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Civil rights crusader Fannie Lou Hamer defied men — and presidents — who tried to silence her

Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, speaks before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City on Aug. 22, 1964. (AP)

Fannie Lou Hamer walked with a limp and still had a blood clot behind her eye from being severely beaten by police in a Mississippi jail. She was the youngest of 20 children born to sharecroppers in Mississippi, where she had spent much of her life picking cotton until she was fired for trying to register to vote.

And yet President Lyndon B. Johnson was terrified of her, terrified of the appeal she would make in 1964 before the Democratic National Committee’s credentials panel on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The Freedom Party, an integrated coalition of delegates, had come to Atlantic City on Aug. 22, 1964, to challenge the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi, many of them rabid segregationists. Hamer demanded that the credentials committee seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation instead.

Johnson, who needed the support of Southern Democrats to win reelection, was beside himself. He told advisers he couldn’t take the pressure. “Last night I couldn’t sleep,” he said, according to White House tapes. “About 2:30, I waked [sic] up . . . I do not believe I can physically and mentally carry the responsibilities of the world, and the Niggras, and the South.”

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He wanted Hamer and her new political party stopped.

The president, who would eventually sign the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, sent political advisers to persuade Hamer not to make her appeal to the credentials committee. When she refused, Johnson called an impromptu news conference to make it impossible for the national television networks to cover her testimony live.

It didn’t matter. Hamer’s testimony would become one of the most powerful speeches of the civil rights movement.

Hamer, born 100 years ago, on Oct. 6, 1917, in the Mississippi Delta, rivaled Martin Luther King Jr. in her command of audiences.

This week, black lawmakers marked the centennial of Hamer’s birth on the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington.

“Tonight, I recognize a civil rights hero whose work is no small part of the reason I and many other African American members of Congress are able to stand before you today,” said Democratic Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, who worked on Hamer’s unsuccessful 1964 congressional campaign and now represents Mississippi’s 2nd District.  “Ms. Hamer taught black Mississippians how to read and write in order for them to pass discriminatory voter tests designed to prevent black Americans from utilizing their right to vote.”

When Hamer tried to register to vote in 1962, there were no black elected officials in the district. “I am happy to report to you now the sheriff, the chancery clerk, the circuit clerk and four of the five county supervisors are African Americans,” Thompson said. “So Mrs. Hamer’s work has not been in vain.”

Before cancer claimed her life on March 14, 1977, Hamer was not afraid to speak for herself.

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“I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d a been a little scared,” she said about the night in August 1962 when she attended a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting and  volunteered to go to the courthouse the next day to try to register to vote.

“But what was the point of being scared? The only thing the whites could do was kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”

The SNCC meeting at the church changed Hamer’s life.

“They talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote,” Hamer later recalled. “I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote.”

As a child in Ruleville, Miss., Hamer often went hungry and without shoes. Her mother, Ella, often fed her children greens with flour gravy. She tied rags on her feet in the winter. Hamer was 6 when she started picking cotton. Because of her ability to read and write, she was given the job of working as a “time-keeper” in a sharecropping system designed to keep black workers in debt.

When she was 27, she married Perry “Pap” Hamer, and together they worked as sharecroppers on a plantation owned by W.D. Marlow in Ruleville, according to the 1991 biography “This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” by Kay Mills.

Fannie and Pap Hamer adopted two girls. Her own pregnancies had ended in stillbirths. In 1961, Hamer was sterilized without her consent when she went to a Sunflower County hospital for a minor surgery to remove a tumor. She was given a hysterectomy, which was known as the “Mississippi appendectomy.”

“In the North Sunflower County Hospital,” Hamer said, “I would say about six out of the 10 Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied.”

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The forced sterilization would compel her to fight for human rights. On Aug. 31, 1962, Hamer and 17 other people took a bus to Indianola, the county seat of Sunflower County, “to register to become first-class citizens,” she said.

Only Hamer and Ernest Davis were allowed in the clerk’s office to register. They were required to take a literacy test, created to dissuade black people from voting. They had to say who they worked for and where they lived — information the Ku Klux Klan often used to find and intimidate black people attempting to register to vote.

The clerk asked Hamer to interpret a section of the state constitution dealing with “de facto” laws.

“I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day,” Hamer said later. She and Davis failed the literacy test. She told the clerk she would be back.

When Hamer returned to the plantation that day, she was fired from her job, recalls Hamer’s daughter, Vergie Hamer Faulkner, 63.

