Interviewer: Carroll Blue
Production Team: A
Interview Date: October 18, 1988
Camera Rolls: 1011-1014
Sound Rolls: 105-106
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Bob Mants, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 18, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
OK, Bob, first question I have for you is what we were talking about, can you describe Black Power and how it happened. I know you were saying it's something that came by the seat of the pants.
The, describe Black Power?
Mm-hmm, what it means.
Oh, well, I think what Black Power means is the empowerment of Black people to make decisions that affect their lives, essentially that's what it means. Not just politically, but economically, socially, culturally, those kinds of things that, ah, oh, decisions that affect their lives.
Now, you were saying it came by kind of haphazardly.
No, I didn't say that. I didn't mean that Black Power came by haphazardly. What I was talking about, ah, ah, in many instances, ah, ah, people take for granted that there was, when, when things happen, that there was some very carefully thought out process, ah, to make 'em happen. And in many instances, that's not the case. It just happened to be by happenstance or circumstance that things come about.
Can we stop for a second?
OK, Bob. Now I heard that SNCC saw Lowndes County as a test case. I wanted to know, because they said that something different was happening here. And I'm really asking the questions why that SNCC did come into Lowndes--
I've heard SNCC saw Lowndes County as something different, as a test case, and I wanted to know from you why SNCC first decided to come to Lowndes County.
Well, prior to 1965, SNCC had had, ah, staff members in Alabama. But then, the staff was small, ah, Lowndes County had the reputation of being the most violent, ah, county in the State of Alabama. It had a hu- long history of violence and, and um, of repression. Ah, when we first, when Stokely Carmichael and I came to, ah, Alabama, we came, ah, to participate, ah, be a part in and around the Selma to Montgomery march. It was in Selma that we decided that we wanted to tackle Lowndes County. I had just come from, ah, South Georgia, working there with SNCC. And Carmichael came over from, ah, Mississippi. Ah, not so much as, as in a past case, but in other places the Civil Rights Movement for the most part had been built around students, young people. Here was an opportunity, especially with the voting rights act, ah, in, ah, passage in the in the making, ah, it would seem to us that it would be a lot more appropriate to deal with those, that group of people who were able to register their vote. And they were not youth to that time. Ah, so this, ah, I think was a major contributing factor to our coming into Lowndes County. And the abject fear that Black people had here.
Did they ask you or did you ask them to come?
Well I think it was a combination of both. Ah, with Selma to Montgomery march coming through Lowndes County, Stokely Carmichael and Judy Richardson, ah, Scott B. Smith and myself came to Lowndes County to pass out leaflets and, ah, buttons and everything else, information. Ah letting folk know that the Selma to Montgomery March was coming through. And some people, ah, ah, asked us why not come to Lowndes County. I remember very distinctly one lady described, ah, the march from Selma to Montgomery as, in the biblical that, "I, John saw that number, no man can number." And, ah, she was quite pleased to see ah the civil rights activity coming through her county and coming to her county.
Now getting back to that question of Black Power again. Go back over it again. I want to put it in the context of Lowndes County and what was happening. Can you describe to us what Black Power means?
Well I think what Black Power meant then and means still means the same thing. It means the self determination of people. People being able to participate in the decisions that affect our lives; politically, socially, economically, culturally, ah, to put it very, ah, ah, succinctly that people have an opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their lives. And that means, ah, Black Power.
Now some people say that, ah, Whites increased the balance during the Black voter registration in Lowndes County. And there were mass meetings and locals began to carry arms. I'd like to know whether the SNCC's nonviolence philosophy was able to work in this kind of situation, this dangerous situation.
