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).
“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.” -Fannie Lou Hamer
The Freedom Summer Project of 1964 began with youthful optimism. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just been signed into law on July 2. What first began with Kennedy, was ultimately carried through by LBJ and his campaign toward creating the “Great Society.”. However, for many African American’s, getting out to vote or even registering to vote was another issue entirely, especially in the old “Dixie” south. Dixie included among its most staunchest traditionalists states (as in: wanting to keep the “old ways”) was Mississippi. Civil rights organizations, including the Congress on Racial Equality (C.O.R.E) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) after establishing themselves as a successful student/youth based movement (Freedom Riders, Sit-ins) organized voter registration drives throughout old miss. This project became known as the Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer. Made up mostly of northern students, both black and white, the Freedom Summer project hosted hundreds of volunteers, who according to Terri Shaw, a student volunteer, opened “freedom schools [which] were the most impressive part of the program. They were directed by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Reese, Negro secondary school teachers from Detroit. The schools were established in six churches for an initial enrollment of 585 persons (we had expected about 75).” While direct-action protest was an important feature among activism, voting and legislation was the most dominate catalyst for change. Without legislation, direct-action would have little lasting effect. However, we should not the particular history of the Civil Rights Movement and take note, much as the McGee’s of Greenwood, Mississippi, that without direct-action, legislation would do little good if someone wasn’t there to test the limits of oppression and the willingness of society (the moderate majority) to enforcing said legislation. Among the leaders organizing operations in Mississippi was Dave Dennis, a young up and coming co-leader of C.O.R.E.
Violence against the Freedom Summer participates grew steadily, according to Shaw the “most serious incidents concerning volunteers were beatings. The first occurred on July 10  when Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland, (a Ministers Project volunteer) and two white male college students were beaten while on their way to one of the churches where lunch was served after a morning of canvassing. They were attacked by two white men who had been following them in a pickup truck without license plates. Shouting ‘white nigger’ and ‘nigger lover’ they beat the rabbi and one of the students with an iron bar. The other student was kicked down an embankment, pummeled and kicked, and finally, his assailant shoved his canvassing notes into his mouth, shouting ‘eat this… nigger lover.’ All three were treated at a hospital and the rabbi was hospitalized over night.” Yet, in the face of growing hostility and violence, the students and volunteers carried out their credo of nonviolent resistance.
The Ku Klux Klan, members of the White Citizens Council, and even some local law enforcement authorities, angered by an imagined “threat” the black vote posed and change of tradition, carried out systematic violent attacks against demonstrators and other Freedom Summer volunteers. Some of the incidents were minor, from name calling to false arrests; but as the heat of the summer months intensified, so did the brutality. Beatings, as mentioned against Rabbi Lelyveld, continued, and on August 4, 1964, forty-four days after the disappearance of three Freedom Summer volunteers, while folk singer Pete Seeger was performing for a Meridian, Mississippi church congregation, word spread that the bodies of of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney had been found. Buried deep in earth beneath a dam. News of the their death shocked an already battle weary nation.
During the funeral for James Chaney, Dave Dennis was asked to give a eulogy. However, Dave, as one of the leaders of Freedom Summer, who had lent his station wagon to Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney the day they disappeared, who could have very well been a fourth victim of the Klan, couldn’t bring himself to give “the traditional thing.” Instead, Dennis (feeling the full weight of grieving family and friends) gave one of the most profound unscripted speeches ever to come from the Civil Rights Movement. Dave Dennis addressed the crowd with such passion and power to move listeners to reevaluate and discern their purpose and solidarity in the fight for racial equality. Dennis was so inflamed that he collapsed into the arms of Rev. Edwin King, unable to finish. Here is a portion of the eulogy given by Dennis, and one of the more moving pieces:
“I’m not here to do the traditional things most of us do at such a gathering…But what I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only in the state of Mississippi but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don’t care, those who do care but don’t have the guts enough to stand up for it, and those people who are busy up in Washington and in other places using my freedom and my life to play politics with..
You can also find the American Experience documentary here.
>Sources:Shaw, Terri. “Freedom Summer Recollections.” Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive, The University of Southern Mississippi. http://anna.lib.usm.edu/%7Espcol/crda/shaw/ts001.htm. (accessed Feb. 4 2014). “1964,” American Experience, PBS documentary, 2014. Davis W. Houck, David E. Dixon, “Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965,” Dave Dennis and Rev. Edwin King Address at the Funeral Service for James Chaney, Baylor University, 2006.
