It has been said that symbols are tangible objects used to represent the intangible. All cultures have them. They serve as a language all their own.
Whether it’s a nation, sports fans or two people in love, symbols serve as a representation of who we are, what we believe and what’s most important. Inherent in symbols are human values.
The recent release of the new blockbuster Marvel film “Black Panther” is a profound example of the power of a symbol and its ability to unite, inspire and call out the best in people. The superhero in the movie may be fictional, but unbeknownst to many the symbol finds its motivating and uplifting origins here in Alabama.
In his acclaimed historical work “Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America,” University of South Alabama Writer-in-Residence Frye Gaillard chronicles how “the Cradle of the Confederacy became — with great struggle, some loss and much hope — the Cradle of Freedom.”
Gaillard recounts the efforts of civil rights luminaries well known to history, but even more important, he narrates the commitment and actions of everyday men and women that were so pivotal in dismantling the racial caste system that existed in America. From his book, it’s evident the little-known foot soldiers, along with local leaders and their stories, is what formed the backbone of the modern civil rights movement.
One of those lesser-known yet profound stories took place in Lowndes County, in Alabama’s Black Belt. In 1965 Lowndes County was 81 percent black but, as Gaillard makes known, “every instrument of power, political and economic was in the hands of the whites.” The very institutions that should have served to protect the rights of blacks, such as the sheriff and local/state law enforcement, were and had been the very instruments used to murder, terrorize and instill fear.
But fearlessness was beginning to displace fear in Lowndes County.
A group of determined Lowndes County blacks, led by such individuals as John Hulett, formed the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights. They understood that the power to bring change lay in getting blacks registered to vote, and then out to the polls on election day. Young blacks from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) also came to the county to assist.
The number of black registered voters in Lowndes County began to rise. Local blacks even stepped up to run for office. However, there was one major problem: They had no political party. The dominant party of the time, the Democratic Party, had raised its filing fee to $500, putting it out of reach for black candidates.
Lowndes County blacks decided to form their own party: the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. What symbol did they chose to represent their party? A black panther.
Thus, when blacks from Lowndes County went to the polls in the fall 1966, they did so in support of candidates registered under their newly formed Black Panther Party.
Present in Lowndes County organizing and assisting during this time was a young black law student from California named Huey Newton. Newton only stayed a few weeks, but when he went back to California he took the symbol of the Black Panther, and along with his friend Bobby Seale, gave it a new ethos or meaning.
Gaillard relates: “As their [Newton and Seale’s] militancy began to draw national attention, John Hulett and his friends were not at all happy with this use of their symbol … They thought these swaggering young men in the ghettos, who sometimes seemed to be spoiling for a fight, were caught in a different understanding of black power. To them, as far as Hulett could tell, the panther was primarily an emblem of rage. In Lowndes County, Alabama, it was a symbol of democracy, and the militancy that burned at the heart of that [Lownde’s County] struggle was simply a refusal to be pushed aside.”
So it is that from the Black Belt of Alabama came the significance of the Black Panther. For Hulett and other blacks in Lowndes County, this symbol represented the courage and audacity of blacks to believe and act upon their rights as American citizens. To act on a belief that they, without hate or the desire for revenge, could and would exert the type of civic power needed to take a seat at the political and economic table denied them for so long.
It was a symbol of their ability in the present to bring about positive change in the future. It embodied their aspirations and fueled them with inspiration.
In 1970, John Hulett made history. He was elected sheriff of Lowndes County.
The Marvel character Black Panther was birthed in the cauldron of the civil rights movement. Yet the use of the Black Panther as a political symbol and also as a comic book superhero was totally coincidental.
Stan Lee noted in a 2011 interview, “I created the Black Panther with Jack Kirby some years ago, and what I wanted to do … I wanted to create the first black superhero, but I wanted to avoid stereotyping … see, in doing a superhero, the first thing you have to think of is, what is a good name for him, and what is a good superpower? I thought of ‘The Panther,’ ‘The Black Panther.’ It occurred to me I’d set the scene … the stories … in Africa.”
What wasn’t coincidental, though, was that as Lowndes County blacks appropriated the Black Panther as a symbol of power and positive change, for the first time the comic book Black Panther gave black Americans a superhero that looked like them and came from a continent they had for generations wrongly been told was devoid of any significant history, meaning or value.
2018 is a long way from 1966, but the message of that Lowndes County symbol — excellence, agency, unity and possibility — is as compelling and profound now as it was then.