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).
While some Civil Rights leaders tested the limits of oppression in the South themselves through direct action, some empowered others to test those same limits. Ella Jo Baker was a natural born leader who empowered others by developing ordinary people into becoming grassroots leaders, building upon their own potentials and sense of social justice. Baker encouraged young activists, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to listen and become inspired by the testimonies of those suffering under racial oppression in Mississippi and throughout the Deep South. Baker wanted these young turks to extract lessons that could be applied to future freedom struggles. Ella Jo Baker was an important leader in the Black Freedom Movement who tested the limits of oppression by getting to know everyday people and believing passionately, just as former SNCC activist Victoria Gray Adams did, that “everybody has something to say and something to offer.”
During an interview with historian Charles Payne, Lawrence Guyot, a SNCC activist in Mississippi and an organizing member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, recollected a moment during SNCC’s collective history when Black males were “surging forward” into leadership positions. Guyot remembered making the macho mistake of telling some of the women, some of which included Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray, to “step back a little bit and let the men move in now.” According to Payne and historian Barbara Ransby, Guyot had made a similar comment in the presence of Ella Baker in 1965 and “she calmly corrected him.” Baker told Guyot that “[He had] proven that there are some men who can do a very good job but you have to learn never, never make the mistake of substituting men in quantity for women of quality.” In a way, Baker’s rebuttal to Guyot exemplifies the kind of person she was. Ella Baker was an “insurgent intellectual,” albeit patient, woman who, as Ransby describes, “Fought militantly but democratically for a better world.” The sum of Ella Baker’s activist career spans from 1930 to 1980, fifty years of touching lives and contributing wisdom, playing a pivotal role in developing Black Freedom Movement organizations, such as: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), In Friendship, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), functioning, as Ransby describes, “an outsider within.” Of the organizations Baker had the most influence, empowering to test the limits of oppression, were those young militant students in SNCC.
On February 1, 1960, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair, four black college students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and “refused to move.” After several days and without serious incident, Woolworth submitted to desegregate the lunch counter. These four college students ignited a movement that rippled across the South and gave hope to some of the older activists, like Ella Baker, who saw potential in the vigor of the growing student sit-in movement, the potential for something more grandiose, maybe even perhaps, as historian Ransby describes, “a new type of leadership” within the Black Freedom Movement. According to Ransby, Baker took immediate action and brought the students together on Easter weekend, 1960, to discuss (she hoped) future militant action and developing an independent organization of young people. The Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation was a huge success. The gathering took place at Shaw University, Baker’s alma mater, attracting more than 200 student participants; even those who wanted to protect their own local autonomy were curious to hear what others had to say.
The celebrity of Martin Luther King Jr. attracted many of the 200 student participants when they heard the news he was going to be speaking at the event. However, we must avoid compartmentalizing the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement as a series of nonviolent protests led by charismatic ministers. Not all leaders are necessarily charismatic or popular. Consider historian Ransby’s interesting distinction between King and Baker and the students who would eventually formed SNCC. According to Ransby, despite most of the student activists having never heard of Ella Baker before the Shaw meeting, “It was [Baker], more than King, [who] became the decisive force in their collective political future.” It was Baker who nurtured the student movement. It was Baker who offered the sit-in leaders what would become their signature model of organizing. It was Baker, not King, who taught the students the meaning of self-determination rooted in organizing communities into testing the limits of oppression and to withstand violence at the hands of white supremacy, in places where the people had the hardest lives, places in Mississippi with the “greatest direst need,” places such as: Cleveland, McComb, Greenwood, and eventually Ruleville.
Ella Jo Baker was involved with many organizations and movements, including the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, but her involvement with SNCC had the most the impact. Victoria Adams remembers meeting Ella Baker and feeling as if “we had always known each other. She was never a stranger, somebody I had to get to know. She was a very little figure, with a very strong and imposing voice.” Even now, those who survive today remember Ella Baker as a master teacher who inspired the way they fought the Black Freedom Movement, because, just as Adams often said, “the [real] strength with the Civil Rights Movement was in the fact that there were so many local people involved, [doing] the day-to-day work. Local people made the difference.” Ella Baker taught activist like Adams to “get to know everyday people,” because everyone had something to offer and if you have strong people, you don’t need strong leaders.