Movements are responses born and fed by suffering, injustice, and inequality — the ill paths society inevitably and unfortunately stumbles down. In moments of great change, movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968), confront hypocrisy similar to how the human body confronts dangerous pathogens; through the drudgery of nonviolent civil disobedience, activists uprooted, challenged, and made the world aware of the poisonous “separate but equal” fallacy of segregation. We can argue that The Civil Rights Movement, just as any other large reform movement, did not happen in a vacuum, there was no singular event that fundamentally changed everything; there were series’ of events. However, sometimes certain events transcend our understanding of historic reality. Events that are so powerful, albeit often tragic, they awaken us. Consider the murder of Emmett Till. Surely, not the first negro murder during the dark days of Jim Crow, especially in old south Mississippi, but the murder of Emmett Till and the callousness and brutally of it and how this cruel event was confronted by the courage of a languishing mother, grieving for the loss of her son, who choose to have an open casket funeral so the entire world could see what “those men did” to her child seems to be the sole catalyst that sparked what would later be known as, the Civil Rights Movement.
Emmett Louis “Bobo” Till was born in Chicago on July 25, 1941, to Louis and Mamie Till. Emmett would never know his father. In 1944, Louis was drafted into the U.S. Army and deployed out to Europe as a private. Three years later, Mamie received a letter from the “Department of Defense informing her, without a full explanation, that Louis was killed in Italy due to willful misconduct.” Along with the letter included Louis’ signet ring with the initials L.T. engraved into it. In 1955, Mamie gave the ring to her son, Emmett, before his summer trip to visit family living in Money, Mississippi.
The year before Emmett’s southbound departure from the 63rd Street station in Chicago, America had gone through some rather big reforms. In May 17th, 1954, “The Supreme Court orders public schools desegregated in Brown v. Board of Education. The watershed case overturns the separate-but-equal doctrine, which dated back to the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.” Southern segregationists obviously oppose the new legislation and on July 11, 1954 in the sleepy rural town of Indianola, Mississippi, form the White Citizens Council, a supremacist organization that often used violent and intimidation tactics to keep segregation a reality in what is considered to be the cradle of confederacy.
On August 20th, 1955, Emmett Till arrives at the home of his uncle Moses Wright. Moses, a sharecropper, is able to secure his fourteen year old nephew a job picking cotton in the hot Mississippi sun. Four days later, after putting in a long day at his summer job, Emmett joins a group of teenagers at “Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market for refreshments.” Waiting to purchase some bubble gum, Emmett is the last in his group to check out. Among the teenagers who would later testify remember hearing young Emmett tell Carolyn Bryant (the wife of the store owner) “bye baby.” Some of Emmett’s friends were shocked to hear him “talk fresh” with a white woman, but none of them thought anything horrible would come of it.
During the early morning hours before dawn on August 28, Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s husband) and his half brother J. W. Milam, arrived at the home of Moses Wright and demand to see Emmett. Without consent, the two men shove the terrified teenage boy into the back of their car and take off. This will be the last time anyone sees Emmett alive. On August 31st, “Emmett Till’s [mutilated and naked] corpse is pulled from Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. Moses Wright identifies the body from a ring with the initials L.T.” The next day, Mississippi Governor Hugh White orders local officials to “fully prosecute” Milam and Bryant for the murder of Emmett Till. On September 3rd, “Emmett Till’s body is taken to Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God for viewing and funeral services. Emmett’s mother [forcefully requests] to have an open casket funeral. Thousands of Chicagoans wait in line to [witness] Emmett’s brutally beaten body.” According to the later testimony of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, a few months after being acquitted for the murder of Emmett Till, the pair described how they “brutally beat [Emmett], taking him to the edge of the Tallahatchie River, shooting him in the head, fastening a large metal fan used for ginning cotton to his neck with barbed wire, and pushing the body into the river.”
Lynching’s and other brutal forms of cowardliness murder were unfortunately common during this period of history. Just before Emmett’s arrival at the door of his uncle’s home, two other men, Reverend George Lee and Lamar Smith were both murdered for their participation with the NAACP and local voter registration drives. However, one could argue that under the conditions in which southern blacks lived, the history of segregation being paved with countless corpses of maliciously murdered men and women who dared enough to whisper “Enough!,” the murder of Emmett Till seems to be the singular catalyst that spilled the already boiling pot of discontent. But the movement that was to take shape was not a reactionary violent movement as one might expect. It was a nonviolent movement carefully crafted by the ethos of agape love, a love for neighbor insomuch as to eradicate the poisonous tumor called Jim Crow and segregation that caused ill effects for both the black and white communities living in the United States.
Three months after the body of Emmett Till was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the Montgomery bus boycott began.
“The Murder of Emmett Till: The Brutal Murder that Mobilized the Civil Rights Movement,” American Experience documentary from the Eyes on the Prize series, PBS. 2003.