Well, ah, there are many of us who, who come from, who came from different backgrounds. At an early part of, ah, my involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, ah, we had try to, to take the nonviolence ah as a way of life. It was my mother who told me differently. Ah, ah, it was not the people who called themselves the Black militants or revolutionaries. It was mother who told me that I could not be anything dead. Ah, the situation here in Alabama at that time was one of, of violence all over. There was constant fear for our lives. It was immediate and present danger, the awful talk about even the danger seen and unseen. And so it was mother who taught me differently about, around the question of vi- violence and nonviolence. It was not a question of violence and nonviolence. It was a question of whether or not you'd be able to live to see the next day. And we had to do what was necessary at the time to ensure that ourselves and our constituents, people that we loved and worked for, in this kind of way but to live. It just was the matter of survival.
I want to get more to the sacrifices that went on around registering to vote. And I understand that many people went homeless, ah, because they did register to vote. And they moved to Tent City. I want to get a little bit more into what Tent City was about in terms of what SNCC did, ah, to make it possible for people to begin to move toward independence.
You know at that time, ah 19- roughly '65, 1965, the population is kind of roughly 81 percent Black. This county's had a history ah even during the period of slavery of being the majority, a majority Black county. Ah, in 1860, I believe it is, was, ah, this county was roughly 75 percent, ah, ah, slaves during that time. So it has a history of, of being a majority Black county. One of the other things, the thing that happened during the Civil Rights, ah, Movement is that because people be, were living on plantations, and because they were registering for the first time in record numbers, ah, they were being put off the places. Ah, they were, they lived in plantations by these, ah, large wealthy landowners and they were being put off as a result of their registering to vote. I'm reminded of a man who for 35 years, who had worked on this plantation, and when he went to register to vote, and it was found out that he had registered to vote, the man sent for him to bring his truck. What led to a, that led us to try to do something to keep those people who wanted to stay in Lowndes County, ah, to try to provide them with some place to stay. And we did that the best we knew how at the time by providing tents that was donated through SNCC and other people from around the country, ah, to locate these families that were, ah, being put off because of them attempting to register to vote. Ah, people made great sacrifices. Many of their families were split. There were some people who left the county, who moved north with relatives in Detroit and elsewhere. People left, ah, and moved other places. One of the fortunate things, ah, in retrospect is that everybody who stayed here who was put off because of their participation in registration now owns their own home. Ah, the community came together at that time. Ah, they would go to Montgomery and buy a used new building materials. People in the community would come together and build houses. There were a couple of instances in which folk got their houses that way. And that was another attempt on the part of some of us in SNCC, ah, SNCC staff to be able to purchase plots of land for people to be able to still live here in the county.
So we were talking then about the Alabama Poor People's Land Fund. How did that come about?
Well it really came about as a result of some people in SNCC.
I want you to tell me what came about, not just it.
The Alabama Poor People's Land Fund came about as a result of, ah, some people in, with SNCC, especially here in Lowndes County, and some other places in Alabama recognizing the need for people to own land as a, as a source of their independence. People, ah, the people who had been put off, off the land for that participation and voter registration were the people who did not own the land, didn't have a place to go. The Alabama Poor People's Land Fund came about as a result of ah Tim O'Harris, ah, ah, Stokely Carmichael and myself putting together and raising monies to be able to buy land and were virtually given and hold that land in perpetuity. For people who had been, ah, displaced because of that, ah, ah, voter registration for that participation in voter registration. Ah, we understand, understood very clearly the relationship of the politics to the economics and how land played an important part in that.
I want to shift a little bit and go into the Jonathan Daniels' murder. And I know this was something that was real big in the media and to America. But now how did SNCC feel about the murder of Jonathan Daniels?
