Wednesday, April 20, 2016

1964 National Democratic Convention: Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony before the Credentials Committee

Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony in front of the Credentials Committee

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 eighteen of us traveled twenty-six 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 eighteen 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, sixteen 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. She 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?

Thank you.

Monday, April 18, 2016

' I'm tired of being sick and tired'

Fannie Lou Hamer
“I'm tired of being sick and tired." 
Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist from Mississippi

Life has a sneaky way of poking people in the eye when they least expect it. During this 2016 election season Americans have been thrown into another guerrilla fight, in which bitchy wisecracking, outright lying and rolling eyes are weapons of choice. Experienced and novice politicians still have not learned how to run for president like adults.  They have not learned to hire a civil tongue when criticizing their rivals. Here in America presidential elections and conventions have become colorful circuses televised worldwide. 

The circus performers never stop jabbing at each; boorishly insulting each other for fear of becoming irrelevant during their bid for the presidency. To make the Donkey and Elephant theatrics more interesting and emotionally stimulating a couple of present day candidates have thrown in heaping spoonsful of racism and finger pointing at minorities to elevate the blood pressure of their avid supporters. This kind of spoon-fed race baiting is ideal for White folks who relish blaming “others” for their financial and personal problems. Prior to blaming Mexican immigrants for their troubles, such as snatching employment opportunities away from them---African Americans were the culprits. I never realized that White folks competed with Mexican laborers.

Although White folks in America have always had affirmative action to strengthen and boost their bootstraps, they do not feel that Black folks should have access to affirmative action bootstraps. They would prefer that Blacks be happy campers with no rights of any kind. And up pops the civil rights movement, coming full force with demands to be strands of thread in that huge quilt called politics. Demanding the right to vote pushed White folks over the edge, especially in the Deep South. For several years White politicians have schemed to keep Black Democrats out of the process, making it difficult for them to register and vote the same day. Republicans wish the Democratic Party would go away.

52 years later nothing has changed 
except the players

Here we are 52 years later, listening to the same old words from new and old mouths. Here we are in 2016 observing the 1964 presidential election being replayed, and breathtakingly written about by the media as if it were brand new. The only thing different is the cast of characters pandering for votes, applause, mindless adoration and public approval. The deaths of racism and bigotry have been greatly exaggerated. Neither of them died with the election Barack Obama as president of the United States.

In 1964 President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Jekyll and Hyde, who had public and private personalities, was running for re-election. He would fit in comfortably with today’s GOP candidates, and what they are telling voters. White Southerners believe they are losing “their” America to Black folks. With the election of Barack Obama, White folks are told by White politicians that they, a majority people of the highest order, have been marginalized and forgotten about in favor of African Americans.

Just what scared White people you might be asking. The fear started  in 1964 when Black civil rights activists and leaders from Mississippi and other southern states wanted to register to vote. They also wanted to be seated as delegates at the Democrats National Convention. This did not make Johnson happy. His mouth espoused one thing, the legislation he signed into law said something else. He was the manifestation of Jekyll and Hyde contradicting each other, as seen in today’s GOP crop of presidential candidates.

“LBJ had shifted from worrying about the response of liberal Northerners to the seating of segregationists to worrying about the backlash among Whites everywhere if angry Blacks and their White supporters dominated the convention coverage. 

“I think the Negroes are going back to Reconstruction period, they're going to set themselves back a hundred years . . . and I'm just trying to get a vice president for them . . . and here these folks go get everybody upset. . . . Hell, the Northerners are more upset . . . they wire me to tell me the Negroes are taking over the country, they're running the White House, they're running the Democratic Party . . . it's not Mississippi and Alabama anymore . . . you're catching hell from Michigan, Ohio, Philadelphia, New York, that nearly every White man in this country would be frightened if he thought the Negroes were going to take him over. . . . We can't ever buy spots that'll equal this. . . . We've got five million budgeted but we can't undo what they've done these past few days”.

