(WOMENSENEWS)–Trouble was brewing in the streets of Chicago in late August 1968 as police prepared to face off against protesters outside the Democratic Party’s national convention. Yet inside the vast International Amphitheatre, the opening session was swept by victory and pride as the first delegate from Mississippi entered the hall and took her seat. The crowd rose to cheer a 50-year-old former sharecropper, a granddaughter of slaves.
Fannie Lou Hamer hadn’t known that black people could vote until 1962. One attempt to register had provoked an onslaught of 16 gunshots into her home. Another left her so badly beaten that her legs were permanently bruised and her health damaged.
She began confronting a system that not only kept black people from joining voter rolls, but that produced entirely white local and state governments and an all-white slate of delegates to the national convention. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, organized by Hamer and other civil rights workers, sent an “alternative” slate of delegates to the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City. The party’s Credentials Committee held televised hearings on the matter.
Hamer simply told her story. “Is this America, the land of the free, the home of the brave?” she said, straight into the TV cameras.
Lyndon B. Johnson, who would become the presidential nominee three days later, was counting on white Southern votes. Hastily, he called a press conference to get Hamer off the air.
Now it was 1968 and although Johnson had shepherded the Voting Rights Act through Congress in 1965, Hamer had not gone away. She continued organizing black voters and facing down often violent resistance to the federal voting law. When Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, she sent him this telegram:
“Please bring those troops out of Vietnam, where they have no business anyhow, and bring them to Mississippi and Louisiana, because if this is a Great Society, I’d hate to see a bad one.”
By the 1968 convention, a racially integrated delegation had been approved from her state, but not from other Southern states. “It’s not enough to say, ‘They didn’t get in, but I’m glad they seated me,'” Hamer said. Pointing out that only 13 percent of the delegates were female, she called the process a government “of the handful, by the handful and for the handful.”
The protesters outside the convention hall had the same message, though opposition to the Vietnam War was their rallying point. As she watched violence in the streets the night of Johnson’s nomination, she said, “These children are human beings sick of hypocrisy and they’re trying to tell us something. What happened to the right to peacefully assemble? You don’t build anything with fixed bayonets.”
She went on “trying to tell us something” for only nine more years. Fannie Lou Hamer saw many black people become voters and some elected to local and statewide office. She also saw the Vietnam War end and helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus before she died in 1977.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].
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