While some leaders of the Civil Rights Movement empowered others to test the limits of oppression, other leaders tested those same limits themselves. Fannie Lou Hamer is an inspiring example of the direct action response against injustice, inequality, and oppression. While leaders like Ella Jo Baker developed ordinary people into becoming grassroots leaders, building upon their own potentials and sense of social justice, Fannie Lou Hamer, despite all the hardships: losing her job, being harassed, shot at, partially blinded and beaten, challenged the limits of oppression in Mississippi more directly by inspiring those around her to get out and vote, canvassing, and eventually forming a new political party called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1964, Mrs. Hamer spoke against the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in New Jersey, delivering a passionate account of the 1963 police beatings of Winona, Mississippi, which had left her partially blind. Both leadership styles were equally important during the Black Freedom Movement. One typically could not work without the other, as it was Baker’s influence over SNCC and how SNCC conducted themselves in Ruleville, Mississippi that inspired Hamer to take a more direct role in the battle for equality.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) arrived in Ruleville, Mississippi during a period of widespread social discontent that had been building momentum across the Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi since the 1920 Great Migration. Before the fateful summer of 1962, according to historian Chana Lee, Fannie Lou Hamer was a middle-aged plantation timekeeper who speculated that, “hard as we have to work for nothing, there must be some way we can change things.” Sentiments commonly heard among laborers, sharecroppers, and rural disenfranchised in the Delta of Mississippi. When SNCC descended on Ruleville, Mississippi in August 1962, James Forman and James Bevel set up a mass meeting to discuss with the community about voter registration. Hamer was disinterested at first; however, she eventually decided to attend the meeting being held at her Ruleville church, Williams Chapel Missionary Baptist Church; the only house, according to Lee, that “allowed voter registration workers a forum” (this is an important part of history to note, its commonly assumed churches played a large role in the Civil Rights Movement, and while churches were important, their numbers were few and far between).
SNCC alums Bob Moses, James Forman, and Reginald Robinson were among the speakers who discussed with Ruleville audiences about their constitutional rights as citizens of both the United States and as state constituents. They discussed the power of the vote. According to Lee, SNCC’s presentation “lit a fire in Hamer,” she was instantly attracted to their commitment in maintaining local autonomy and empowering local leadership, building up those who would remain when the young activists inevitably returned home. Among those who signed their names as volunteers, Fannie Lou Hamer emerged as a leader by sheer consensus among her peers because, according to Lee, “her bravery made them brave,” and because of her impromptu testimonial had encouraged others to join. The community do doubt looked upon Hamer as a natural leader because of her timekeeper position on the farm. As a timekeeper, Hamer was responsible for tabulating the hours that each wage laborer worked on the farm and for measuring the cotton that each sharecropper and day laborer picked that day. According to historian J. Moye, “The Job had placed Hamer in a position of trust and honor… [and] in time, Hamer had developed a reputation for being fair to her coworkers at risk to her own job.” Hamer was looked to as a woman who was concerned with social justice before she ever became involved with the Civil Rights Movement.
When Fannie Lou Hamer “flunked” her first voter registration test, her resolve to challenge the limits of oppression intensified; unfortunately though, so did the means of the oppressors. When the small group of Ruleville volunteers returned to Indianola, Mississippi, Hamer was confronted by her terrified and shaken family. News of her voter application had reached plantation owner W.D. Marlow who was “blazing mad and raising sand” that one of his tenants had done such a thing. Marlow demanded that Hamer return to the registers office and withdraw her application or face eviction from the plantation. It did not seem to matter to Marlow that Hamer had failed her literacy exam; all that mattered was the apparent shame of having one of his employees challenge how things are run in Ruleville, which no doubt caused some embarrassment for him among his friends in town. According to historian Lee, Fannie Lou Hamer left with little hesitation, despite knowing that there were some difficult days ahead and that her husband, Pap, would have to remain on the plantation because of their family’s fragile economic situation. Hamer went to stay with friends Mary and Robert Tucker in Ruleville, who were already building a reputation for taking in voter registration activists. But even here Hamer was not safe. According to Lee, on September 10, 1963, ten short and agonizing days sense her departure from the angered and bitter Marlow and his plantation, the Tucker residence became one of many victims in a wave of drive-by shootings taking place across Ruleville during the SNCC-leg voter registration campaign. Night riders targeted activists “Mississippi style – politically motivated, pointed in intent, and indiscriminate in consequence.” Fortunately, no one was harmed during the shooting. Despite financial woes, shootings, and harassment, little could deter Fannie Lou Hamer from continuously testing oppression. Instead. these attacks steeled her resolve, because, according to Hamer, “They take me from my husband and they take my home from me. But still, at the next election, I will be there, voting just as much as white folks vote.”
