Saturday, August 23, 2014

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

"We didn't come all this way for no two seats 'cause all of us is tired."

Fannie Lou Hamer
Aug. 22, 1964

I really must apologize. I intended to write about this on the actual anniversary, which was yesterday, but it was an unusually busy day for me. Even so, I didn't want the anniversary — the 50th — to pass without observation. I want to tell the story. Because it is a good story, one that should be remembered.

It's the story of Fannie Lou Hamer.

I didn't hear of Fannie Lou Hamer until well after the fact. I think my mother was the one who told me about her, but that isn't really important. She was a civil rights activist from Mississippi who was in the national headlines for a little while in the summer of 1964, then largely disappeared from national view.

She was involved in the planning of 1964's Freedom Summer, when blacks in Mississippi were being taught how to register to vote. It was an effort that went on throughout the South during the 1960s, actually, but it was far more dramatic in Mississippi, where blacks and whites had lived separately under a social and legal system that had been in place for generations. Other places in the South were integrated — to varying degrees — but Mississippi had earned a reputation for being a "closed society."

I've only seen film of her, but Fannie Lou Hamer has always reminded me of the black women I knew when I was a child in central Arkansas — and, I suppose, she was about the same age as they were, too. I never could tell how old they were. (Guess I'm not much better at guessing people's ages today than I was then.) I knew what I needed to know, I suppose. They were always friends of my mother — at least, I always met them through her — and they were older than she was. I knew that much.

I didn't know until later the extent of Fannie Lou Hamer's suffering in Mississippi, which was much more overtly racist than Arkansas in those days — still is, to a degree, I guess. She was sterilized without her consent — by a white doctor as part of a state–sponsored plan to reduce the number of poor blacks. In the summer of 1963, she and a group of activists were arrested on a false charge and beaten so badly in police custody that it took weeks to recover.

I could understand if such experiences made her angry, distrustful and bitter. But Fannie Lou Hamer looked and sounded like the women I knew in my hometown long after her moment in the spotlight. However unpleasant their experiences had been, they were unfailingly positive. They spoke of faith and "the movement" and registering blacks to vote. So did she.

Fannie Lou Hamer sometimes seemed sad, but she had a profound faith in God and what Martin Luther King called "the promised land" — even though I don't think that King used that expression until the famous speech he gave the night before his assassination.

I guess you could call her a realistic optimist — she believed a change was gonna come, but she doubted she would live to see it.

In the summer of 1964, she was 46 years old and regarded as something of a maternal figure by the primarily young people who had been recruited and trained in the North to challenge segregation in the South.

Fannie Lou Hamer participated in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. She was there — and, as a journalist, I reserve most of my admiration for people who were there, wherever there happened to be. That commands far more respect from me than those who report on events from afar — even though, for many, it is the only way they can report or comment on most events.

Fannie Lou Hamer was there.

(It's funny, but, for some reason, I can't seem to refer to her as "Hamer" on second reference, which would be in keeping with the AP Style that has influenced my writing since college. I simply have to use her full name.)

Fifty years ago, the Democrats were preparing to hold their national convention. They would nominate President Lyndon Johnson for a full term in office. They would nominate Hubert Humphrey to be his running mate. They would hear a brief speech from Robert F. Kennedy introducing a film about the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy. The delegates would hear a lot about domestic policy, about civil rights.

Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Democratic Party of Mississippi gave the national Democratic Party an opportunity to do more than talk in the days leading up to the Democrats' national convention. The Freedom Democrats challenged the legitimacy of Mississippi's then–all–white Democratic Party, demanding to be seated.

The Freedom Democrats were careful to do all the things the national party required in order to send a slate of delegates to the national convention, including hold a statewide convention to select 68 delegates. That slate included four whites. Then the Freedom Democrats sent their delegates — by bus — to Atlantic City.

Read the words of historian Theodore White, who also was there.

"It is difficult to compress the emotion that the Freedom Democratic Party aroused at Atlantic City into the narrow proportions of importance it holds in the story of the convention," wrote White. "There was no moment when the convention machinery ... might not have imposed a solution. But the intensity of the emotion was so deep, and all other proceedings were so dull, that for three days the convention paused to consider its only excitement.

"One gets the flavor best,"
White continued, "not by considering the issues raised but by considering and listening to a voice. On Saturday afternoon, as the Convention Credentials Committee moved to consider the situation in Mississippi, a robust Negress rose to testify. She gave her name as Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of ... Ruleville, Mississippi [in Sunflower County, northwestern Mississippi] ... Then she proceeded to tell her effort to register to vote, legally, going back as far as 1962; and as her fine, mellow voice rose, it began to chant with the grief and the sobbing that are the source of all the blues in the world. The hot, muggy room was electrified as she concluded her narrative of a Mississippi Negro's life when one attempts to register."

At that point, most accounts I have read indicated that the majority of delegates would have voted to seat the Freedom Democrats, but other Southern delegations were threatening to walk out if that happened — and Lyndon Johnson, already fearful of the reaction in the South to the passage of the Civil Rights Act earlier that summer, did not want to lose additional Southern support.

So Johnson, with the assistance of his soon–to–be vice–presidential nominee and Humphrey's fellow Minnesotan Walter Mondale, worked out what was charitably called a "compromise" — two of the Freedom Democrats would be given at–large (and non–voting) seats.

The compromise was ludicrous, and the Freedom Democrats knew it. They rejected it, and Fannie Lou Hamer, who is probably best known for her statement that "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired"), summed things up beautifully.
"We didn't come all this way for no two seats 'cause all of us is tired."

By the way, Johnson's "compromise" didn't help him. He lost five Southern states and nearly lost a sixth. In the 50 years since, Jimmy Carter (in 1976) has been the only Democrat who carried more Southern states than he lost.

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