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"I Question America" -- Remembering Fannie Lou Hamer's Famous Speech 50 Years Ago

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"I question America " -- the famous words spoken by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer fifty years ago this week at the tumultuous Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City -- is a fitting reflection of the soul-searching that the country is once again going through in the wake of the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri.

To understand both the progress America has made, and the many challenges it now faces, in terms of racial justice, it is useful to remind ourselves of the battle that occurred a half century ago and the life of Ms. Hamer, a sharecropper and activist from the Mississippi Delta who galvanized the country with her stirring words and her remarkable courage.

In her testimony before the credentials committee at the Democratic Party's convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Hamer explained why the committee should recognize the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party over the state's segregated official party delegation. Her statement made her a national figure and a symbol of the struggle for civil rights.

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Fannie Lou Hamer testifying at the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City in 1964

Hamer sat before the party's credentials committee and with television cameras rolling delivered an emotional speech, telling the world what it was like for African Americans trying to be "first-class citizens" in Mississippi.

"If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America," Hamer said.

"Is this America?" she asked. "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?"

Hamer spoke of her own beating and of the murders of NAACP leader Medgar Evers and of three other civil rights workers--James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner--who only a few days earlier had been slain near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, who would soon be campaigning and hoped to avoid controversy in the national spotlight, called a last-minute press conference to divert press coverage from Hamer's testimony, but many TV networks ran her speech on their late news programs. The credentials committee received thousands of calls and letters in support of the MFDP.

Johnson persuaded the credentials committee to offer MFDP two at-large seats. Some of the civil rights movement's liberal allies urged the MFDP to accept the deal, which they viewed as an opening wedge in challenging the party's segregationist wing. The MFDP rejected the compromise, arguing that it was too little. But they succeeded in keeping the pressure on. At the next Democratic Party convention, in 1968 in Chicago, Hamer was part of an integrated Mississippi delegation, and spoke out against the war in Vietnam.

The battle in Atlantic City was the culmination of several years of grassroots organizing by civil rights activists in Mississippi and throughout the South. It was a major turning point in the movement for racial justice, played out on a national stage. Some of the major figures of that freedom struggle - Bob Moses, Allard Lowenstein, Martin Luther King, Walter Reuther, and others -- played key roles in the drama in Atlantic City. But no one galvanized public awareness or symbolized the battle for basic civil rights better than Hamer, a charismatic and courageous cotton plantation worker with a sixth-grade education from rural Ruleville, Mississippi.

Hamer was the youngest of twenty children born to Jim and Ella Townsend of Ruleville, an all-black town. The Townsends were impoverished, hard-working sharecroppers in the heart of cotton country. The family often went hungry. Shoes were a luxury that Hamer did not enjoy for many years--her mother would tie rags around her children's feet with string when winter came. Hamer was especially close to her mother, who, she once said, "was one woman in the state of Mississippi who didn't let no white man beat her kids."

She was expected to help out in the fields when she was just six years old--the same year she had a bout of polio that left her with a lifelong limp. In elementary school, she was a good student, but she was forced to stop her education in the sixth grade to work in the fields to help her family.

In the 1940s she met her husband, Perry "Pap" Hamer, who worked on the W. D. Marlow plantation. They worked together on the plantation for eighteen years until she was fired for trying to vote. She experienced racism in its many forms. In 1961 she went into a hospital to have a small uterine tumor removed; doctors performed a hysterectomy without her knowledge or permission.

She was first exposed to activism in the 1950s, when she attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, founded by Mississippi physician T. R. M. Howard to promote voter registration, equal schools, and other civil rights The meetings featured speeches by northern black elected officials and by National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attorney Thurgood Marshall, who years later became the first black Supreme Court justice.

When organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came to Ruleville in August 1962, Hamer was ready. She attended a meeting at Williams Chapel Church, where, despite being a sharecropper who had grown up singing Gospel music in small rural churches, she heard freedom songs for the first time. Deeply moved, she was the first to raise her hand high when the organizers asked who would be willing to register to vote. She later said, "I guess if I'd had any sense I'd a-been a little scared."

Soon after, Hamer and seventeen other brave souls took the bus to the Sunflower County seat in Indianola, Mississippi, to try to register to vote. On the bus, she began singing hymns, such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "This Little Light of Mine," to bolster the group's morale. Others had been turned away before them, but this time, she and one other, Ernest Davis, were allowed in. Before they could register, they had to take one of the infamous literacy tests designed to disenfranchise black people.

Among other questions, they were required to write down the names of their employers, information that would promptly be used against them. They were also required to interpret a section of the state constitution to the satisfaction of local white officials. For Hamer, the clerk pointed to a section of the Mississippi Constitution dealing with de facto laws. As she later explained, "I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day."

She failed the test. By the time she returned home, she had lost her job, but she had discovered her passion. She became a leader and public figure in the civil rights movement.The stout, five-foot-four Hamer had a commanding speaking and singing voice. When times grew difficult, she was the first to lead others in Gospel and freedom songs. Leading people in song to give them hope and courage became a key part of her effectiveness.

The following December she tried to register again. She was asked to interpret a section of the state constitution concerning the state legislature. She had studied the Mississippi Constitution with SNCC workers. "So that time I gave a reasonable enough interpretation," she recalled.

She told the registrar that if he did not pass her this time, she would keep coming back until he did. A few weeks later, she learned that she had passed the test. (That made her one of only 28,000 black Mississippians who were registered--out of a total of 422,256 eligible black voters.) But when she tried to vote the next August in the primary election, she was told she could not because she had not been paying the poll tax for two years. She explained that she had not paid the tax because she had not been registered, but she was denied the right to vote anyway.

