Remembrance of Lowndes County, Alabama
John Jackson
From Trinity College SNCC Reunion, April 1988

Originally published in A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

[It's probable that some or all of the people John mentions by name were sitting next to him on the panel or in the audience, though their laughter, comments and interjections (if any) were edited out.]

See Cracking Lowndes County and Murder of Jonathan Daniels for background & more information.
See also Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) for web links.

Lowndes County, Alabama, straddles Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery, where it's further distinguished as being the place where the marchers camped on the way to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the one which the Ku Klux Klan chased down Viola Liuzzo to kill her that fatal night when freedom refused to take a back seat to fear.

It was in Lowndes County where the Black Panther political party was formed. Its real name was the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights. And its purpose was to allow poor black people to exercise their constitutional rights as U.S. citizens by accepting the nonviolent constitutional means of registration and voting.

This is the American way. Not murder on the highway by night riders, and church bombings, and bus burnings, and standing in the schoolhouse doors, but the patient, fearless, Christian method of education, enlightenment, and conversion of enemies to our just cause.

Don't you believe Bob Mants when he tells you I was begging for him. They were so afraid in Lowndes County 'till they was begging for us. And I was crazy enough to stop my bus and take some of the leaflets. And I went home and I talked to my father about it. We had an abandoned house that my brother had just left, and I said to my father, "Them boys are going to get killed trying to make it back to Selma, and George Wallace is going to hang them if they keep going into Montgomery. So they need a place to stay." My father met with them, and I think he kind of liked those fellows or he was about like me, half crazy. So he said, "Hey, boys, you all could take this house over here, there's nobody staying in it." They were kind of glad, because they used to have to get the hell out of Lowndes County before dark.

So they began to stay in Lowndes County and we began to work. I was driving a school bus, sixteen years old, making $50 a month, and of course the week after I took the leaflets, I was fired. And of course Bob and Stokely assured me that I could be hired with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But the only thing about that was I never got a chance to get with Jim Forman. I wanted to have an executive meeting with him; I never got a check yet.

And to make matters worse, after I lost my job, the large landowners during that time financed the sharecropper, and being one of thirteen children and a son of a sharecropper, we never had no money that year to plant a crop. I was kind of glad, because I didn't want to pick no cotton nowhere. After that, my sister was a schoolteacher in Lowndes County, she was fired and, of course, SNCC said, "We'll find you a job too." Neither one of us received a check yet. My father was supposed to be getting rent on the house, I have not seen that check yet And the white folk in that county called my father in and said, "Hey, you ain't got to be in that mess, you don't need those folks staying there" and, clearly, I remember his words: "If we are not for ourselves then who can be for us?" And we continued to work.

Then, I don't know what happened to me, I graduated, I got a scholarship to Tuskegee, and I would come back every summer to work with the movement, I was just so excited, still hadn't got no check. Ed Geffner, a great friend of mine in Michigan, sent for me to come to Michigan to work in the Ann Arbor Friends of SNCC office that summer. I had never been on a plane before, and I'm without a check yet, but I worked in the SNCC office in Michigan that summer. Then he fooled me the next summer, to take a trip to Russia, I believe; that was long before Nixon or any of them thought about going to Russia. And then when I come back I couldn't get back into my school; they said I was a communist. Still hadn't got a check yet

But one thing that we did, SNCC did for us in that county, they aroused us, getting up off ourselves to do something to help ourselves. And we were really committed, after being shot at seventeen times — seventeen bullets went into the car — and seeing Samuel Younge, Jr., laying down in Tuskegee because he wanted to use the restroom and Jonathan Daniels being forced out of jail, and Gloria was standing by his side, he was shot and killed, and seeing him lay on the ground three or four hours before anybody came to get him. We made a total commitment ourselves. We also offered ourselves up as a living sacrifice.

Every member organization has four kinds of bones. There's a wishbone — folks who sit around and don't do nothing and wish somebody else would do all the work. You also have a jawbone — there's a lot of jawbones in SNCC too — folks who sit around and talk and don't do nothing else. Then you have the knuckle bones — folks who knock everything you do and don't do anything else themselves. And lo and behold, you have the backbone. If I could say anything about SNCC, they were the backbone of the movement. SNCC was the kind of organization who got under the load to do the work.

When they came into Lowndes County, they were different from a lot of other young people. They did not come in there telling us what we needed to do. They came into the county asking "What are the problems? What can we do to help you?" And I remember very clearly, I don't know whether it was Stokely or Bob, but they asked the question: "Can these bones live?" And I was confused about that because I'd always read in the Bible about the dry bones in the valley (Ezekiel 37: 1-14) and I thought that was just a bunch of bones out there laying with nothing on it, you know, and the preachers used to preach the sermon about the bones connecting. And I was confused about that; I didn't realize you could be living, asleep, and be dry bones in the valley, but that's the way we were in Lowndes County. No registered voters, no black people owning their own homes, denied the right to go into the Republican Party to run for office, denied the right to put our name onto the roster.

A lot of people don't understand why we chose the black cat as an emblem. There were a lot of our people could not read and write. And when we did petition to get on the ballot, they typed the name so little we couldn't see it. So we had to have something that people could identify with. I want you to know that when we did petition to get on the ballot, that cat gave that elephant hell and picked all the feathers out of their chicken.

I could hear the old sister over the corner, Mrs. Jackson and all the old sisters used to sing all those songs. When they asked the question, "Could those bones live?" that sister said, "Yes, these bones can live." And then we looked around as we began to get on the ballot and rattle those dry bones in the valley, I began to see Charles Smith move and become first black county commissioner. Then we looked around and saw the head bone begin to move, and we elected the first black superintendent of education. Oh, my goodness, those leg bones began to move, all the way into Montgomery, Alabama, and elected the first black representative and the first black senator from Lowndes County. Then that chest bone began to jump and we elected the first black sheriff of Lowndes County, John Hulett. Oh, we began to rattle those dry bones in the valley.

One thing SNCC taught me is that time does not change things, men change things. When you act, something would happen. If you don't act, won't nothing happen. I'm mayor of Whitehall, Alabama. We've got problems that face this nation that don't discriminate. And I want to challenge you to get involved. Because as SNCC rattled those bones, they challenged us in Lowndes County. They challenged us to dream a little bit before Dr. King started dreaming, I believe. They challenged us to dream of a community, a city, and a county full of love instead of hate. They challenged us to dream of people who were concerned about the human race, not the dog race. They challenged us as a people to bury our weapons and serve the human family.

SNCC challenged us as they rattled those dry bones in the valley. SNCC challenged us to dream of teachers who would teach for life and not just for a living. SNCC challenged those ministers and preachers who would preach and prophesize instead of profiteer. SNCC challenged us to dream in Lowndes County, to dream of lawyers who were concerned about justice and not a judgeship. SNCC challenged us to dream. To dream of the coming elected officials who would become public servants and not politicians.

I challenge you to dream today; to dream of a people who will love one another and who are motivated and obligated to serve the human family. I challenge you today to dream — and when you dream and when you act, something will happen. And when you do that, no greater love than this than a man who will lay down his life for his friend.

Copyright © John Jackson. 1988.

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