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Fannie Lou Hamer, Pleading for the right to vote
For those who think that your vote doesn't count, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,
“NOTHING IN THE WORLD IS MORE DANGEROUS THAN SINCERE IGNORANCE AND CONSCIENTIOUS STUPIDITY.”
The Right to Vote is one of the fundamental rights of a free people in a democratic society. Throughout the history of Black people in the United States, that right was not always ‘fundamental.’ Since the beginning of the republic – when it was written, ‘all men were NOT really created equal, and the Right to Vote was not self evident – Black people were thinking and fighting for the Right to Vote and Civil Rights. Slaves were not allowed to vote. Then came the Emancipation Proclamation which theoretically freed the slaves – but only on paper. The reality was much different for the ‘freed slave,’ but he was thinking and fighting for the Right to Vote and Civil Rights.
Then came the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments – they all stated, in some way, that as free people, Blacks were able to enjoy all the benefits of free citizens of the United Sates which included the Right to Vote. However, they did not enjoy that right; it was hindered; barriers and resistance were created in many ways: some in the form of poll tax, literary tests, and so on.
As a consequence, many Black people fought and died for the Right to Vote. There were also other obstacles: laws, customs and traditions (Jim Crow) etc. Then came the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which moved the Right to Vote with an unstoppable momentum up to today. It created an enfranchised consciousness that led to the election of mayors, lieutenant governors, council members, school board members and large numbers of Black officials that have continued to the present – and even though the union is still not perfect, nor a reality - that right has brought us to the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama.
‘Legends’ is pleased to present some of those who fought for the Right to Vote (and Civil Rights) – from Frederick Douglass and before, to Dr. King and beyond.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS: His speech, “The meaning of July Fourth for the negro” is a classic in the annals of civil and voting rights.
He was an ex-slave, author, newspaper publisher, public official, orator, consul general, freedom fighter and a fighter for the rights of Black people.
Born a slave, he dreamt of his freedom and was so determined to be free that he escaped when he was about 21 years old and never looked back … and neither was he ever caught. He learned to read and write as an adult, and found out that there were many others who knew that slavery was wrong.
Though he was a fugitive, after getting married, he began to attend various anti-slavery meetings telling his story of being a slave, and his eventual escape. One of the anti-slavery societies hired him as a lecturer to tell his story. His sheer physical presence was formidable and it helped his oratorical prowess tremendously. He began traveling all over northeastern U.S. not only telling his story, but also denouncing the evils of slavery, yearning for the Right to Vote.
During his association with the anti-slavery societies, Douglass met William Lloyd Garrison, a White abolitionist leader, in 1841, who became his mentor. Throughout his traveling and lecturing, he began to overshadow his White anti-slavery colleagues, and his views and those of Garrison’s began to collide. They ultimately diverged.
Eventually in 1845, Douglass decided to write an account of his life, via his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, despite apprehensions that the information might endanger his freedom. He then went on a speaking tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland Three years later, Douglass published the first issue of the North Star, a four-page weekly, out of Rochester, New York.
Afterwards he shifted from public speaking to putting his view in print (publishing) Douglass continued to advocate actively for better lives for Black Americans. He conferred with President Lincoln during the Civil War and recruited northern Blacks for the Union Army. After the War, he fought for the rights of women and Black Americans alike, turning his attention to promoting education as a way out for the freedmen.
Many of his ideas were embodied into the founding of Tuskegee Institute in addition to his stance on suffrage for all and women’s rights. He held a variety of U.S. governmental offices including Recorder of Deeds in Washington and consul to Haiti. He lived until 1895 to see the beginning of Blacks turning from the remnants of slavery to the beginning of freedom.
HIS CONTRIBUTIONS LED TO BLACKS HAVING THE RIGHT TO VOTE WITHOUT HINDRANCE.
FANNIE LOU HAMER: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired” – Her work complemented Dr. King’s.