Fannie Lou Hamer was a woman of indomitable will. Hardship, harassment, shootings, beatings, name-calling, being jailed and other means of violence could not deter this courageous southern middle-aged black woman from testing the limits of oppression and making her voice heard in the rural counties of Mississippi. Even with the tragic death of Medgar Evers, an NAACP Greenwood branch organizer, shot in the back in his driveway of his home, did little to slow Hamer down. The loss of friends was taking its toll. In 1964, David Dennis lamented at the memorial for James Chaney, “I’m tired of going to funerals…I’m tired!” The deaths of Evers and other activists was a crushing blow on the spirits in rural Mississippi, but somehow, these tragedies inspired Hamer to fight even harder. According to historian Lee, Hamer would “[rise] with the sun” and go out during those early morning hours to canvass among day laborers in the fields, and in the evening, join small countryside churches where she sang freedom songs and preached a message of hope “to anyone who would listen about the power of the vote.” And on April 26, 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party came into being with a rally of just over 200 people in the state capital of Mississippi, Jackson. For months prior to forming the MFDP, Fannie Lou Hamer had worked tirelessly to get on the ground floor of the traditional Mississippi Democratic Party, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not breach the traditionalist political lines of the Old South.
According to Victoria Gray Adams, a Mississippi businesswoman who supported SNCC and eventually became a full time activist herself, remarked regarding the formation of MFDP that it had grown “out of the frustrations of people attempting to participate in the regular political structure.” The MFDP emerged in 1964 as a direct action against the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. According to Miss Adams, “We were doing our politicking; we were making our speeches,” and it was here when Fannie Lou Hamer gave her famous televised testimonial. On the morning of August 22, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer, along with, as Adams nicknamed the “big guns,” three national civil rights icons: Martin Luther King Jr. (SCLC), James Farmer (CORE), and Roy Wilkins (NAACP) made statements on behalf of MFDP to the credential committee; however, it was Hamer’s emotional recounting and exposure of Mississippi’s brutal treatment of blacks that summoned the attention of the nation. Even a nervous Johnson, who had pulled all his legislative aptitude to secure moving the Civil Rights Act a mere few months earlier through Congress, was almost hysterical about keeping pressure on the Credentials Committee not to side with the MFDP and during Hamer’s speech had prompted the television network broadcasting the Democratic National Convention to cutaway to cover a press conference at the White House. However, despite LBJ wanting to lessen the impact of the MFDP testimonials (and keep favor with the Dixiecrats), Hamer’s message got out; according to historian Lee, MFDP “received hundreds of telegrams in support of it efforts.” According to Miss Adams, the MFDP challenge at the 1964 Democratic National Convention “really frightened the powers that be,” by giving the MFDP and the people they represented a national stage and voice, an incredible challenge to the limits of oppression.
