On August 22, 1964, as the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project (Freedom Summer) was well into its third month of voter registration drives among African American citizens in Mississippi, civil rights activist and former sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer riveted onlookers with her speech to the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. I was only 11 years old at the time, but following the recent assassination of President Kennedy, I was, within my 6th grade frame of reference, interested in the lead-up to the 1964 presidential elections.
Along with my parents, I watched both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions on television that summer, but we didn’t see or hear Fannie Lou. No one outside the convention hall in Atlantic City did, at least not in real time. President Lyndon B. Johnson, running for election and desperate to not alienate white delegates from the Deep South, saw to that. Despite the fact that Johnson was a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, he was also determined to avoid any kind of chaos on the convention floor.
When Fannie Lou sat down to speak to the credentials committee, Johnson called an impromptu presidential press conference, effectively shifting the cameras and television anchors away from Fannie Lou’s speech to the Oval Office. His urgent “breaking news” at the press conference was in fact an announcement of the 9-month anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. This thinly veiled and shameful attempt to keep Fannie Lou from a national audience had exactly the opposite effect. The national news media immediately identified the real reason for his press conference and featured Fannie Lou prominently on every newscast that evening. Her almost-silenced speech was in fact heard ‘round the world. It galvanized the civil rights movement and, ultimately, catalyzed the drive for voting rights. Almost exactly one year later, Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In August 1964, the civil rights movement was at full tilt, on the heels of the massive 1963 March on Washington, the Birmingham church bombings that same year and Freedom Summer. Images of water hoses and attack dogs being used against nonviolent protesters, some of them children, were projected across American television screens on an almost nightly basis. More than 700 volunteer workers, many of them college students from around the country, came to Mississippi that summer with the goal to register black citizens to vote.
At the time, only 6 percent of eligible black citizens in Mississippi were registered. Many, including Fannie Lou herself, had been unaware that it was even a legal possibility. All knew that to register was a huge risk to their job security, personal safety and, indeed, their lives. For more than 100 years in Mississippi, the state and county government officials, judges and police, many of them members of the Ku Klux Klan, maintained a clenched and volatile hold on white supremacy. Exercising the right to vote was a powerful tool, one that the existing power structure was loathe to share. Terror raids, beatings and lynchings were all in the arsenal of the Klan in the self-declared war against voting rights for African Americans.
One night I went to the church. They had a mass meeting. And I went to the church, and they talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote. They were talking about we could vote out people that we didn’t want in office, we thought that wasn’t right, that we could vote them out. That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it. I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote. —Fannie Lou Hamer
Bob Moses, at the time the field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and one of the organizers and leaders of the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project, has remarked that President Johnson was more worried about Fannie Lou’s testimony at the Democratic National Convention than he was about Martin Luther King’s. Moses summed it up: “Mississippi was in her bones.”
Born in 1917 as the youngest of 20 children to sharecropper parents, at age six she was already working in the cotton fields. She attended school for several years, but by adolescence was working full-time, picking hundreds of pounds of cotton a day.
Fannie Lou eventually married and, unable to carry children to term herself, she and her husband adopted two daughters. In 1961, when she was hospitalized for an unrelated minor surgery, she underwent a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. Forced sterilization was so common among African-American women in those days that it became known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.” Her forced sterilization catalyzed Fannie Lou’s early activism in the civil rights movement, but an incident a year later in August 1962 is what propelled her to the forefront in the volatile struggle for voting rights.
Shortly after attending a SNCC voting rights meeting, Fannie Lou joined a group of neighbors on a bus to the county seat, with the intent to register to vote. Officials blocked most of the group from even attempting to register. Those who were allowed to complete the application failed the “literacy” test, and were turned away. On the return to their home town, local police stopped the bus and arrested the driver on the grounds that the bus was “too yellow.” While held on the bus, Fannie Lou calmed and inspired the others by singing spirituals such as “This Little Light of Mine.” Her bold and soaring voice became one of the hallmarks of her personal activism and of the voting rights crusade.
By the time Fannie Lou returned home, the plantation owner for whom she and her husband worked demanded that she withdraw her application to vote. When she refused—saying, “I didn’t go down there to register for you. I went down to register for myself”—he subsequently ordered her off his land and she and her husband left the county for a time to live with relatives elsewhere in Mississippi. Her willingness to stand up to the country voting registrar and the plantation owner, coupled with her inspirational singing on the bus, caught the attention of SNCC leaders, who provided her with further training and paid her a stipend of $10/week as a community organizer. She continued to work tirelessly for black voter registration and for desegregation in 1962-63.
In June of 1963, Fannie Lou and a group of fellow activists were returning home after attending citizenship training in South Carolina when their bus was stopped for no apparent reason in rural Mississippi. Several of the activists protested by sitting down at a whites-only lunch counter and were promptly arrested. The harrowing three days that she spent in jail, beaten and terrorized, profoundly impacted her, causing physiological damage from which she would suffer the rest of her life. The experience only intensified her deep belief in the righteousness and justice of her cause. When she and her colleagues were finally released, they learned that civil rights leader Medgar Evers has been assassinated on the front steps of his Mississippi home the previous day.
