In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer helped to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. That is one of a number of benchmarks of the Civil Rights Movement that we will recall on their 50th anniversaries this year.
Activists established the party to protest recognition of her state’s all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention, and Hamer will long be remembered for her testimony before the party’s credentials committee during a televised session detailing the brutal beatings she and others suffered for taking a stand for civil rights.
“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we . . .[are] threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” she asked those on the committee and the nation.
March is Women’s History Month, which this year will carry the theme “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage and Commitment,” and Hamer was the embodiment of those attributes.
Hamer, one of many notable women of the movement, also worked closely with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other endeavors to combat discrimination, injustice and poverty. Born on Oct. 6, 1917, as one of 20 children in a sharecropping family in Montgomery County, Miss., she worked in the cotton fields from the time she was 6 years old, alongside her family and later at her husband’s side, according to published accounts. She had little formal education.
Her civil-rights activism may have begun earlier but was ignited in 1962 at the age of 45 when after attending an organizing meeting, she traveled with a group to a county courthouse to attempt to register to vote. They were unsuccessful, but that act cost her a job and a home that same night when in retaliation for her participation in the voter-registration action, she was kicked off the plantation where she had labored for nearly two decades. This strengthened her resolve to work through the movement to secure the right to vote for others though she was often threatened, shot at, jailed and once beaten badly enough to suffer permanent damage to her kidneys and a leg. She died in 1977 after a long battle with breast cancer. One of the quotes for which she is best known appears on her tombstone: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
She is one of 39 women whose speeches are included in an anthology, Women and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965, compiled by Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon. (University of Mississippi Press, January 2009), available for $45 on DiverseBooks.net
The book also includes a photograph of her speaking at the DNC in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1964. The book compiles speeches by Ella Baker, Daisy Bates, Lillian Smith, Mamie Till-Mobley, Lorraine Hansberry, Dorothy Height, and Rosa Parks, among others. This book constitutes the first time many of the speeches in the book were published or transcribed from audio recordings.
The authors, David E. Dixon and Davis W. Houck, also coedited Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965, (Baylor University Press, 2006), and Houck is the author, with Matthew A. Grindy, of Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press (University Press of Mississippi).
Other selections from DiverseBooks.net that focus on women of the Civil Rights Movement include:
You Must Be from the North: Southern White Women in the Memphis Civil Rights Movement, by Kimberly K. Little, $36, (List Price: $40), University of Mississippi Press, May 2009, ISBN: 9781604732283, pp. 208.
This book focuses on white women in Memphis, Tenn., whose charitable and community work through such organizations as the Junior League led them into a more-activist role in the Civil Rights Movement and influenced other whites, especially the city’s most-elite citizens.
Justice Older than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree, by Dovey Johnson Roundtree with Katie McCabe, $27, (List Price: $30) University of Mississippi Press, March 2011, ISBN: 9781604731323, pp. 288.
The autobiography of a legendary civil-rights crusader, lawyer, and pioneering minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church was written in collaboration with Katie McCabe. Roundtree was one of the first women to break the gender and color barriers in the United States Army during World War II. As a lawyer, she won a groundbreaking 1955 bus-desegregation case, Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, that demolished the “separate but equal” barrier in interstate transportation and enabled Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to combat southern resistance to the Freedom Riders’ campaign in 1961.
Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas, by Grif Stockley, $31.50, (List Price: $35) University of Mississippi Press, April 2012, ISBN: 9781578068012, pp. 352.
A biography of the woman best known as the mentor to the nine African-American youngsters who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., chronicles her life and political advocacy. Bates (1914-1999) was selected as Woman of the Year in Education by the Associated Press in 1957 for her role in that crisis and was the only woman invited to speak at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. Though others have often overlooked her role, this book restores Bates to her rightful place in history.