by Lola E. Peters
The most effective speaker and advocate of the Civil Rights Movement was not Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or Jesse Jackson, or any of the myriad names quoted without end during Black History Month. That honor belongs to a woman whose power was drawn not from her title, status, economic, or educational achievements, but from the roots of her experience.
In preparation for the 1964 presidential election, a grassroots movement, led by the Council of Federated Organizations, had been registering Black citizens to vote throughout Mississippi. Voters, including community organizer Fannie Lou Hamer, formed a caucus — the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) — and Hamer was elected vice chair. In August of that year, the Mississippi Democratic Party elected a segregationist, all-white delegation, as usual, to the party’s national convention, completely ignoring the newly registered 17,000 Black voters and the MFDP. All meetings where delegates were chosen openly excluded Black people from participating. Undaunted by the blatant discrimination, MFDP held a parallel delegate election process, excluding no one and following all the rules and procedures authorized by the Democratic Party. It elected a separate, multiracial slate of delegates, of which Hamer was one.
Voting rights were not included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and would not be passed until the next year. To emphasize the need for anti-discrimination legislation related to voting, at the August Democratic Party convention, the MFDP challenged the credentials of the delegates sent by the official state party, citing the discriminatory practices used in its selection process. MFDP’s challenge prompted a hearing by the party’s Credentials Committee.
In those days, there were only three television broadcast networks, and each one broadcast Democratic and Republican conventions in their entirety. The Credentials Committee hearings were being televised as well.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson watched on TV as speaker after speaker testified before the committee. Several civil rights icons, including Dr. King, gave testimony on why the MFDP delegates should be seated instead of those sent by Mississippi’s state party. When Johnson learned Fannie Lou Hamer was about to testify, he called an immediate press conference, rightfully assuming the three networks would break away from her testimony to cover his event, which lasted just long enough for her to conclude her testimony before the networks switched back to the convention.
Lucky for us all, and especially for history, Johnson’s ruse was exposed, and Mrs. Hamer’s testimony was recorded for posterity and replayed on television over and over again in the hours after.
I was 14 years old, the daughter of a prominent Black community organizer in San Francisco’s East Bay communities, living in an almost exclusively white suburb. In my home, orators and intellectuals like Dr. King were lauded as heroes and modeled as aspirations for greatness. I understood their cerebral arguments, celebrated their legal and academic explanations for why white people needed to give Black citizens our rights. However, living within a white population that either pretended I didn’t exist or actively challenged my right to exist, I found the Civil Rights Movement’s reliance on the goodwill of white people and the ability to move them to action to be naïve and ill-conceived.
Then I heard Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony. Here was a voice I understood. Here was someone unbowed, unbent, unapologetically Black. Here was a power rooted in life. Here was a woman who voiced the demand beating inside my own heart: I will be free, whether you like it or not; I will speak truth, however much you shut me down with lies; I will live, despite your attempts to kill me. Her speech was the gong of an unmuted bell ringing true, the thunderclap of justice come to claim its due. She wasn’t asking for freedom, she was claiming it. A 47-year-old, 20th-century sharecropper and mother of four, unencumbered by the false niceties of the Black bourgeoisie, unfettered from the chains of intellectual gymnastics, she presented her life, in all its honesty, as testimony of living racism, to all who listened. Only James Baldwin, rooted in his own truth, traveled in the same powerful lane of righteous truth-telling.
Hamer’s unwavering litany of brutal abuse at the hands of Mississippi officials and their police enforcers revealed for all to see the inhumanity baked into white supremacy. In publicly detailing her story, Hamer exposed the true vulnerability of white supremacy: truth. She showed how white people disclosed their savagery time and again, afraid of the power of a single Black person exercising their citizenship right to vote. Insecure in their ability to govern without violent coercion, Mississippi’s Democratic Party had showed itself to be too fragile to include Black voices.
“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens,” Hamer told the Committee.
The Credentials Committee of the Democratic Party tried one move after another to placate, but not empower, the MFDP. Hamer and her cohort were having none of it. In the spirit of the lyrics “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,” they pressed on. Although the MFDP candidates were not seated in the 1964 convention, in one eight-minute and 17-second speech, Hamer revealed the barbarity required of white supremacy, tore away the grasp of the Dixiecrats on the entire Democratic Party, and began the Dixiecrats’ migration into what has become the ludicrous center of today’s Republican Party.
Her speeches are liberating, fresh, real. It is her booming, relentless spirit, seeded deep in subsequent generations of Black women, which demands accountability in our current era. She has become my north star.
Mrs. Hamer ended her testimony to the Credentials Committee by asking, “Is this America? The land of the free and the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”
As we slip from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, celebrate both by taking time to learn more about Mrs. Hamer, then see or hear her speeches via YouTube. As you listen to her words, ask yourself: Is this yet America, land of the free and the brave?
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The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
Lola E. Peters is an editor-at-large for the South Seattle Emerald.
📸 Featured Image: Fannie Lou Hamer testifies before the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. (Photo via U.S. Library of Congress; edits by the Emerald team)
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