Fannie Lou became an eloquent and electrifying speaker for civil rights and a lead organizer of the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project. Although some SNCC organizers were leery of introducing white Northern college students to the voter registration drive, Fannie Lou saw the importance and symbolism of integration in the movement. She told attendees at one SNCC meeting, “If we’re trying to break down this barrier of segregation, we can’t segregate ourselves.”
In 1964, Fannie Lou ran for Congress as a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP or Freedom Democrats, as they became known), challenging the majority white and segregationist Democratic Party which then controlled Mississippi politics. She lost to the Democratic incumbent by an overwhelming margin, but her campaign opened the door for the MFDP to further organize at a local and state level and in August 1964, to challenge the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention. Mississippi’s all-white and pro-segregation delegation was not representative of all Mississippi Democrats, they argued. Martin Luther King, Jr., was recruited to speak to the committee on the political and moral importance of seating a representative delegation of the MFDP at the convention. But it was Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech that brought many on the committee to tears of disbelief that this could actually happen in America in 1964.
President Johnson, fearful that further attention to the plight of African American citizens would outrage the Southern delegations and send them into the arms of his Republic challenger, Barry Goldwater, was determined that Fannie Lou Hamer not be seated as a delegate. In private to his advisers, he frequently referred to her as “that illiterate woman.” Through his expected running mate, Hubert Humphrey, and Humphrey’s designated emissary, Walter Mondale, Johnson tried to broker a deal between the white Mississippi delegation and the MFDP, offering them just two delegate seats instead of the nine that they had demanded. The MFDP firmly rejected the offer. Fannie Lou summed it up neatly: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired.”
The powerful events of Freedom Summer, the national response to Fannie Lou’s testimony to the credentials committee, and the subsequent Selma-to-Montgomery march (Bloody Sunday) and other marches in 1965, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Act, which bans racial discrimination in voting practices by the federal government as well as by state and local governments, is considered as the most important legislative accomplishment of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
At the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Fannie Lou Hamer became the first African American delegate since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and the first-ever woman delegate from Mississippi. She was seated to a thunderous ovation as part of Mississippi’s official delegation to the convention.
She continued to work on other projects, including Head Start programs, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and activism to end the Vietnam War. Until her death at age 59 in 1977, she maintained her passion for civil rights, voter registration and economic empowerment for African Americans in the Deep South. Her tombstone in her hometown of Ruleville, Miss., is engraved with one of her most elegantly simple quotes: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
On this 50th anniversary of the speech that frightened Lyndon Johnson and eventually helped to galvanize national support for the Voting Rights Act, I want to share and honor Fannie Lou’s powerfully eloquent words. I’ve now listened to her testimony and read the text at least a dozen times. Each time I find myself welling with tears and in awe of this courageous woman who experienced such brutal injustice and hatred, yet turned it on its head. Through her unshakeable moral commitment, her ability to inspire and motivate others, and her willingness to speak truth to power, she truly changed the world.
Here is the full written text from her speech of August 22, 1964 to the Credentials Committee, but you can also watch and listen to a clip of it from the PBS documentary Freedom Summer:
Mr. Chairman, and to the credentials committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland and Senator Stennis.
It was the 31st of August in 1962 that 18 of us traveled 26 miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens.
We was met in Indianola by policemen, highway patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the city police and the state highway patrolmen and carried back to Indianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.
After we paid the fine among us, we continued on to Ruleville, and Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for 18 years. I was met there by my children, who told me that the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down to try to register.
After they told me, my husband came, and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. Before he quit talking the plantation owner came and said, ‘Fannie Lou, do you know—did Pap tell you what I said?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’
He said, ‘Well I mean that.’ He said, ‘If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave’ Said, ‘Then if you go down and withdraw,’ said, ‘you still might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi.’
And I addressed him and told him and said, ‘I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.’ I had to leave that same night.
On the 10th of September 1962, 16 bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also Mr. Joe McDonald’s house was shot in.
And June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop; was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people—to use the restaurant—two of the people wanted to use the washroom.
The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out I got off of the bus to see what had happened. And one of the ladies said, ‘It was a state highway patrolman and a chief of police ordered us out.”
I got back on the bus and one of the persons had used the washroom got back on the bus, too.
As soon as I was seated on the bus, I saw when they began to get the five people in a highway patrolman’s car. I stepped off of the bus to see what was happening and somebody screamed from the car that the five workers was in and said, ‘Get that one there.’ When I went to get in the car, when the man told me I was under arrest, he kicked me.
I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell 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?”‘
And they would say other horrible names. He would say, ‘Yes, I can say “yes, sir.”‘
‘So, well, say it.’
She said, ‘I don’t know you well enough.’
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.
And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a state highway patrolman and he asked me where I was from. I told him Ruleville and he said, ‘We are going to check this.’
They left my cell and it wasn’t too long before they came back. He said, ‘You are from Ruleville all right,’ and he used a curse word. And he said, ‘We are going to make you wish you was dead.’
I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The state highway patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack.
The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the state highway patrolman, for me to lay down on a bunk bed on my face.
I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.
After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the state highway patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.
The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit on my feet—to keep me from working my feet. 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.
I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.
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. 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?
Screen shots of Fannie Lou Hamer testifying before the Democratic National Convention credentials committee.
Anne Rooney is a nurse, international health care consultant, and writer with a strong interest in social justice, women’s issues and improving health care in developing countries. She is based in the Chicago area.