Well, with Jon, it was a murder. And we've, and that's how I think our position on it was. It was a blatant, outright murder of Jonathan Daniels and the shooting of Father Mor- who was, Father Richard Morrisroe. There were some people who had been working with SNCC who was involved around that whole episode ah that still, it was a murder. During that time, ah, the races in Alabama were so polarized that, ah, ah, almost, I know very, for the first nine months that I was in Alabama I went to a funeral or memorial service every month. Ah, the violence that took place, ah, and it had to do with the state of Alabama which is unlike Mississippi and Alabama, ah, Mississippi and Georgia for example. In Alabama, 1966, when the governor's wife ran for, ah, for the governor, state of Mis- of Alabama. He could have ran his yard dog and his yard dog would have ra- won as governor of Alabama. The allegiance was to the state. It was much more organized as it was i- in Mississippi and in, in Georgia. The allegiance was to the state. So what you had at the state, at the helm of the state, was the last vestige of the old south as I like to call it. And that was civilized by George Wallace, ah, to the extent that George Wallace could get on the television. And then the news media, and say, "We have these outsiders in the state stirring up trouble," and we knew that somebody was going to die in Alabama that night. Or that day. It was just, it was that the, the, the, the tension, the racial polarization and the violence was that, ah, ah, pronounced in Ala- in Alabama during that time.
Now what about the Whites that came in to work with SNCC workers, how were they perceived? Did their presence make local Whites more violent?
Yes, yes it did. And in most places, ah, ah, in the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the South when that was obviously an effort, an integrated, ah, ah, working team, or an integrated civil rights workers, there was always, of course it got attention not only from Whites, but it got attention from Blacks.
OK now what got attention?
The fact that they were integrated. There were Blacks and Whites working together. Ah, was always a, a, a sore, ah, stand out. A sore thumb that folks were, were, ah, readily saw. And, ah, ah, always reacted to it in one way or another. If it's no more just stares or snickers or the other extreme, were, were of violence.
Was there a discussion here with SNCC around what to do about that? Did you decide to keep working with Whites or--
Well there were never many Whites working in this situation here in Lowndes County. We had had the experience. We had drawn on our years of experience in other places when we came here. Ah, we thought if a county were this, ah, kind of population that our best interest, and in a best interest in this county that to the extent possible we minimize the participation of Whites. There were some that did come, but they weren't here for very long as a matter of fact.
So an independent Black political party was formed out of the struggle. And I wanted to know why such a party was able to get formed. What was the reasons and rationale behind this forming?
Well I think there are basically two reasons. One is that--
Basically two reasons for--?
For the, the establishment of the independent political party.
Let's repeat that.
Lowndes County. Basically there were two reasons for the establishment of the independent political party here in Lowndes County. One is that Blacks were not allowed to participate in the democratic party here. When Blacks attempted to run the interest fee, the qualifying fees were raised to the extent that they could not raise the money or to qualify. The other reason is very, is simply, there was a recognition on the part of those of us who were registering people to vote, not just here in Lowndes County but other places in Alabama, that even after we got them registered to vote, the places where they voted were still controlled by the same people. Ah, the notion of forming an independent political organization, ah, party at the local level is one that was attractive to, to a number of people. Ah, not just the, the civil rights workers, but also people in the county. They need to own their own political party so they can determine their own political destiny. As a result of that effort the Lowndes County, ah, Freedom Organization was formed, ah, here in this county, with the Black panther as its emblem.
We're talking about the independent Black political party. And what I want to know now is what role SNCC played in that and how this wonderful comic book that gives a description to people of, of what was going on. I would like for you to talk about that comic book as well as other roles that SNCC played in the forming of this party.
Once the recognition of, people decided they wanted to form an independent political party, then what was necessary was to do the research. Alabama state law, ah, the code of Alabama sets out, ah, how to form an independent political organization. Ah, SNCC's research department in Atlanta did the research on it. Ah, part of the way of educating the general public as to how to go about forming political organizations was through the use of a comic book. Ah, the, the emblem that was used, the PR that was used, selection of candidates, my particular job was that, ah, at that time was, my job was to do the workshop for the candidates. My job was to go through very careful details of what the job of the tax assessor was. What the job of the sheriff was as required by law, etc. So SNCC played a major part in that. Ah, there was also, ah, an Alabama code, Alabama law that said what had to be done on the first, ah, convention. Ah, the first, ah, election in the formation of the organization that took place, ah, during, ah, during that time.
