My Blog

Black Belt civil rights pioneer Hulett passes

John Hulett, the first black office holder in one of the historic Black Belt counties of Alabama, and the co-founder of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, died August 21 at his home in Mosses, Alabama. He was 78 and had been in poor health for several years.

Lowndes County was and is one of the poorest counties in the U.S., despite being adjacent to the state capital. The county lies between Dallas and Montgomery counties and in 1965 the famous Selma to Montgomery march passed through Lowndes. Civil rights martyrs Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels were both murdered in Lowndes, and prior to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there was not a single registered black voter in the county, though the population was 80 percent African American.

Hulett and his fellow activists in the Lowndes County Freedom Organization took their lives in their hands every day to challenge both state power and the unofficial terror of the Ku Klux Klan. But they prevailed, and the black panther they chose as their ballot symbol in Alabama elections was an inspiration to Stokeley Carmichael and other young activists who poured into the Black Belt to help Hulett and others register voters in the mid-1960s. The symbol was later adopted by the founders of the Black Panther Party.

Visitors to Hulett’s small office in the Lowndes Courthouse after he had become sheriff were startled to see hanging on his wall a vicious-looking wood-handled whip that he had inherited with the office. He kept it there, he said, as reminder that it had been used by his predecessors to beat Lowndes’ blacks for years. As sheriff for two decades, Hulett himself often did not wear a gun, and the county was so small and so poor that he often cooked the jail inmates’ meals himself.

Later he also won election as the first African American probate judge in the county, and he mentored a generation of Alabama black office holders who followed in his footsteps. Today, thanks to the gains of the Voting Rights Act, Alabama has more elected black officials than any state in the union.

He is to be buried Saturday, August 26, 2006.