Women like Fannie Lou Hamer were inspiring leaders who continually tested the limits of oppression in the South Hamer is the perfect example of Ella Jo Bakers famous saying, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” Hamer was, despite losing her job, harassment, shooting, beatings and imprisonment, a strong woman who embraced direct action as a means of challenging the limits of oppression throughout Mississippi. By helping form a new political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer gave others new means of challenging those same limits of oppression because, in her own words, she “thought with all my heart that if the Constitution of the United States means something to all of us, then I know they would unseat [the all-white delegation].” Fannie Lou Hamer is an important historical leader in the Black Freedom Movement. She tested the limits of oppression in seemingly impossible ways, and inspired ordinary people, just as Miss Victoria Gray Adams, that “everybody has something to say and something to offer.” May her memory and her deeds continue to inspire today and tomorrows generations.
Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom’s Sake: the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Women in American History), (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
Victoria Adams, ed., Hands On the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in Sncc in They Didn’t Know the Power of Women, ed. Faith S. Holsaert et al. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi 1945-1986, (The University of North Carolina Press, November 17, 2004).
To be honest, this is the first review, post, article, paper, i’ve ever written on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I’m sure i’ve quoted a few words from famous speeches, i’ve no doubt hash-tagged or paraphrased some portion of the man’s life, but, to date, i’ve never taken the time to really write about him. Its a shame really, in the all to brief 39 years of his life, there is so much to be said, especially during the Civil Rights era, with his involvement spanning (arguably) from 1955-1968. In just thirteen years, a man only really known for as the son of Martin Luther King Sr., would rise of the unequivocal leader of a nonviolent Negro revolution. King was a man not lacking personal accomplishments, some of which included: the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, “l Have a Dream,” awarded five honorary degrees, named Man of the Year by Time magazine (1963), and became the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1964).
One of the most enduring bits of King’s history, is from his humble beginnings with the Civil Rights Movement, before it was even the Civil Rights Movement. In the “cradle of confederacy,” also known as Montgomery, Alabama, history was brewing. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was, as it seems, a “proving ground” for future nonviolent protests. Was the bus boycott intended to such proposes? No, before the boycott, no one, especially King, expected the magnitude of overwhelming participation from the people. Consider Jim Crow was in full swing, and before Rosa Parks became the Rosa Parks, she had already previously encountered the cruel and humiliating treatment of bus drivers enforcing segregated busing codes. During one encounter, in 1943, after already paying her fair, the bus driver ordered Mrs Parks to enter the bus from the rear, instead of the front as you would typically enter a bus. Before she was able to climb on board, the driver took off. Or consider when Vernon Johns, a black pastor, “tried to get other blacks to leave a bus in protest after he was forced to give up his seat to a white man, only to have them tell him, ‘You ought to knowed better.'”
The last bit, from Vernon Johns’ testimony, really gives a clear and haunting picture for why King had feared how the bus boycott could be a failure. He feared, along with other local leaders, that the majority had accepted Jim Crow to the point of non protest and cooperation. However, much to his and his wife’s astonishment, on the morning of December 5, 1955, around six o’clock, from the privacy of their kitchen window they watched the first of many buses drive by with only a few white passengers. None of the black population were riding the buses. It was here when the King’s first witnessed unanimous mass noncooperation with the how African Americans were being treated on the buses. After a quick drive around town, King estimated around 99% participation; he had previously assumed (or prayed for, more actually) at least a 60% participation. And what began as a single day of protest, in the wave of mass participation, turned into a year long struggle. On November 13, 1956, “the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal court’s ruling, declaring segregation on buses unconstitutional. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was officially over.”
Though, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was small, its impact helped launch of what Roberta Wright called, “a 10-year national struggle for freedom and justice, the Civil Rights Movement, that stimulated others to do the same at home and abroad.” How? Why? Well, in the words of King, “there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by oppression. there comes a time when people get tired of being plunged into the abyss of exploitation and nagging injustice. The story of Montgomery is the story of 50,000 such Negroes who were willing to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery until the walls of segregation were finally battered by the forces of justice.”Sources: Martin Luther King Jr., “Stride Toward Freedom,” Beacon Press, 1958. “Martin Luther King Biographical,” Nobel Peace Prize article, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-bio.html. (Accessed on Jan 20, 2014). Lisa Cozzens, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott,” http://www.watson.org/~lisa/blackhistory/civilrights-55-65/montbus.html (Accessed on Jan 20, 2014).