In 1963 she traveled throughout the South with SNCC, living on a stipend of $10 a week. She met with people in homes, churches, and elsewhere, encouraging them to register to vote. Most people remained fearful--worried about losing their jobs, about being physically assaulted or even killed, and about having their homes bombed or burned. Hamer and others organized citizenship classes, which included reading lessons, instruction on how to take the voter registration test and how to use a bank account, and lots of singing. Organizers gradually found people willing to come together to challenge the Jim Crow laws, which took self-confidence and courage. One participant observed that the classes were designed to help people "unbrainwash" themselves. Stories of Hamer's bravery spread across the South, inspiring others.

In June 1963 she and others in the group were traveling by bus through Mississippi, en route to Greenwood. They stopped at the small town of Winona, and several of the group went into the segregated café. Even though they had broken no law, they were arrested. Hamer spent a harrowing time in the Montgomery County jail where she and her comrades were beaten mercilessly with blackjacks by two African American male inmates, whom the jailers had intimidated.

In addition, Hamer and her husband were constantly harassed by local officials. For example, one day they received a $9,000 water bill--even though the Hamer house had no running water.
In 1964 Hamer was in the vanguard of Freedom Summer, educating and training busloads of idealistic volunteers, many of them college students, who came from the North to help register voters.

That year, Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a pivotal part of the movement's strategy to shine a national spotlight on the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South. Several MDFP activists ran for office in the Democratic primary, challenging white segregationist incumbents. Hamer ran against Representative Jamie Whitten, who had held the seat since 1941. She had no chance to win, because most blacks could not vote, but she used the campaign to give the MDFP project visibility and to show African Americans how the election process worked.

After organizing for months, MDFP sent an integrated delegation of sixty-eight members, including Hamer, to represent Mississippi at the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in August. This was a direct challenge to the official all-white delegation, which brutally excluded blacks from voting. When they arrived in Atlantic City, the MFDP demanded that the national Democratic Party seat them rather than the segregated official delegation.

During her now-famous testimony before the credentials committee, Hamer rebuked Senator Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota, who had long been a civil rights champion. Humphrey, who was hoping to be LBJ's vice presidential running mate, had urged the MFDP to accept LBJ's compromise plan.

"Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand black people's lives?" Hamer said.

"Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Now if you lose this job of Vice-President because you do what is right, because you help the MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take [the nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I'm going to pray to Jesus for you."

Hamer's passion was not limited to electoral politics. She wanted to change living conditions and organized several projects aimed at raising the dignity and living standards of her fellow Mississippians. She testified before US Senate committees on poverty and attended the 1969 White House Conference on Hunger.

In 1969, after years of dreaming and fund-raising help from longtime supporter Harry Belafonte and others, Hamer bought the first forty acres of land for Freedom Farm, a cooperative for African American farmers. Of 31,000 black people in Sunflower County, only seventy-one owned land. Eventually, Freedom Farm grew to 640 acres. Members grew cash crops and vegetables for their families. In 1971 the first white family asked to move to Freedom Farm.

In 1974, despite Hamer's best efforts, Freedom Farm folded, the victim of bad weather and poor management. Meanwhile, Hamer's health was failing. Her husband worried that others took advantage of her generosity. He said, "I would come to this house and it would be so many people in here I could hardly get in the door. They came to get clothes, food, money--everything. They wore her down. She raised lots of money and she would come back and give it to people. And when she died, she didn't have a dime."

Hamer died of heart failure due to hypertension at age 59 on March 14, 1977. She is buried in her hometown of Ruleville.

The battle in Atlantic City was a turning point in the civil rights movement. Although President Johnson supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, many activists viewed his support for the cause with great skepticism. His actions at the convention deepened their doubts about LBJ in particular and the Democratic Party in general. The controversy over the Mississippi delegation led some civil rights activists, especially African Americans, to question the movement's belief in racial integration, and led some to support "black power" and racial separatism.

At the end of 1964, for example, Bob Moses resigned from SNCC and several years moved to Africa, where he taught math for several years before returning to the U.S.. When he left Mississippi, he was uncertain whether the Mississippi freedom struggle, or the broader civil rights movement, had made much of a dent in the state's white political power structure.

It had. In 1965, the year Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, only 6.7 percent of Mississippi blacks were registered to vote. But four years later the number had jumped to 66.5 percent. The act, which outlawed literacy tests and other obstacles to voting, was an important tool for civil rights activists to challenge other barriers to black political participation, such as gerrymandering of city council, state legislature, and congressional districts in order to dilute black voting strength. By 2000, Mississippi had 897 black elected officials in local and state offices and Congress -- the largest number of any state in the country. Indeed, it is a sign of the movement's success that in recent years that Republican Party, with help from the Supreme Court, has sought to weaken the Voting Rights Act and suppress the black vote in Mississippi and other states. That effort has helped rekindle a new civil rights movement, not only around voting rights, but also around other issues such as gun control, school funding, mass incarceration, decent jobs, and the kind of chronic police abuse that has triggered protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

A good slogan for this new wave of activism may be the words chiseled on Fannie Lou Hamer's gravestone: "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." She was an irrepressible fighter who fearlessly stood up to the worst elements of the Mississippi and American power structure to advance the cause of social justice.

Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). Fannie Lou Hamer is one of the people profiled in the book.