Hamer became a SNCC community organizer and helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1964 she ran for Congress as a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party candidate against Democratic incumbent Jamie L. Whitten.

“My opponent has done nothing to help the Negro in the Second Congressional District,” Hamer said in a campaign speech. “If I’m elected as congresswoman, things will be different. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. For so many years, the Negroes have suffered in the state of Mississippi. We are tired of people saying we are satisfied, because we are anything but satisfied.”

Grainy black-and-white footage from the 1964 Democratic National Convention shows Hamer making her way through a crowd of men. She is wearing a printed summer dress and carrying a white purse on her left arm.

As a speaker, she followed Rita Schwerner, the wife of Michael Schwerner, one of three civil rights workers killed two months earlier near Philadelphia, Miss., in a case the FBI would call “Mississippi Burning.” Others also spoke, including Martin Luther King Jr.

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But all eyes were on this woman with a powerful voice from Mississippi.

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Hamer walked into the hall with determination, squeezing between men in suits who refused to make space for her.

When she arrived at the witness chair, Hamer put her purse on the table, folded her hands and without notes proceeded to speak for 13 riveting minutes, telling the credentials committee and the world about the injustices suffered by black people who wanted to vote.

Hamer recounted being stopped by police after trying to register to vote, about being fired as a sharecropper, about 16 bullets shot into the home of friends where she had slept after moving off the plantation.

She described the beating she endured in a Mississippi jail.

In June 1963, Hamer attended a voter registration workshop in South Carolina. On her trip home, the Continental Trailways bus stopped at a station in Winona, Miss., where five people — June Johnson, Annell Ponder, Euvester Simpson, Rosemary Freeman and James West — got out.

They sat at the rest stop’s lunch counter, but a white waitress refused them service. A highway patrolman ordered, “Y’all get out.”

Ponder, who worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reminded him that the Supreme Court had ruled that segregated rest stops were illegal.

“Ain’t no damn law,” he replied. “You just get out of here.” In the parking lot, Ponder began writing down license plates of police cars. She was arrested.

Hamer got off the bus to see what was happening. As she climbed back on the bus, an officer shouted to arrest her, too.

She was taken to the county jail. “After I was placed in the cell,” Hamer told the DNC credentials committee, “I began to hear sounds of licks and screams, I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, ‘Can you say, “Yes, sir,” nigger? Can you say, ‘Yes, sir’?”

The police called Ponder “horrible names,” Hamer recalled. “She would say, ‘Yes, I can say, “Yes, sir.” ’ ”

“So, well, say it,” the officers ordered.

Ponder refused. “They beat her, I don’t know how long. And after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.”
Then three white men came to Hamer’s cell. One of them warned her: “We are going to make you wish you was dead.”

They carried Hamer into another cell, where they forced her to lie face down on a bunk and ordered two black male prisoners to beat her with a blackjack.

“I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted,” Hamer said. “I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was 6 years old. After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the state highway patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.

“I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush. One white man —  my dress had worked up high — he walked over and pulled my dress. I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.”

The convention was captivated. Then Hamer brought her testimony to a close.

“I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.”

Hamer fought back tears.

“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America,” Hamer 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 hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

Then she got up, dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief, grabbed her purse and made her way out of the convention.

President Johnson would apply political pressure to the credentials committee to drop support for Hamer’s Freedom Party.

Johnson sent advisers to Atlantic City and told Hubert Humphrey, who was trying to win the vice presidential nomination, to fix “the Mississippi problem.”

As a compromise, Democrats offered the Freedom Party two at-large seats, but Johnson emphasized that he did not want one of them to go to Hamer.

“The president has said he will not let that illiterate woman speak on the floor of the Democratic convention,” Humphrey said, explaining that his nomination hung on the Freedom Party accepting the compromise.

“I was amazed,” Hamer remembered later, “and I said, ‘Well, Mr. Humphrey, do you mean to tell me that your position is more important to you than 400,000 black peoples’ lives?’ ”

The Freedom Party voted unanimously to reject the compromise.

When Hamer and other Freedom Party members returned to the Gem Hotel, she discovered Johnson had held a news conference to preempt her testimony. She was livid. But Johnson’s efforts to silence her didn’t work.

That night, in a hot Atlantic City hotel room, Hamer watched her testimony broadcast in prime time on the evening news.

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