Lyndon Johnson, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz
Change the candidate from a duplicitous Lyndon Johnson to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz; flip the “enemy” from African Americans to Mexicans, and we have the 1964 presidential election.  White people proclaimed in 2009, “We want our country back!”; “Blacks have taken over the White House!”; “Democrats stole the presidential election!” It seems they lost their collective minds when Barack Obama was elected president. Demands for “return of their America” intensified with his re-election. White pundits have predicted there will never be another Black person elected president in the U. S. 

When Donald Trump announced his bid for the presidency last year the media and GOP did not take him seriously. He was supposed to be a flash in the pan. The pan stayed on the stove, and the flash is a huge headache. Republicans do not know to shit or go blind. The adage is apropos for what is happening to the GOP. Republicans can thank Trump and his evil twin Ted Cruz for the shit or go blind analogy.

In addition to trying to bully, threaten, and offend his way into the White House, Trump is challenging GOP bigwigs. He wants them to flush down the toilet, all prior rules for nominating a candidate. He wants it done before the upcoming National Convention in Ohio in July. Trump said earlier that he and his supporters will not stand by and let the GOP take the nomination away from him. Trump does care about the delegates count. He is demanding that they nominate him regardless, come hell or high water.

Like Trump, Lyndon Johnson was determined not going to let activists or rivals block his nomination at the Democratic convention, even if it meant favoring White delegates over the 64 Black and four White Mississippians.

Trump expects to arrive at the informal ball with the largest number of delegates, not the 1,237 required for the nomination. He is already making his case to voters in advance. Ted Cruz, a Texas senator, and John Kasich, governor of Ohio, are saying to Trump: “Hold on there, buster! This circus has more action clowns than you!” The duo is hoping for a contested convention to elevate their chances of getting the treasured nomination.

At least the 2016 delegates will be assigned seats and voting privileges at the GOP convention. That was not always the case for Black citizens living in Deep South states, where Whites could not relinquish their old ways of discrimination and control. Years after slavery Blacks were not allowed to vote or participate in Whites only primaries. Just organizing to get Blacks registered often ended in deaths for a mixture of young and older activists, Black and White.

Contentious Democratic convention and 
seating of segregated delegates

Fannie Hamer and Ella Baker, 1964
The GOP convention is slated to be contentious according to Trump and his supporters. One earlier contentious convention occurred in 1964. Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson was the incumbent president. He fell into the presidency after John Kennedy was assassinated November 1963 in Dallas, Texas. As VP Johnson automatically reversed roles, serving out Kennedy’s term. Just like politicians dislike Republican Ted Cruz, Washington politicians also disliked the brash, up-in-your-face Texan.

Denial of delegate seats to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the National Democratic Convention caused Fannie Lou Hamer, the daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper, armed only with a sixth grade education, to question America after Johnson’s scheme to stop them from testifying before the Credentials Committee. They were invited to testify about political discrimination, the obstacles that slapped them in the face whenever they attempted to register to vote, having to pick an amendment in the Constitution and explain it. MFDP’s objective was to convince the Committee to seat them as delegates representing Mississippi. The convention was being held in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

“While the student volunteers knocked on door and taught classes, Hamer was busy with the MFDP. The party held its own conventions at the precinct, county and state levels to select a group to send to Atlantic City in August, where they would challenge the seating of the all-White Mississippi delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Hamer was elected vice chair of the integrated delegation, which consisted of 64 Black members and four White members”. (PBS)

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was formed April 26, 1964 with the help of Hamer. It was part of the Mississippi Summer Project that attracted college students who traveled to Mississippi to work with local civil rights activists. The majority of the students were White and from the North.

Johnson does not want to alienate Dixiecrats

Learning about the MFDP’s reason for testifying before the Credentials Committee, Johnson
Hubert Humphrey
promptly dispatched his VP pick, Hubert Humphrey, to convince the group that now was not the right time to seat Black delegates at the convention. Johnson knew he could alienate White Southern Democrats, all instrumental to his first full-term election. The MFDP had to get 10 percent of the Committee on their side.

Texas governor, John Connally, admonished Johnson that if he seated “those Black buggers the whole South will walk out” of the convention. Being a native Texan aware of Southern politicians and their racially charged dialect, I guarantee you the governor did not call the Black Mississippians buggers.

