Monday, July 2, 2012

Hasan Kwame Jeffries - Bloody Lowndes

Jeffries’ Bloody Lowndes, which both chronicles and contextualizes the Lowndes County freedom struggle of the late 1960s, uses a combination of interviews, archival sources, periodicals and histories to argue – against the canonical view that black militancy destroyed the civil rights movement – that black militancy and separatist ideology, at least in Lowndes County, was a necessary ingredient for the success of the freedom rights (vs. voting rights) struggle.  Although he argues that his thesis holds for the Black Civil Rights struggle as a whole, he centers it around a painstakingly constructed microhistory of Lowndes County, beginning with post-Civil War separatist efforts to build black churches, landholding collectives, and schools; moving through the “Lowndes  Diaspora” and the formation of a strong, geographically diverse social network (whose Detroit arm provided critical fundraising for the LCFO and other local organizations); detailing the interconnections between this local network and SNCC’s unique combination of intensive local activism and political and media know-how; and tracing the eventual corruption and failure of the movement to the departure of SNCC and the integration of its main activists into the local political machine.  Bloody Lowndes shows how the development of Lowndes County’s black community into a strong, grassroots network, in combination with the organizing skills of experienced activists from SNCC, constituted the seeds for a radical democratic revolution.

Bloody Lowndes’ strengths lie in Jeffries’ ability to balance micro and macro perspectives across multiple dimensions, as well as his attention to details that hint at the agentive formation of a separatist black resistance.  It also benefits from well-integrated interdisciplinary work, particularly with respect to history, spatial analysis, and social network theory.  Local struggles – the formation of the LCFO, for instance – develop in tandem with their national counterparts – in this case, SNCC’s desire to try for third party politics again after the Mississippi third party failed; they are also deeply contextualized in a long history that stretches back to the formation of separate black churches in the 1880s and forward into the 1980s and John Hulett’s slide into boss politics.  Formal lawsuits against the federal government share the stage with the emotional dimensions of community meetings and the cartoons that volunteers used to educate an illiterate populace about the duties of various county officials.  Although the discussion of resistance prior to the civil rights era seems rather sparse in comparison to later chapters on the 1960s, these early chapters on post-Civil War black organizing in Lowndes County  reveal Jeffries’ skills at compiling archival documents, many of which were written about freed slaves, not by them,  into a narrative of black agency.  Further, when the narrative slows down in the 1960s, Jeffries’ attention to personal histories, economics, emotions, and the media help the reader feel as if the action is unfolding then and there.  His integration of place – the book opens with a detailed geography of poor, rural Lowndes County – helps situate the narrative in the physical, material conditions of the rural poor; and his use of social network theory helps explain the logistics of the struggle, particularly with regard to educational and fundraising networks.  Jeffries’ particular interdisciplinary approach seems uniquely tailored to his argument that the black Civil Rights struggle was a combination of micro and macro approaches, and as such it is an effective marriage of method and content.

Despite these strengths, however, Bloody Lowndes does have its weaknesses.  While the book is certainly interdisciplinary, Jeffries’ training is in American history, and it is history, more than social networks or geography, that takes a central place in the book.  While historical methods prove incredibly useful for proving his thesis, the other disciplines are key to his arguments, and developing them more fully theoretically would have been helpful.  Further, although the many biographies and descriptions of emotional meetings provide ample psychological and historical context, their relation to the main argument is not always clear.  Is Jeffries merely trying to bring the events to life?  Or is he making a larger claim about the relationships between individualism, emotion, and activism?  Finally, and perhaps most critically, some of the conclusions Jeffries draws from his study of Lowndes County are problematic.  While this narrative provides a powerful counterargument to celebratory integrationist interpretations of the Civil Rights movement, Jeffries conflates his concept of freedom rights with social class, and he ultimately concludes that the failure of the Lowndes County project to raise its black residents out of poverty is a result of people in the movement failing to keep the spirit of revolution going.  He argues that when SNCC pulled out and stopped actively integrating Lowndes County residents into the Civil Right struggle, grassroots support for the struggle faltered and the movement failed to reach all of its goals.  This analysis may have historical traction, but it also begs the question that many other radical revolutionaries have asked: how long can regular people be expected to sustain the revolution?  Can we really fault them for faltering?

Beyond these issues, both the methodology and the content of Bloody Lowndes add substantially to a study of social movements.  Its overall argument that social movements are a combination of national coordination and local struggles closely parallels that in Clay Carson’s’ In Struggle.  And, by narrating the struggle from the perspective of a single community in which SNCC was active rather than from SNCC itself, Jeffries further subverts the ‘great man’ theory that Carson set out to destroy: not only was the Civil Rights movement not led by Dr. King, it was also not led by SNCC – the impetus for it truly came from below.  The book’s use of social network theory to explain the relationship between local struggle and national funding and coordination follows several studies in that field, particularly Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” (1973) and George Ritzer’s “Rethinking Globalization: Glocalization/Grobalization and Something/Nothing” (2003).  Finally, with respect to the failure of Lowndes County to realize more radical goals for social equality, Jeffries’ argument runs curiously parallel to Alain Badieu’s argument in The Idea of Communism: just because Stalin and Mao turned Communism into something awful doesn’t mean that communism is bad – or, in the case of Lowndes County, just because a black separatist movement failed once does not mean that it will always fail or that it has intrinsic faults.  Bloody Lowndes provides an interesting take on the American Black Civil Rights Movement in particular and on a study of social movements more generally.

Jeffries, Hasan Kwame.  Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt.  New York: NYU Press, 2009.

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