Now those comic strips, how did that get done? What was the story behind that?
Well, ah, part of it in the rural South, the South is known for its story-telling. How people tell tales. Ah, anecdotes, the, the idea was to find a medium in which we could mun- communicate a political message to, ah, constituents see. So our constituents here in Lowndes County. We thought the best way to do that was through, ah, ah, the kind of comic book that we had using the kind of idioms and folk expressions that they were familiar with. And we thought it was quite successful. Again, ah, one of the requirements of Alabama law was that each political party must have an emblem. And the candidates must, ah, come on the emblem on the ballot. And I think that's in large part due to the fact that Alabama has one of the highest illiteracy rates, ah, ah, ah, illiteracy rates in the nation. So to help people who cannot read and write be able to identify with a particular symbol. And for Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the emblem was a Black panther.
Tell me more about that. How did that come about?
Well, ah, the Black panther was drawn by Ruth Howard. Ruth Howard, ah, had been a student at Howard University along with ah, Stokely Carmichael, and Cortland Cox, and others who were active in SNCC and in the Civil Rights Movement. And it was said that, ah, Cortland Cox who must have been 6'1", 6'2" at the time, big dark cat who in their college years used to wear this big cloak. Ah, and he would, Cortland would always go around like he was cold all the time in the middle of August. And some of his, ah, college, ah, buddies said he looked like a Black panther. And so the idea of a Black panther as the emblem of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, ah, ah, came about. In, ah, I guess ah, in recognition of the name in style of Cortland Cox, but Ruth Howard at a, at a place right down the road on a family's kitchen table where the, ah, Black Panther's emblem was drawn. And, ah, people liked that ah here in the county. It became Lowndes County Freedom Organization's emblem.
Now was it hard for just any local people to run for office?
Yes. Ah, and you can sort of understand why. It has a lot to do with the economics. Those people who ran, ah, ah, on the first, the first time Black people ran in this county, it has to do with, with the ownership of land. Historically in the Civil Rights Movement, not only here but elsewhere, people who have a tendency to own their own land are much more independent. We got the greatest participation, ah, not just here in Alabama, but, ah, throughout the South. But people were independent landowners. Land had been in their families for a generation. Ah, so initially there were, people were afraid. But for the most part those people who were the first candidates here in this county were people who owned their own land.
You've got that slogan, "Vote for the panther then go home." Tell us about that.
Well the idea was to, to create a kind of jingle that people could memorize. "Vote for the panther, then go home." First of all they could not vote in more than one political party. They could not vote for the panther and then vote in a democratic or republican party for example. So we wanted them to vote for the panther then go home. Ah, people would associate or memorize the jingle, or associate it with the Black panther at the emblem and pull a lever, lever for the party. Ah, a classic, ah, ah, photograph that was around for years was this fellow guarding this sign. We had posters all over. The home made posters we made that says, "Pull the lever for the panther then go home." Ah, it helped in the number of persons that turned out to vote. These are people again who are voting for the first time in our lives. And some of these were elderly people.
Can you tell me some story about someone who was particularly inspirational voting for the first time.
Well not only voting, but registering for the first time. Ah, I think, ah, if there was any one incident that, that, ah, ah, heightened my spirit was at the old jail house when people registered to vote. And the person who was the sheriff at the time came out and said, "Y'all niggers get away from here. Y'all, I'm going to get my shotgun. Y'all disturbing my mother." And that was an old man whose name was Will Jackson who came to me and said, "Bob," she said, "We ain't going no where today." He said, "If we back up now, we'll be backing up another 100 years." And for some reason or another, spirit took off and everybody said, "We ain't going no where today. You going to have to kill us right here." Ah, it was that kind of spirit that overcame, ah, that came over the group and we just stood there that day. And if they were going to kill us, then they would have to kill us that day.