“Nonetheless, under pressure from Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, members of the Credentials Committee dropped their support for the MFDP. As a conciliatory gesture, Democratic officials offered two-at-large seats to MFDP representatives, though Humphrey made it clear Johnson would not stand for one of the seat going to Hamer. The President has said he will not let that illiterate woman speak on the floor of the Democratic convention”. (PBS)

Johnson said, according to American Legacy, “If we mess with this group of Negroes . . . we will lose 15 states without even campaigning”. Johnson pushed a compromise.

The so-called “compromise” made it clear that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had to agree to accept the two guest seats on the convention floor. However, they could not vote; they had no voice or power. All they could do was sit and observe White delegates participate in the process. Another condition for sitting in the worthless seats was that they had to sign an oath of loyalty to the Democratic ticket. The MFDP roundly rejected the compromise.

Not all civil rights leaders concurred with the MDFP. “One after another, the big names of the civil rights movement appeared before the Mississippians, telling them they didn’t know a victory when they saw one and urging them not to damage the electoral chances of Johnson and other Democratic leaders”. (American Legacy, 2001)

Humphrey threw in his two cents worth of advice. Humphrey appealed to the MFDP leaders to accept the proposal. He supported their cause, he told them. Johnson made it clear to Humphrey that he did not want a floor fight at the convention. Fannie Lou Hamer shook her head in disappointment.

Hamer said to Humphrey, “Senator Humphrey, I been praying about you, and I been thinking about you, and you’re a good man, and you know what’s right. The trouble is, you’re afraid to do what you know is right. You just want the job. . . . Mr. Humphrey, if you take this job, you won’t be worth anything”.

“I’m not going to stoop to no two votes at large,” Hamer said of the new offer. The majority of the delegation agreed. “Once again, Whites were telling Blacks what to do. In this case it was White liberals, who had supported an end to discrimination and segregation, but on their own terms and timetable."

The MFDP was so furious that it marched that night into the convention hall singing the now famous civil rights song, We Shall Overcome. “With credentials given them by sympathetic delegates, Hamer, Victoria Gray, and 20 other Mississippi insurgents slipped in an sat in seats vacated by the regular Mississippi delegation, most of whom declined to take the loyalty oath mandated by the compromise and had left for home”’.

The determined activists refused to relinquish the seats when the sergeants-at-arms asked them to leave.  “Surrounded by swarms of television correspondents and cameraman, they denounced the hypocrisy of a President and party that professed their commitment to civil rights, but refused to acknowledge an integrated group of delegates fully supported of Democratic Party principles and policies”. (American Legacy, 2001)

The MFDP returned to Mississippi to continue their purpose of registering Black Mississippians to vote. Hamer’s testimony lifted her profile, and she was soon in demand as a speaker.

His Texas eyes on the MFDP, Johnson goes 
into full hypocrisy mode

President Lyndon Johnson
Johnson was fearful that his ultra conservative rival Barry Goldwater would reach for the racial bag of tricks, pulling out a doozy that would work against his re-election bid. There had been a number of riots due to police brutality. On July 16, 1964 a Black man was shot and killed by a White cop, sparking six nights of rioting in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Jersey City. This shooting was an accumulation of many police shootings and physical abuse heaped on African Americans by White police nationwide.

What the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party did not know is that behind the scenes Johnson had gone into full ruin and vanquish mode. With all the power of the U.S. government on his side, Johnson was cognizant that the Black activists from Mississippi were climbing up a greased hill. American Legacy reported, “He was determined that nothing would mar his party’s coronation of him as its 1964 standard bearer---or his chances for victory in November. Despite his approval rating of nearly 70 percent in the polls, he was convinced that a floor fight over seating the MFDP would cost him the South and the election”.

Johnson was concerned that the Freedom Democratic Party would wield enough influence at the convention to persuade Southern states to break their allegiance to him. He was scared that Mississippi Democrats would vote for Republican Barry Goldwater, a staunch conservative from Arizona.

Lyndon Johnson did not understand why Black folks were not satisfied with all he had done for them. They were just downright ungrateful! He had secured passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He did not understand why Blacks did not kiss his Texas boots for all he had done for them, but Johnson did understand the fine art underhandedness.