If Fannie Lou Hamer were alive today, the presidential campaign would bring tears to her eyes and a smile to her face. She would have been able to rest for a while, take a deep breath, pause, and get ready to continue fighting. If Hamer’s life story were not told, there would have been wide historical chasm created in the struggle for human rights, not only in Mississippi, but also throughout America where people of color have been systematically disenfranchised because their Right to Vote had been denied. She would also be outraged about the ghastly aspersions being directed at community organizers since, in her best days, she was the ultimate community organizer, voting rights activist and civil rights advocate.
Hamer was not just a civil rights activist, she was a Black woman and a mother, who had been denied her natural right to have children, so she and her husband, Perry Hamer, adopted 2 boys and 2 girls. Those children filled a void in their lives that had been taken away after a doctor had wrongfully performed a hysterectomy on Hamer in 1961, thereby depriving her of one of nature’s fundamental rights of a woman – to bear children. Unbeknownst to her – and most of the Blacks in the state – it was part of a sinister effort to reduce the number of Blacks in the state, so that Whites would stay in control ad infinitum.
As an adult and a product of the “deep” South, Hamer was always looking for ways to express her outrage over the conditions under which Blacks were forced to live, not only in her rural community, but even in the more “enlightened” parts of urban America – “up” South and “down” South. The political climate would only improve when Blacks were properly informed and participated in electoral politics, free from fear and intimidation. In doing so, social and economic improvements would follow. She set about to rectify some of the political inconsistencies that were disenfranchising the Black masses and systematically denying them of their constitutional Right to Vote.
Hamer became interested in politics as a result of attending the annual negro leadership conferences that were held in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and focused on civil rights and Black self-help. The conferences attracted many nationally-known speakers, lawyers, congressmen and entertainers including Thurgood Marshall, Representative Charles Diggs of Michigan and Mahalia Jackson. The more Hamer became aware of the realities and the potential power of politics, the more she realized the injustices that Black people were suffering by not becoming involved. She yearned to do something about the gross injustice, particularly the mass disenfranchisement of Black people.
One day in 1954, as she was walking by a town center in Ruleville, Mississippi, a Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sign caught her attention; Hamer decided to investigate it and eventually signed up as a volunteer field worker with the voter education committee. She considered her work at SNCC an opportunity to rectify the voting inadequacies among Black people in the South. And the reality was, even though she was committed to her work with SNCC, it was strictly a volunteer position. She was still employed, along with her husband, by White people, and they were not pleased with her “extra-curricula activities.” Black people who register to vote were risking their lives and those who encouraged them became an even bigger target. Yet Hamer, not only continued her voter registration activities, she accelerated it.
On August 1962, she traveled to Indianola, Mississippi, along with a group of members of a local church, to register to vote. Hamer’s activities came to the attention of a SNCC organizer, Robert Moses and he recruited her to travel throughout the South organizing voter registration outposts, she continued registering Black people to vote and conducting literacy workshops to educate the masses beyond their voting rights.
Hamer was instrumental in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964 to challenge the all-White delegation to the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Hamer spoke at the convention before the Credentials Committee to a televised audience of millions and related the Black experience. Her speech drew attention to the plight of Black Americans in the South in general, but the focus of her personal experiences was directed at the State of Mississippi. Hamer created a “convention storm” that reached the White House. President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly referred to her as “that illiterate woman.”
Nearly in tears, Hamer concluded, “All of this is on account we wanted to register to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave….?”
Though, the DNC did not accede to the MFDP’s demands, enough pressure had been placed on the DNC that it adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation from all the states’ delegations as a part of its platform. Hamer and her group were seated as honorable guests. A year later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. In 1964 and 1965, she ran for Congress unsuccessfully, however, in 1968, she was seated as a member of the Mississippi delegation and was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
The rest of her years was devoted to working as a community organizer on a myriad of issues including voter education, voting rights, Head start programs and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. Hamer died at the age of 59 and was buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. The inscription on her tombstone reads, ‘I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ For her work, Fannie Lou Hamer must always be remembered during the presidential election season (primaries and the general elections).