Somehow, the story of Roanoke Colony has lost its historic significance. Its an ambiguous story to be sure, with little surviving evidence and first person testimony and a growing sense of legend. Regardless, the story of Roanoke Colony is an important memory to keep alive. Why? Despite its ambiguity, there are significant first encounters we cannot ignore. Encounters of idealism and philanthropy, violence and decapitations, of life and new discoveries, and also of murder and death. These are some of the first encounters between English settlers and natives of the Late Woodland Indians of the coastal Carolina region, the very same who would later encounter more colonists in Jamestown and possibly as far north as Plymouth Rock. Here are a few things everyone should know regarding this early history of English colonization:
Sir Walter Raleigh inherited the patent for colonization in America from his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who had drowned while attempting to colonize St. Johns, Newfoundland. The patent was issued by Queen Elizabeth I, who did not really care so much about establishing a permanent English settlement in America per-say; but rather, a pirate base for English privateers, such as the infamous Sir Francis Drake, who were terrorizing Spanish outposts and fleets in the Caribbean and along the Florida coastline. However, because the contract was about to expire, Sir Raleigh was forced to execute the expedition post-haste, leaving the colonists so ill-prepared and so severely dependent on local inhabitants for food, that they never actually built anything except for crude defensive structures and living quarters.
The “lost” colony everyone talks about wasn’t the first “lost” colony to disappear from Roanoke Island. Technically, the first colonists to be “lost” were roughly fifteen men made up mostly of slaves and captured natives from the Caribbean left behind by Sir Francis Drake (who arrived at Roanoke Island under the assumption that there was supposed to be an actual working pirate base for him to unload some of his cargo), and a few men from the English garrison to hold the fort and maintain an English presence in America…with no real promise to return… When John White’s crew landed on Roanoke Island in 1587, a full year later, there was no sign of the men left behind.
The mystery of the “lost colonists” of Roanoke Island, the lost members of John White’s crew, including his daughter Eleanor Dare and granddaughter, Virginia, is really no mystery at all. Considering the misadventured exploits of the previous expedition with Govern Lane and company and their not-so-stunning rapport with the local Algonquian (Late Woodland Indians of the coastal Carolina region) communities which culminated with the destruction of Dasemunkepeuc village and the murder and beheading of Wingina, the weroance (leader) by one of Lane’s servants, a young Irish boy named Edward Nugent, is it really a surprise when White was persuaded to leave the colony and seek help from England after George Howe was “murdered while fishing alone in shallow water,” that upon his delayed return he found the settlement abandoned? However, what’s important to note here is that, surprisingly, not every native tribe hated this fresh group of colonists. Somehow White, among the Secota, Aquascogoc, and Damonquepeio tribes, was able to reestablish a positive relationship with the nearby Croatoans. The same name that so happened to be carved into one of the fort posts of the missing colony. “After failed attempts [to find the missing colonists] and poor weather, the fleet White is traveling with sets course for England.” White had intended to search further south on Croatoan Island for the colonists, but the crew (all privateers) refused to do so. The “real” mystery then becomes, not so much about what happened, but what definitively happened to the colonists who disappeared. Yet, history is full of little ambiguous pieces of memory; very few things are ever truly definitive. White died three years later in 1593 and the next expedition, under the authority of King James, known as Jamestown, would not happen for an additional seventeen years.
Roanoke Colony is an amazing story to be sure, but leaving it in myth and folklore devalues the lessons we can learn from this early memory of English settlement in America. Basically, in summation, a couple botched attempts at colonization and some of the first relationships and contacts among native peoples of among the Algonquians, the supposed same groupings colonists in Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, 22 & 37 years respectively after Roanoke, encountered and how these new encounters first effected and transformed the “New World.”Sources: Michael Leroy Oberg, “The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians,” University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.