President Johnson had the FBI tap MFDP headquarter phones. He wanted to get an upper hand on the organization, Dr. Martin Luther King, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) before they knew he had the goods on them. Agents impersonating reporters fished for, and compiled information on civil rights leaders and activists. Their catch was delivered to Johnson. Members of the Credentials Committee were threatened with the loss of their government jobs if they did not deny the MFDP seats on the convention floor.

Johnson was pissed about this hole in his bucket. He had to thwart the MFDP’s testimonies. While Hamer was testifying he called a hasty press conference at the White House to distract the media’s attention, taking it away from Hamer. Johnson’s plan worked but it later boomeranged. Hamer made history with her testimony. So touching and condemning was her August 22 testimony that all of the evening news programs played her testimony in full, unedited. Hamer destroyed the picture of perfect harmony among Democrats. Disarray is not what President Johnson wanted portrayed on TV. 

The media said of Hamer: “Her testimony was compelling enough for many evening news
Fannie Hamer testifies
programs broadcast it, incidentally granting it a much larger audience. Hamer held the Committee’s attention as she spoke from memory about her eviction from the Marlow plantation and her brutal beating in the Winona jail.

After no less than 10 minutes she concluded: “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”. (PBS)

Lyndon Johnson won re-relection in a landslide.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Born October 6, 1917, Fannie Lou Townsend was one of 20 children born to sharecroppers James Lee and Ella Townsend in rural Montgomery County, Mississippi, October 6, 1917. Townsend was not an educated woman. She dropped out of school at an early age to pick cotton and to help her financially strapped family survive. The Townsends lived and worked on a plantation owned by W. D. Marlow, near Ruleville in Sunflower County.  Because she could read and write the plantation owner appointed her timekeeper.

Fannie married Perry “Pap” Hamer in 1944. He was a tractor driver on the same plantation. The couple did not have children of their own. At some point Hamer entered the North Sunflower County Hospital to have an appendectomy operation. She emerged from the hospital a sterile woman.

In the 1960s poor women living in the South went to hospitals for minor surgery and ended up getting hysterectomies without their consent or knowledge. Some women’s tube were tied. Eugenics was a government secret and poor women and men were targeted because they were considered undesirables, and the government did not want them to procreate. 

Hamer and Perry adopted two girls whose family could not provide for them.

Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer made her bones in politics in 1962 when she hooked up with civil rights activists in Mississippi. The group that she worked with called themselves the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When the plantation owner learned that Hamer had registered to vote, he ordered her to leave the plantation.

He ordered Hamer to withdraw her voter registration. She refused, telling him:  “I didn’t go down there to register for you. I went down there to register for myself”. Down there was a bus ride to the county seat of Indianola with 17 neighbors and activists.

Fannie Hamer speaks to c outside the Capital in Washington, Sept. 17, 1965
June 9, 1963 Hamer and fellow colleagues were returning home from a citizenship training session in Charleston, South Carolina. Their bus was stopped in Winona, Mississippi. “In an act of protest, several members of the group sat at the bus station’s White’s only lunch counter. Before long the police removed them from the cafĂ©, arresting six people. In jail, several of the activists were beaten by the police and by other African Americans inmates, whom the police forced to use blackjack weapons. The damage done to Hamer’s eyes, legs and kidneys would affect her for the rest of her life”. (PBS) 

Hamer talked about jail house beating when she testified in front of the Credentials Committee. She recalled the brutal beating at the hands of two Black prisoners: “ . . . 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”. 

Hamer ran for State Senator in 1971, District 11, Bolivar and Sunflower Counties. She lost to the race but not her zest to fight for what was right, stepping in where she saw civil rights being violated and denied to Black Mississippians. 

Hamer, who was threatened with death many times was diagnosed to have breast cancer in 1976. She continued her purpose until she was hospitalized. She died March 17, 1977 at age 59.  U.S. delegate to the United Nations, Andrew Young, Jr., delivered Hamer’s eulogy at her funeral. Ella Baker (above photo) of the Southern Christian  Leadership Conference and several noted civil rights leaders spoke at Hamer's funeral in celebration of the life she lived.