So finally in May 1966 you reached that primary and that convention. What's special took place during that day for you that touched your heart?
Well there were, there were several things that, that I think that took place. Ah, here was the first time that, that Black people in any record number registered to vote. But more important than registering to vote was, you, was the beginning of the end to the fear. Ah, you can't imagine, and I can not find words to describe the depth of the fear that people had, ah, historically in this county. The fear that they had of, of, of being killed, of being maimed, of economic reprisals. Ah, that was a beginning of a lessening of the fear that they had. And I think if anything, ah, significant that happened that day, it was that people begin to come out in record numbers to be able to actually take a stand, literally take a stand for what they believed in.
You were telling us about your mother calling you up and talking to you. Can you give us that story of what happened?
What happened, my mother had had two heart attacks. A second heart attack behind the death of Sammy Young who was killed in Tuskegee, ah, in early 1965. I'm the only son and my mother, ah, called me home to explain to me as she laid on her bed that, ah, I can't be nothin' dead. I can't be a son or civil rights worker, or an uncle, or a student, or anything dead. Her experience had, had like so many other of our parents had been in situations in which, when the Klan and the racial violence was so prevalent, they knew through their, ah, experience that this was not a thing to play with. Ah, they knew that Whites and, southern Whites would kill you. No question about it. They told us that. We grew up with that as, as part of our knowledge base of how do you live in a situation in the segregated South. My mother explained to me in very graphic terms that I couldn't be nothing dead. And I took her at her word. I explained to her that, um, I promised her two things. I promised her that no White folk will kill me and no Black folk will drive me crazy. Fifty percent ain't bad. But it was that kind of thing that we learn from our parents. Our parents. Especially those of us who were southerners. And there was a difference between growing up in the segregated south. Ah, and for others who were civil rights workers who came from the north.
You were getting up to something pretty important here. The difference between being a southerner, civil rights worker and a northern civil rights worker and how you related differently to, ah, Lowndes County people.
Well, we, ah, in the South, I came along in the days of segregation when there was distinct communities. There's a Black community, a White community, there were places of public accommodation you didn't go in. We went to the movies. We went up to the peanut gallery at the Fox Theatre on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. Ah, there were, and what happened as a result through the years of hearing your parents and grandparents and other folk tell you these horror stories, and some of the beauty too, that's the other thing. That's on the beauty of coming up, ah, in the South. There were certain kinds of, of notions that we had. There were certain kinds of fixed attitudes. There were certain kinds of, ah, ideals and ideas, ah, that we had. There were, there were, and there were some differences. For me to go into a restaurant, sit in a restaurant, had nothing to do with trying to integrate a restaurant. It has to do with human dignity. It was my God-given right to exercise my humanity because, ah, I was a human being. That's simply what it was. It wasn't to get a hamburger. Because we already knew. We found out, ah, we knew, ah, Colonel Sanders secret recipe years ago. It was Mamma in the kitchen. We knew who cooked the chicken, who, who did it. It was our parents because they had worked in these places in these homes for, for years. It has to do with human dignity, our right. As opposed to some political notion, ah, it was just our right to do it. Our folk had told it. In my particular case, ah, I used to stay with a, with a, a great aunt before I was school aged. And she used to tell me things. And I knew before I was school aged what my mission in life had to be because she told me the horror stories about her life and her husband, and folks that had gone on before them. Ah, and they would always tell you things about how to be a human being. How to stand, how to stand up for what was right, that kind of thing. So I think it, um, was just a natural thing for some of us. We had to do it. It fell into our lot because our fore parents couldn't do it. And we were caught up in a historical time. And it was our generation, our time to, to run with the ball.
Now bring that all into Lowndes County and what that means here. And you're relating to Black people here.
