I have written here before about the Greatest Generation, born between about 1909 and 1929 and celebrated for enduring the adversities of childhood and youth during the Great Depression and for heroic service in World War II. Their avatar and spokesman is John F. Kennedy, whose handsome face ornaments the half dollar and whose eloquent words announced the passing of the torch to his own “new generation of Americans.”
But in reality, most of the Greatest did not look much like the face on the fifty-cent piece. At least half of them were women (think Rosie the Riveter), and many of them were not white. One of the Greatest of these, like JFK, was born in 1917, the year we have just celebrated as his hundredth anniversary. For that and for more important reasons, it’s an auspicious moment to pay attention to another member of that Great Generation.
Fannie Lou Townsend, 20th child of Mississippi sharecroppers, was born in the same year as the 35th president, but her childhood could not have been more different. She began chopping cotton when she was six, was often hungry, and went to school in a one-room shack—but only through sixth grade, and only during the months between harvesting and planting cotton. [In For Freedom’s Sake, her biography of Hamer, Chana Kai Lee says “During Fannie Lou’s school-age years (approximately 1924-1930), school expenditure per black child averaged a little less than 20 percent of that for each white child in the state.”] When Fannie Lou grew up she married Perry (“Pap”) Hamer and moved with him to the plantation in Ruleville, Mississippi where he worked. Because she was good with numbers and trusted by her peers, she got the job of “timekeeper”—the person who kept track of bales picked and money due to each worker. When she saw the owner cheating her co-workers, she did what she could—mostly, by adding weight to the scales—to get people paid fairly for their work.
The Hamers had two babies born dead and raised two girls whose families could not take care of them. They would have liked more children, but when Hamer was in her early forties she went into the hospital for minor abdominal surgery. When she woke from the anesthetic she discovered that she had been given what she and others called a “Mississippi appendectomy”—an unasked for, unnecessary hysterectomy. This assault on the bodies of black women—forced sterilization—was common practice in the Delta during the American Midcentury; it was believed to cut down on “welfare” costs.
In the summer of 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) arrived in the Mississippi Delta. Hamer heard SNCC leaders Bob Moses and James Forman, among others, speak at William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Ruleville; she said later that she had not been aware until then that “a Negro could register and vote.” With seventeen others, Fannie Lou volunteered to try to register, and SNCC chartered a bus to take them to the county courthouse in Indianola. There they were met by an angry crowd armed with guns and dogs, and before they were allowed even to enter the courthouse they had to provide information about where they were employed. This information was turned over—as they knew it would be—to their employers and to the White Citizens Council. So-called “literacy” tests were administered, read, and judged by the county clerk. Hamer was asked to interpret the section of the Mississippi constitution dealing with de facto law; she later remarked that she knew as much about it as a horse knows about Christmas. She failed the test, of course—as did all the others, as they were intended to do—and they started for home. Along the way their bus was stopped for being “too yellow” (it was an out-of-service school bus), and the driver was ordered to pay a hundred-dollar fine or go to jail. Driver and passengers among them could not come up with that much money, so they decided to be arrested all together. At that point the authorities lowered the fine to thirty dollars to avoid the nuisance of taking them all to jail.
I tell this story to remind us what it was like to try to vote if you were an African American in Mississippi (and many other places) in 1962, and because it is useful to remember in 2018, when some Americans are attempting, too often successfully, to take the vote away from others (See this post for a particularly egregious example of the latest attempts by Republicans at racial gerrymandering in North Carolina.) I tell it too because the incident marked a turning point in the struggle for the vote in Mississippi and in the development of Fannie Lou Hamer as a leader and activist. The volunteers acted in solidarity. They faced down a crowd, and they persisted despite inevitable reprisals from their employers as well as county officials and an angry crowd. They worked together and they worked with SNCC. Hamer was identified by SNCC as well as her friends and neighbors as a leader, and by her enemies as a troublemaker.
The Hamers were thrown out of their house by their employer/landlord, her husband lost his job, and her family and others who sheltered her suffered various kinds of retaliation. Once singled out as a special target of the endemic racist violence of Mississippi whites, Hamer was never again out of danger. Nonetheless she attended SNCC trainings, became a field secretary for COFO (the umbrella organization of civil rights organizations in the South), passed the “literacy” test after a second attempt, and eventually acquired the two poll tax receipts that Mississippi required of voters. She cast her first vote in 1964.
But before she ever voted, there was worse to undergo. On June 9th 1963, Hamer and a group of her colleagues returned home by bus from a SNCC training in Charleston, South Carolina. In order to test some of what they had just learned about the laws and regulations governing public transportation, some of them sat at a whites-only lunch counter in Columbus, Mississippi. Later, when they were told that “niggers were not to be in front of the line” to re-board the bus after a stop, they protested this as illegal under a recent ruling (Bailey v. Patterson). Ominously, the driver made several phone calls along the way, and when the bus reached Winona, Mississippi, the riders were greeted by a grim group of officers, arrested, and escorted to the Montgomery County jail. There they were taken to the cells and beaten—Hamer, so badly that her kidneys were permanently damaged, she was blinded in one eye, and her limp (one consequence of a childhood bout with polio) was afterward much more pronounced. For the rest of her life, in fact, she was never completely free of pain. When she famously said that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired”—the epitaph that is carved on her tombstone—she spoke the exact truth.
Hamer frequently told the Winona story; she wanted her fellow-citizens to recognize the cost of voting rights. In this new era of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and claims of voter fraud designed to keep people—especially people of color—from the polls, I repeat it for the same reason.
