Women and two men standing outside a polling station in the Alabama Black Belt, Jim Peppler Southern Courier photograph collection, ADAH
A Story from Here
William McKinley Branch wanted something more than what life in Greene County, Alabama had dealt his father. Every year, his father tried to pay off the $500 he owed to the white man whose land he sharecropped. But no matter how many bales of cotton he made, he never broke even. One day, Branch hopped on a milk truck down to the city of Demopolis, paid someone a quarter to bring him the twenty miles to Uniontown, and then walked the remaining thirty miles to Selma, the hub of the western Alabama Black Belt. He made his way to the door of the president of Selma University – the area’s premier black educational institution – and appealed for admission. He was later admitted and after graduation returned to Greene County as a Baptist minister.
The poverty of his area of Alabama brought him into the Movement. Black residents fortunate enough to have jobs, worked the fields for less than $500 per year. Branch decided that the Movement needed to come to Greene County, and he founded the Greene County Civic Organization, as well as a branch of the NAACP in the early sixties. He also began a voter registration drive.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 permanently shifted the political landscape of the Alabama Black Belt. Thousands of new Black voters enabled Blacks to seek and win local offices. In 1970, Blacks won every governmental seat in Greene County, a triumph that Rev. Branch’s earlier organizing had laid the groundwork for. “We have a Black man for sheriff. You don’t have to worry as much about head-whippin’s,” a farmer and truck driver from Lowndes County explained. “No, it ain’t justice, still a long way from it. But it’s better than it has been.”
The Alabama Black Belt stretches like a band across the lower third of the state, encompassing 17 counties. The dark, fertile soil it was named for gave rise to sprawling cotton plantations of the 19th century, which in turn relied on the labor of enslaved men and women to work the fields. African Americans experienced a brief taste of political freedom and economic opportunity during the years after the Civil War, but white vigilantism and political terrorism restored white supremacy’s reign, ushering in the era of Jim Crow segregation. Cotton remained the Black Belt’s economic lifeblood through World War II. Black sharecroppers worked the land with little say in the matter, while white landlords, wholesalers, and merchants in regional centers, like Selma and Demopolis, profited off cotton’s trade. Despite being barred from voting, Black residents pooled their resources to build schools, adopt profitable farming methods, buy their own land, and form organizations like the Masons, mutual aid societies, and churches. These networks formed a base for later civil rights organizing. By the 1960s, cattle and mechanical cotton pickers had driven many black families from the land, leaving them with few job opportunities. In the wake of the Voting Rights Act, black residents struggled with how to leverage their new-found political power in the face regional economic stagnation.
Sheryll Cashin, The Agitator’s Daughter: A Memoir of Four Generations of One Extraordinary African American Family
Gaillard Frye, Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt