This weekend the Democratic Party of Hawaii will commence its bi-annual convention. It has been 50 years and most people who will attend this convention have no idea of what happened in August 1964.

A woman defied the Democratic Party and the President of the United States, stating, “I did not come this far for two seats.” She did more to change the modern day Democratic Party than anyone else by opening it up to blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, women and all marginalized peoples. She was Fannie Lou Hamer!

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer

Born in Sunflower County along the Mississippi Delta on Oct. 6, 1917 — before any woman in America could vote — Hamer became the inspiration to millions in poverty-stricken towns, the Civil Rights struggle and the Women’s movement, changing the face of the Democratic Party.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to the Democratic Party in Atlantic City had wide impact. It ultimately opened the party to black participation and encouraged a different breed of white politician to seek office.

Hamer was known as the lady who was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She was the granddaughter of slaves. She came from a family of sharecroppers — a position not that different from slavery. Hamer had 19 brothers and sisters.

She was the youngest of the children. The family worked as sharecroppers on a plantation belonging to E.W. Brandon. By the time Hamer was 13, she was able to pick 200 to 300 pounds of cotton daily — despite having suffered from polio when she was 6 years old.

On Aug. 23, 1962, Reverend James Bevel, a local organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), delivered a sermon to persuade listeners to register to vote. It inspired Fannie Lou. Although Hamer knew the consequences of fighting for her rights, she became the first volunteer.

If you were black, the Mississippi Delta was the world’s most oppressive place to live. The beauty of the Mississippi Delta belied the underlying evil.

She was surprised to learn that African-Americans actually had a constitutional right to vote. When the SNCC members asked for volunteers to go to the courthouse to register to vote, Hamer was the first to raise her hand.

This was a dangerous decision. She later reflected, “The only thing they could do to me was to kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

Hamer decided on the spot to register to vote. On Aug. 31, 1962, she boarded a bus to Indianola with 17 others to try to register to vote. When Hamer and others went to the courthouse, they were jailed. Upon returning home Mrs. Hamer and family were evicted from their home.

She began to receive constant death threats and was even shot at. But Hamer would not be discouraged.

Hamer went to work as a field organizer for SNCC. Returning home from a training workshop in June 1963, Hamer’s bus was intercepted by policemen. She and two others were taken to jail in Winona, Mississippi, and mercilessly beaten by black inmates on orders of the jailer.

Hamer suffered permanent damage to her kidneys. After recovering from her injuries, she traveled across the U.S. telling her story. With her genuine, plainspoken style, Hamer raised more money for SNCC than any other member.

In spite of all that Fannie Lou Hamer had endured, she, like most of the women of the movement, was not invited to the 1963 “March on Washington.”

During the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was organized to counter the anti-civil rights and all-white political delegation at the Democratic National Convention.

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 MFDP as the legitimate representatives of the black and white citizens of Mississippi, they traveled to New Jersey to confront the party head-on.

Hamer and the MFDP presented a compelling argument to the party and the world.

Her testimony before the committee was seen around the world even though President Johnson tried to block it with a press conference. Although the MFDP did not achieve their overall goal, they did prove to the world that black people were an organizing political active force.

Hamer addressed the convention’s credentials committee and told them of the problems she faced while trying to vote, saying, “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. 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 to an emergency press conference.

However, many television networks publicized the 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, saying, “Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than 400,000 black people’s lives? 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.

“We didn’t come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here. 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 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


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Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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