While the prisoners were held in the cells they were tormented by death threats: they overheard officers talking loudly about disposing of their corpses in the Big Black River, where black bodies had been thrown before. In their pain and fear they were sustained by Hamer, who managed to recite Scripture and to sing, despite her terrible injuries. Her voice was remarkable, apparently even under these circumstances. No one who heard Fannie Lou Hamer sing ever forgot the experience: we can still get some sense of it, thanks to YouTube.
On June 12th 1963, through the efforts of SNCC and of Andrew Young and Julian Bond, among others, at SCLC, the prisoners were released. Hamer was rushed to the hospital—first to Greenwood, then transferred to Atlanta because her injuries were so severe. When her sister visited her in the hospital, she said she could not recognize Fannie Lou after the beating. Nonetheless, when the Department of Justice filed suit that September against the Winona officers for deprivation of civil rights, the case was heard by a judge who called the prisoners “niggers” and decided by an all-white, all-male jury that found the defendants not guilty. The verdict was delivered in spite of the evidence of the prisoners’ bloody clothes—preserved through the quick thinking and courage of the 16-year old June Johnson—and the testimony of a doctor who had examined Hamer and one of her colleagues. This horrific miscarriage of justice seemed like ancient history a few years ago; now, I wonder.
The story has been preserved out of hundreds or thousands like it mostly because it became part of the legend of Fannie Lou Hamer, who made sure it was remembered. But it was also significant in context and timing. In response to events in Alabama, where Governor George Wallace was defying the federal government and performing his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” at the University, President Kennedy made his major civil rights speech (actually his only one) on June 11th, the day before the prisoners were released. And Medgar Evers was murdered on June 12th, the day the prisoners were let go. We tend to remember the summer of 1963 for the March on Washington in August, but the earlier, brutal days of June are sometimes forgotten. Fannie Lou Hamer and her companions were, perhaps, “lucky” that they were not murdered immediately after their arrest; even the Winona police may have become aware, while they held these prisoners, that national attention had turned towards the deep south.
When she had recovered as far as possible from her injuries, Hamer returned to her work in the Delta: canvassing, singing, and speaking up for voting rights and to help those who were suffering in the same cause. She raised money for food and clothing for people who lost their homes and their jobs because they registered to vote or encouraged others to do so. She also kept trying to work with the Mississippi Democratic Party, which wanted nothing to do with African Americans or with voting rights; they changed the time and place of meetings, for example, when Hamer and her colleagues tried to attend. Hamer ran for Congress in the Democratic primary in the spring of 1964, remarking later that it had been easier to become a candidate for Congress than to register to vote. Her campaign had little staff and less money, and she lost by a margin of 35,218 to 621. In the long run, those Democrats who wanted voting rights for black people in Mississippi had to organize a party of their own.
In August 1964, less than a year after the assassination of President Kennedy, the Democrats held their national convention in Atlantic City. President Johnson wanted, above all, a smooth nomination, free of intra-party conflict. Neither Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey (who feared for his nomination to the vice presidency), nor the other party leaders welcomed the arrival of 68 Mississippi Freedom Democrats. Unlike other delegates, the MFDP traveled to New Jersey by bus and stayed at a cheap motel; some of them slept on the floor to save money. They came to challenge the credentials of the “regular” delegates, whom they called unrepresentative of both the people of Mississippi and the principles of the national party. (This was no exaggeration; many or most of them were, in fact, “Democrats for Goldwater.”) The MFDP made its major challenge on constitutional grounds: by excluding black people, they insisted, the “regular” delegation violated the 14th Amendment.
The Freedom Party made a persuasive case, aided by presentations from Martin Luther King, James Forman, and Roy Wilkins. They won hearts as well as minds, though, when Fannie Lou Hamer spoke. Credentials Committee members wept with her when she recounted the beatings in Winona, and when she concluded:
“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”
The Freedom Party was not seated. LBJ, who believed he was already carrying the burden of forcing civil rights on his own party and on the country, was furious at the interruption. He called a sudden press conference to interfere with the TV coverage of Hamer’s presentation, but that strategy backfired when the speech was rebroadcast later in the day and watched by even more viewers. In the days that followed, various compromises were offered to the MFDP, including an offer of seats on the convention floor for two designated people (not to include Hamer: Hubert Humphrey told the delegates that “the President will not allow that illiterate woman to speak from the floor of the convention.”) There was a painful struggle between the compromisers, including most of the national civil rights leaders, and the hard-liners, including Hamer. Thanks in great part to her stubborn refusal, no compromise was accepted. The delegation went home having lost the battle, but with significant progress in the long war—the war we thought was won .
Fannie Lou Hamer went home angry—angry at the system, and angry at those of her colleagues who had been willing to accept a compromise. She identified with the sharecroppers of the Delta, not with suit-wearing, middle-class African Americans or their white liberal allies, and she spent the rest of her too-short life fighting for people without resources, voice, or vote. After 1964, when she was recognized as the spirit behind Mississippi Freedom Summer and as the eloquent spokesperson for the MFDP, her life did not become easier. She was, as she said, sick and tired, and she died in 1977. At her funeral, a great number of poor people who came to mourn were unable to get into the church, which was filled with dignitaries. She would have been displeased, but not at all surprised.
Fannie Lou Hamer belonged to an extraordinary generation that included Rosa Parks (1913) and Claudia Jones (1915). We need their memory now as we face repeated assaults on the voting rights for which Hamer and so many others suffered so much. As attack follows attack, a hundred years after her birth, I find myself repeating Hamer’s words over and over: “I question America.”
Comments always welcome, below