Well I think those of us who, there was no difference from my mother working as a domestic in the kitchen in Atlanta than folk in Lowndes County working in the cotton fields. The same kind of oppression, the same state of degradation was the same. And it has, i- it made it, made no difference. Ah, a lot of it had to do with again with, with idioms, how folk talked. Because a lot of people who are not familiar with our people talk, get- they, folk will say thing, people f- talking when they say, what we say in the rural South, say folk talk in parables. You think they're saying one thing, they're saying something entirely different. Ah, the, that was no problem in terms of, and even, and even in some instances there's a distinction if you pay very close attention between the folk, the way folk talk in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. But basically the, the lines of communication because the, there's a cultural, ah, ah, kind of bonding that made the communication a lot better. So when somebody, there's no, you don't have to sit and explain to somebody who comes from New England what, ah, ah, ah, Miss Bessie Lou say when, what she mean when she say, "I'm going to church tomorrow," for example.
Was there something going on between separating the Black workers and the White workers, SNCC workers in Lowndes County? Speak to that.
Well, you must bear in mind the history. In 1964 there had been the Mississippi Freedom Summer where there had been a lot of Blacks and Whites working in Mississippi. Ah, I believe it was reported that during that summer in Mississippi, there must have been some 20-odd churches burned in Southwest Mississippi and around the state of Mississippi. There were Blacks and Whites, ah, you know Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were killed during that time. And the, the difference is that you n- again, the history was that we were right at the beginning of the voting acts of 1965. Which meant that our concentration had to be with those people who were of voting age. So it was not the young folk, ah, ah, like that carried most of the movement. It was not the youth. It was a people, it was another focus that had to, had to, that we had to, had to focus on those people who were of voting age to get them the right to vote. As far as, ah, the question of, of Black and White, the other thing that came in around the same time was the whole Black Power slogan and movement. The later part of, ah, ah of that same, of the same period. Um, the other thing that was happening in terms of SNCC and with most civil rights organizations that had been effective was the lack of, of donations and public contributions that were drying up. There were Whites who were in SNCC and in the movement, that, ah, prior to my coming to Lowndes County were my friends, we worked together. Ah, during that thing, time, they were still my friends, and after, and since then they still, ah, ah, have been my friends. The division between Wh- White- Blacks and Whites that a lot of people try to blow out of proportion, I think it was out of proportion, there were some of us who, ah, and especially during the early days when we talked about Black and White together, and I distinctly remember my experience down in southwest Georgia. There was a White girl from Philadelphia who used to cook for about 15 or 20 of us on a one-belly, ah, ah, one-eye kerosene stove. And when she got through cooking during the day, she looked like Aunt Jemimah. And, ah, there was never, ah, ah, that kind of thing in the earlier years, that division between Blacks and Whites. I think that was part of the conspiracy to kill SNCC as a matter of fact. I think because once the, the division between Black and White became so pronounced in more places than Lowndes County, we, the question here was always one of survival. From day one, and always remember that, we had to do what was necessary for us to live here. This county had had the reputation of being the most violent county in this state and perhaps throughout the South. Ah, so we were always mindful of, of, of trying to survive here. So if that meant not having White, ah, workers in so that we could live, and get our mission accomplished, then that's what we had to do. And I think it's in that context that the whole question of Black and White must, should be raised, especially here in Lowndes County. And in, in, in the historical setting, ah, as it were during those years.
I think that every generation has its race to run. During our time, during the sixties, it fell our lot to do what we had to do. We had to do, in regards to our human dignity, in civil rights, or whatever you want to call it, fell to our lot. I think the learning experience for me has been since I've gotten older. It's a thing that unites a people. There's a common belief. It transcends race. It transcends geography. It transcends marital ties, blood ties, ah, political affiliation, the things that unite people. There's a common belief. And until, ah, people are united in a common belief, ah, we'll always have these kind of divisions that are superficial; geography, north, south. Ah, race Black/White. Ah, political. Democrat/Republican. Ah, that's all I have to say.