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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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."