01/01/2013 08:34 am ET Updated Mar 03, 2013

A Letter to Fannie Lou Hamer on Emancipation Day

This letter is part of our "Letters to Our Ancestors" project. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we've asked members of our community to share their own letters to our forefathers. With these letters, we hope to look back on the progress our community has made and give thanks to those who helped pave the way. You can see them all here.

Dear Fannie Lou,

You are my hero. You never wavered.

You were left with permanent injuries from the savage beating at the hands of a southern sheriff. You fought for voting rights at a time when only 6.4 percent of Mississippi's eligible black voters were registered and those few faced overwhelming barriers at the polls from literacy tests to violence at the hands of the police.

You lost your vision in one eye and endured lasting damage to your kidneys from that beating of you and six other valiant soldiers in 1963.

"We're gonna make you wish you was dead," the sheriff told you. Two black inmates were ordered to beat you with a lead pipe encased in leather. You had polio as a child and were limp. You held your hands behind you to protect your weak side to no avail. As the blows rained down, you tried to move your feet but a second inmate sat on your legs to keep you still. You tried to smooth down your dress but a deputy pulled it up attempting to assault your dignity as they assaulted your body. They beat you until your body was hard. They covered your body with horrific cuts and gashes but your dignity never diminished -- it only grew with each blow. Finally, when you were ordered to get up, you couldn't and were dragged back to your cell. That beating did not deter you. You gave your entire life to the fight for political and economic rights for the most oppressed. You are resting now with the legions of our beloved ancestors: Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman, John Brown and Medgar Evers, Ella Baker, George Jackson, and the thousands of the unsung who lost their lives to fight courageously for freedom.

Your victories strengthened our nation and helped it begin to live up to its promise. Your victories brought rights to African-Americans but also expanded democracy for all. The valiant fight to stop lynchings ended the scourge not just for black Americans but for Catholics, the second largest lynched group in the south. The voting rights of African-Americans paved the way for expanded rights for women and other disenfranchised Americans. It has always been true that the brave struggles of the most oppressed bring us closer to the democracy for which we yearn.

My dear ancestors, you might have trouble recognizing our nation today. The country has made great strides toward the promise of racial equality.

Yet even with our many triumphs, the Dream continues to elude our people.

Even 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans feel the long arm of inequity. The black unemployment rate is nearly double that of white Americans; Black children are being pushed out of school and into the criminal justice system leaving their graduation rates around 60 percent; and restrictive voting laws like new photo identification requirements threaten our voting rights once again.

There is perhaps no more glaring sign of our lack of full emancipation than mass incarceration which, much like slavery, operates within a concerted system of institutions and laws that disproportionately deny African Americans their rights. One in every 10 black males in their thirties is in prison or jail on any given day, and two-thirds of all people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses are people of color despite the fact that whites have a higher incidence of drug use. The collateral consequences extend far after these sentences are served, with laws and regulations barring people with convictions from jobs, education and voting, further decimating black families and communities.

The new inequalities that continue to further widen racial divides are met with a weaker movement than in the '50s and '60s. The "enemy" is less easily defined and racism is often delivered through code words and obscured policies. Classism sometimes divides us and complacency has infected some of our people. But I am not daunted. I remember your words, "There is one thing you have got to learn about our movement. Three people are better than no people. "

I stand on your shoulders. In your tradition, we will continue to fight to grow a vibrant movement for racial justice. We will maintain our commitment to your life's work for political and economic democracy that will achieve true equal opportunity for all.

Judith Browne Dianis is co director of Advancement Project is a next generation, multi-racial civil rights organization that focuses on issues of democracy and race.