VETTE’S VEGAS VOICE: Fannie Lou Hamer, Agent of Change
BY YVETTE WILLIAMS
The power of one voice can change a country. Such was the case in 1964 when a Mississippi sharecropper, Fannie Lou Hamer, took on the Democratic Party with an emotional speech at the Democratic National Convention. Her voice was so powerful that President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to silence her speech by planning a press conference in the same time slot. It did not work, and television and radio stations broadcast her remarks to audiences across America. “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Hamer asked during the emotional speech. “Where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
After suffering from a brutal police beating in a bogus arrest for registering to vote, Fannie Lou wanted Mississippi’s all-white and anti civil rights delegation to represent all Mississippians at the Democratic National Convention. She formed the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party (MFDM) and drew national attention to the struggles of African-Americans. Hamer challenged the party based on then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey’s 1948 championing of a more inclusive party — which adopted a platform calling for equal opportunity in the military, workplace, and politics. As a result, most southern Democrats abandoned the Democratic Party and formed their own conservative “Dixiecrat” party.
As a result of Hamer’s radio broadcast, the Credentials Committee received thousands of letters and phone calls supportive of the Freedom Democrats. President Johnson, needing to resolve the problem during a heated election year, dispatched Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Humphrey, often credited with pushing through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, asked for a compromise to which Hamer responded, “Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than 400,000 black people’s lives? 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.”
The MFDP was finally seated at the 1968 convention, after the Democratic Party adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation from their states’ delegations. However, it wouldn’t be until 1972 that Hamer would be elected as a national party delegate. She passed away in 1977, due to complications from hypertension and breast cancer, at the age of 59. Her headstone displays her most famous quote: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
During this presidential election cycle, let’s remember the brave Fannie Lou Hamers of the world — who demanded change and refused to remain “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Yvette Williams is founder of the Clark County Black Caucus. Read her blog at YvetteBWilliams.com; Twitter — @YvetteBWilliams; email — ClarkCountyBlackCaucus@gmail.com.