Emmett Till James Baldwin Marcus Garvey Frederick Douglas Fanny Lou Hammer

a Fannie Lou Hamer
October 6, 1917  to  March 14, 1977

Born October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer was the granddaughter of a slave and the youngest of 20 children. Her parents were sharecroppers. Sharecropping, or "halfing," as it is sometimes called, is a system of farming whereby workers are allowed to live on a plantation in return for working the land. When the crop is harvested, they split the profits in half with the plantation owner. Sometimes the owner pays for the seed and fertilizer, but usually the sharecropper pays those expenses out of his half. It's a hard way  to make a living and sharecroppers generally are born poor, live poor, and die poor. 

At age six, Fannie Lou began helping her parents in the cotton fields. By the time she was twelve, she was forced to drop out of school and work full time to help support her family. Once grown, she married another sharecropper named Perry "Pap" Hamer. 

On August 31, 1962, Mrs. Hamer decided she had had enough of sharecropping. Leaving her house in Ruleville, Mississippi she and 17 others took a bus to the courthouse in Indianola, the county seat, to register to vote. On their return home, police stopped their bus. They were told that their bus was the wrong color. Fannie Lou and the others were arrested and jailed. 

After being released from jail, the plantation owner paid the Hamers a visit and told Fannie Lou that if she insisted on voting, she would have to get off his land - even though she had been there for eighteen years. She left the plantation that same day. Ten days later, night riders fired 16 bullets into the home of the family with whom she had gone to stay. 

Mrs. Hamer began working on welfare and voter registration programs for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

On June 3, 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights workers arrived in Winona, Mississippi by bus. They were ordered off the bus and taken to Montgomery County Jail. The story continues "...Then three white men came into my room. One was a state highway policeman (he had the marking on his sleeve)... They said they were going to make me wish I was dead. They made me lay down on my face and they ordered two Negro prisoners to beat me with a blackjack. That was unbearable. The first prisoner beat me until he was exhausted, then the second Negro began to beat me. I had polio when I was about six years old. I was limp. I was holding my hands behind me to protect my weak side. I began to work my feet. My dress pulled up and I tried to smooth it down. One of the policemen walked over and raised my dress as high as he could. They beat me until my body was hard, 'til I couldn't bend my fingers or get up when they told me to. That's how I got this blood clot in my eye - the sight's nearly gone now. My kidney was injured from the blows they gave me on the back." 

Mrs Hamer was left in the cell, bleeding and battered, listening to the screams of Ann Powder, a fellow civil rights worker, who was also undergoing a severe beating in another cell. She overheard white policemen talking about throwing their bodies into the Big Black River where they would never be found. 

In 1964, presidential elections were being held. In an effort to focus greater national attention on voting discrimination, civil rights groups created the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). This new party sent a delegation, which included Fannie Lou Hamer, to Atlantic City, where the Democratic Party was holding its presidential convention. Its purpose was to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation on the grounds that it didn't fairly represent all the people of Mississippi, since most black people hadn't been allowed to vote. 

On the first day of the convention, the MFDP took its case to the national Democratic party's Credentials Committee.  Fannie Lou Hamer was the star witness, invoking memories of Medgar Evers' assassination, James Meredith's battle to gain admission to Ole Mississippi, and the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.  "If the Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) is not seated now.  I question America," she said.  "Is this America?  The land of the free and the home of the brave?  Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook, because our lives be threatened daily?"  She also told of the abuse she had suffered in retaliation for attending a civil rights meeting. "They beat me and they beat me with the long, flat blackjack," said the farm woman.  "I screamed to God in pain.  My dress worked itself up.  I tried to pull it down.  They beat my arms 'til I had no feeling in them."  Then Hamer broke down and wept, in front of the network television cameras that were providing live national coverage of the testimony.  Rita Schwerner, widow of the slain CORE worker, sat next to Hamer while waiting to testify.

President Johnson, watching the proceedings on television, was furious.  He had envisioned an untroubled gathering climaxing in his triumphant nomination, threatened by sixty-eight rural Mississippians, most of them black, most of them poor, and all of them as stubborn as a Dixie mule about what Lawrence Guyot later called "the righteousness of their position." LBJ ordered White House aides to phone the television networks and announce that a presidential press conference would begin immediately.

The cameras stopped rolling in Atlantic City as Johnson's press conference preempted the live convention coverage.,  The president told the television audience that he predicted a mostly tranquil convention, but that he would oversee a suspenseful contest for the vice-presidential nomination.  He did not succeed, however, in blacking out all TV coverage of the testimony.  That night, evening news programs ran film footage of Hamer's heat rending appeal to the Credentials Committee.  The committee was soon swamped with phone calls and telegrams from angry Americans.

