On Feb. 25, author and Ohio State University history professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries presented "Freedom Politics: From the Black Panthers to Barack Obama" to a packed College Union Ballroom.
Jeffries, who received a doctorate in 20th century American history from Duke University in 2002, drew heavily from his book Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in the Alabama Black Belt. The book traces the origins of the Black Panther symbol and freedom politics to rural Lowndes County, Ala.
In 1965, none of the 5,122 African Americans who made up 80 percent of Lowndes County's population were on the voter registry. The county later became famous for the oppressive violence and "racial terrorism" that took place there.
According to Jeffries, the "first ripple agitated the pond" on March 1 when 39 black demonstrators approached the county courthouse demanding to be added to the voter registry and were turned away.
It was into this spirit of resistance that the young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee entered. With the help of SNCC volunteers who "challenged the idea that challenging power is futile," some blacks in Lowndes County began signing their names to the voter registry in a show of resistance to the white supremacy that dominated the South during the era. The 1965 Voters Rights Act sent mobile voter registration centers to Lowndes and 500 other counties.
Jeffries noted that even after blacks were technically granted the right to vote, they were quick to realize that it does not "profit a person to have the vote if he isn't able to control it," saying that neither of the major political parties at the time were responsive to the demands of the black community. He said the goals of the movement "expanded beyond the ballot" to include securing equal education, economic empowerment and an end to racial violence.
In late 1965, community members working with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founded a new, independent political party: The Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The party decided upon the "snarling black panther" as its symbol. The panther, Jeffries said, is indigenous to Alabama and is a "peaceful animal [that], when cornered, comes out fighting for life or death." The Black Panther symbol, "born of rural sharecroppers and domestic workers," eventually came to be recognized as "the national symbol of black power in America."
According to Jeffries, organizers of the party wanted not to replicate existing American politics but to "create a new kind of democratic politics … freedom politics." He defined freedom politic as "a new kind of political power that promotes the interests of those who have the least" and seeks to "democratize decision making." The organizers of the party worked not only to mobilize voters but also to educate and empower them to actively demand their rights.
Eventually, some of the LCFO candidates did make it into elected office, and Jeffries said they "proved to be very good American politicians."
"However," Jeffries added, "they were sent there to do better than the traditional practice. The black movement was moving away from freedom politics."
Jeffries then addressed the historic election of President Barack Obama, saying that while some have called Obama's presidency a "new movement," he would rather classify it as "a moment, not a movement."
According to Jeffries, Obama's election was followed by "a rapid demobilization of the energy that had swept him into office." He said all is not lost, though, and encouraged voters to remobilize and put pressure on the president to return to the lessons of freedom politics.