attempt to go into areas where no one has bothered to go
before, and to talk to people who up until now have not been considered
worthwhile to deal with or represent. And the idea wants to be made real
and take shape in the form of control or the court house, so that they
will be the distributors of any state and federal resources, and taxers
of any industry in their county (for example, Dan River Mills in
Lowndes), the determiners of the quality of education and the money
spent for county schools. If they can put this program into action, a
program sympathetic to the needs of the poor, tremendous amounts of
state or even Federal Money can be unleashed for use in construction of
houses, roads, etc.
There has been some criticism of the concept of the freedom
organization. First, that it will split the Negro vote. Yet, this vote
will always be split if Negroes vote in their own economic and political
interests. In the past poor Negroes have always formed the base of a
pyramid on which those who are qualified were able to gain all the
advantages of the Negro vote. Freedom organizations hope to destroy this
The second criticism is that the freedom organization, because of the
Black Panther as a symbol, and because the majority of the grouping is
Negro, is said to be Black Nationalist. The only symbolic importance of
the panther, is its determination to be powerful and aggressive. The
major emphasis is to bring to the poor and excluded, political power on
the county level, the color of skin is incidental. To the extent that
blackness is seen as a problem is one of the manifestations of a
segregated and racist society.
There are those who say that these people are illiterate, uneducated,
barbaric, and il-equipped to run a government. We say that those people
know their needs and too long have they been ignored. If they cannot
find political expression in what is considered a legitimate process,
they will express themselves "illegitimately".
Copyright © Courtland Cox, 1966.