Senator Humphrey asked his protégé, Minnesota attorney general Walter Mondale, to head a credentials subcommittee in charge of mediating the MFDP dispute.  "They (the MFDP) were pushing on an open door in terms of preventing a future lily-white segregated delegation," Mondale recalls.  "The tough question was always, How do we handle it?  What should be the best way to resolve this?  One theory was you just take the black delegation and seat them, kick the white delegation out..,. Well, that didn't solve any long-term problems.  It didn't establish any rule of law for civil rights, and if all it was going to be a fight, black against white, one winning, one losing, there was no hope for a healthy political party.  So the question was, How to do it ?"

Humphrey and Mondale, with White House approval, offered a compromise.  The white Mississippi Democrats would be seated if they would swear their loyalty to the ticket, but so would two MFDP delegates, Aaron Henry and Ed King, who would not officially represent Mississippi but would be considered delegates "at-large."  The mediators also proposed a resolution calling for southern Democrats to integrate future delegations.

On Monday night, all but three members of the white Mississippi delegation stormed out of the convention; they would not pledge allegiance to a party that consorted with blacks.  Nor would the MFDP representatives accept the two-seat compromise; they all wanted to be seated.

On Tuesday, Joe Rauh tried to secure a postponement of the Credentials Committee's vote on the compromise.  He wanted tie to convince MFDP delegates Bob Moses and Aaron Henry to agree to it.  Mondale agreed to the delay, but the credentials panel wanted to act immediately.  Joe Rauth remembers the scene. "Have you ever been in a lynch mob?" he says.  "Because if you haven't you haven't seen anything like this. A hundred people shouting, "Vote! Vote! Vote! while I'm talking.  I finally had to say.  "it's your rudeness that's the problem.  I've got a right to speak.  I've got the floor.  You ought to shut up... It was like a machine in there.  And it mowed me down."  The committee voted to approve the Mondal compromise.

The MFDP still hoped to force its challenge to a roll-call vote before the full convention, but Johnson sent his political allies onto the convention floor so threaten delegates with reprisals if they failed to toe the line on the MFDP.  The "eleven and eight" strategy had fallen apart; the convention at large voted to endorse the compromise.

Bob Moses and other MFDP leaders were in a hotel room meeting with Humphrey when they saw Mondale and Rauth on television as the deal was approved.  "Bob Moses lost his cool," Rauh remembers.  "It ... was like hitting him with a whip--a white man hitting him with a whip.  He felt everyone had ratted on him... So that evening when we were on the news, I said we would continue to fight but I also said this is a great victory which will end up with a new Democratic party, because of the promise that there will never be a lily white delegation again.

"Bob got on TV and said you cannot trust the political system--I will have noting to do with the political system any longer."  Fannie Lou Hamer told television reporters that granting only two seats to the MFDP represented "token rights, on the back row, the same as we got in Mississippi.  We didn't come all this way for that mess again."  Hamer didn't quit.  On Tuesday night she led the MFDP contingent, with convention passes borrowed from sympathetic delegates, onto the convention floor.  There they took the vacant seats allocated for the Mississippi Democrats, but guards soon arrive to haul the activists away.

An angry Johnson then instructed party officials to remove all but three of the seats in the Mississippi section, and to reserve those seats for the three white Democrats who had not walked out.

Aaron Henry, who like Rauh now favored acceptance of the compromise, arranged a meeting the next day.  Arguments for and against the proposal were voiced, and some civil rights leaders asked the MFDP to approve the plan, arguing that the new party should compromise to reinforce its alliance with white liberals.  Martin Luther King, Jr., told the delegates that the choice they were about to make was the greatest decision they would ever have to make.  Un-swayed by the pro-compromise arguments, the MFDP delegates rejected the plan.

"Those unable to understand why we were not accepting the compromise" says MFDP delegate Victoria Gray, "didn't realize we would have been betraying those very many people back there in Mississippi whom we represented not only people who had laid their lives on the line, but many who had given their lives, People said to us, Take this (the compromise), and then next time, you know, there'll be more,'  I thought about the many people for whom there was not gonna be a next time.  It made no sense at all, with all the risk being taken, to accept what we knew for certain to be nothing and go back home to God only knows what.. You may get home and not have a house.  You may get home and a member of your family may be missing.  So you know, we were not going to accept anything less than the real thing.

Wednesday night, the MFDP delegates again marched onto the convention floor with borrowed passes.  This time, there were no empty seats, so they stood in the space where the seats had been.  Before television cameras, Fannie Lou Hamer vigorously denounced the party for its treatment of her fellow black Mississippians.  "Mrs. Hamer always spoke from the heart," recalls Bob Moses.  "When she spoke at Atlantic City in front of the national TV, she spoke the same way, what you felt when she spoke and when she sang was someone who was opening up her soul and really telling you what she felt.  I think one of the most beautiful things about the movement in Mississippi was that it enabled a person like Mrs. Hamer to emerge."  A spiritual leader of the delegation, Hamer led rousing renditions of freedom songs right on the convention floor.

At the convention, one reporter asked Hamer if she was seeking equality with the white man. "No" she said. "What would I look like fighting for equality with the white man?  I don't want to go down that low.  I want the true democracy that'll raise me and that white man up... raise America up."

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