by Marsha Rose Joyner
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper
Freedom Summer 1964:
It seems that all of my life I have been infected with the participatory democracy bug. In segregated schools and being a daughter of the Afro-American Newspapers, I was taught the United States was my government and I had a right to participate in the direction and operation of political systems. So I did, and still do.
Therefore, to protest Senator Douglass from Illinois over a project that had nothing to do with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), I drove from Highlands, Air Force Base, N.J. to the Democratic Convention on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Being nearly nine months pregnant, with a toddler in the stroller, my husband objected to my daring exploit, saying, “Do not even call me if you have this baby down there.” Armed with baby and protest signs, I was off.
Not having a clue what to expect, and with the sudden realization that I would never locate the other Air Force Wives who were also driving from various parts of New Jersey loaded down with children and with protest signs, I arrived on the Boardwalk to immense crowds. I walked among the picketers, on-lookers, the hordes of police and media everywhere; even my own mother, Elizabeth Murphy Oliver from the Afro-American Newspapers was a part of the media frenzy, and I was lost.
The energy of the Freedom Democrats brought national attention to the challenges African-American voters faced in Mississippi. In an effort to force the Democratic Party to recognize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as the legitimate representatives of the Black and White citizens of Mississippi, its members traveled to New Jersey to confront the party head-on.
Led by Joe Rauh, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Robert “Bob” Moses, and Fannie Lou Hamer, among others, the MFDP presented a compelling argument before the greater party and before the world. Hamer’s testimony before the committee was seen around the world, even though President Johnson tried to block it with a press conference. Although the group did not achieve their overall goal, they did prove to the world that Black people were an organized and active political force. As Hamer and the MFDP attempted to enter the Convention Center the police were corralling everyone. Because I’m Black with a protest sign the police assumed that I was a part of the MFDP. You know, we all look alike.
Hamer addressed the Convention’s Credentials Committee and told them of the problems she faced while trying to vote.
“All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America,” she said. “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?”
Feeling threatened by the MFDP’s presence at the convention, President Lyndon Johnson tried to keep the attention away from Hamer by calling all television networks with an emergency press conference. However, many television networks publicized Hamer’s speech on news programs throughout the United States. As a result, the Freedom Democrats received national support. In response to the publicity, Johnson proposed that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party be given two non-voting seats at the national convention.
Urged by Martin Luther King Jr. and other male Civil Rights leaders to accept the compromise, Hamer turned down the offer.
“Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand Black people’s lives,” she asked. “Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Now if you lose this job of Vice-President because you do what is right, because you help the MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take [the nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I’m going to pray to Jesus for you.”
“We didn’t come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here,” she added. “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired and we all want to sit.”
Although the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party rejected compromises from the Democratic Party and were not able to sit on the delegation floor, all was not lost. A clause was adopted in the rules committee of the Democratic National Party that required equality of representation from all state delegations beginning with the 1968 election.
Hamer did not worry about the past nor was she afraid of the future; she was supremely concentrated in the present. She just knew that material things, everything that she could see, touch, hear or taste, was the same and came from the same source, and her relationship with her God was unshakable.
She questioned outside authority, including the President of the United States; questioned what people took for granted, that Blacks could not vote; questioned what people held to be true, such as brutal White supremacy; she broke through the social conditioning of a hopeless life in Mississippi.
Are there enough adjectives to describe her, to give justice to so noble a spirit, to honor her generosity and gratitude? I do not want to make her a saint, for she was very real. She had faults and made mistakes. How do you say she inspired a movement, breathed life into a decaying system, and changed the Democratic Party forever?
Hamer was and is an inspirational figure to many involved in the struggle for civil rights. She died on March 14, 1977, at the age of 59.
“Victories of the Civil Rights Movement were those of huge numbers of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” – Charlie Thomas