The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Remembering past harms is a key first step for achieving social justice

Mississippi makes a move to confront a shameful episode from the past

Three Mississippi women, denied the right to go onto the House floor at the opening of the new Congress, stand Jan. 4, 1965, outside the Capitol. From left: Annie Devine, Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray. (Dick Strobel/AP)
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On June 9, 1963, civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer endured a life-altering beating in a jail cell in Winona, Miss. The painful experience left Hamer with kidney damage, a blood clot in her eye and an injury that worsened a childhood limp, which she would carry for the rest of her life.

Now, for the first time, the city of Winona has officially acknowledged this incident by making June 9 “Fannie Lou Hamer Day” and unveiling a Mississippi State Historical Marker to recognize the violence Hamer and other activists endured in 1963. Both acts were made possible through the efforts of local organizer Vickie Roberts-Ratliff, historian Davis W. Houck and others in Land Literacy and Legacy — a nonprofit organization based in Oxford, Miss.

These developments represent symbolic yet significant steps in a broader effort among public officials in recent years to reckon with past racism. Indeed, the declaration of “Fannie Lou Hamer Day” and the designated marker follow a string of similar developments including the recent decision in Louisiana to pardon Homer Plessy — the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson.

At a moment when many conservative lawmakers are working to ban the teaching of sensitive topics, including the history of systemic racism in the United States, the recent developments in Winona serve as a reminder that acknowledging past harms is a necessary first step in the fight for social justice. Winona’s recognition of the physical and emotional trauma inflicted upon Hamer and her associates may not absolve the past, but it is an effort to reckon with it — one that compels all Americans to confront, rather than evade, the shameful aspects of United States history.

Born in the Mississippi Delta in 1917, Fannie Lou Hamer was the youngest of 20 children in a sharecropping family. She joined the civil rights movement in August 1962 at the age of 44 after attending a mass meeting organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at a local church in Sunflower County, Miss. At the time of the gathering, only 5 percent of the 450,000 Black residents in the state were registered to vote because of widespread voter suppression tactics, including discriminatory literacy tests and sheer violence. The speakers at the mass meeting emphasized how ordinary citizens could transform American society with the vote, a message that resonated deeply with Hamer. She soon became a field secretary for SNCC, beginning her lifelong work to expand Black political rights in Mississippi and beyond.

In June 1963, less than a year after joining the civil rights movement, Hamer and several other activists were traveling home after attending a voter’s workshop in South Carolina. They made a rest stop in Winona, where they had plans to grab a bite to eat at Staley’s Café. When several members of the group exited the bus, the owners of the cafe made it clear that Black patrons were not welcome, and soon the police arrived to arrest the activists.

Though Hamer had initially remained on the bus, she decided to exit, later admitting she had abandoned all reason when she saw police officers arresting her friends. A White officer immediately seized Hamer and started kicking her. She was arrested and taken to a Winona jail cell, along with five other activists — June Johnson, Annell Ponder, Euvester Simpson, Rosemary Freeman and James West. When Lawrence Guyot, a SNCC field secretary, attempted to bail the group out of jail, he, too, was arrested and held in a jail cell.

At the jailhouse, White officers assaulted and tortured the activists for hours. They were not released until June 12, 1963. Hamer would later detail the harrowing experience in several public speeches and interviews. She described how White officers entered her cell with two Black prisoners and ordered the two men to beat her. “They gave one of the men a long blackjack and made him beat me till he was exhausted,” she explained in a 1966 interview with Ebony magazine. “Then, when he was tired, the second one sat on my feet and beat me some more. They beat me till my body was hard, till I couldn’t bend my fingers or get up when they told me to.”

Years later, Hamer would publicly disclose the sexual nature of the assault. Speaking before a packed audience at Chicago’s Loop College in 1970, she recounted her fear and — how in the midst of the beating — she tried to smooth down her dress “because I had never been exposed to five mens [sic] in one room in my life.” Seeing her effort to cover herself, one of the White police officers contemptuously “walked over and pulled [her] dress up.” She then disclosed before the audience that one of the officers in the room tried “to feel under my clothes.”

In the aftermath of the Winona beating, five White officers — Earle Wayne Patridge, Thomas J. Herod, Jr., William Surrell, John L. Basinger and Charles Thomas Perkins — were charged for depriving the activists of their civil rights. As historian Houck explained to me, the violence inflicted “motivated Department of Justice attorneys to prosecute the case, which was one of the first federal attempts to litigate in Mississippi on civil rights grounds.” Despite the efforts to obtain legal justice, the officers were eventually acquitted by an all-White jury in December 1963.

While she could not change the outcome of the case, Hamer did what she could to raise national awareness of how state-sanctioned violence imperiled the lives of Black people on a day-to-day basis. Her unwavering commitment to “telling it like it is” — a phrase she repeated often — guided Hamer’s decision to testify before the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. She arrived at the convention as a representative of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an organization she helped to establish to challenge the segregated, all-White Mississippi Democratic Party.

Speaking before a national audience, Hamer addressed the brutal beating in Winona to underscore the pervasive and daily acts of racist violence Black people endured in the Jim Crow South. By telling her story, Hamer hoped to demonstrate that silence was not an option when confronting everyday racism and violence. Hamer’s bold strategy has lived on and is recognized by Roberts-Ratliff of Land Literacy and Legacy, who told me that “Hamer left a blueprint for grass-roots advocacy, utilizing limited resources and always her voice.”

Until this week, the city of Winona had not formally acknowledged this shameful aspect of its history. Through the grass-roots efforts of Roberts-Ratliff and other local activists, the city has taken an important step that sends a powerful message about the need to reckon with the past. The timing is significant — in part, the developments represent the impact of contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the #MeToo campaign. By demanding accountability and transparency, BLM and #MeToo activists have advocated for government bodies and private institutions to reckon with past harm — including the state’s ongoing use of violence and the pervasiveness of sexual violence within American society.

The city of Winona’s declaration of “Fannie Lou Hamer Day” and the installation of a historical marker are meaningful, symbolic first steps that acknowledge past wrongs. They validate the rights and dignity of Hamer and her associates — as well as all Black people in the United States. These developments can inspire more reckoning and more honest accountings of the past in cities across the United States.