Sticking with Civil Rights
N A NIGHT in August of 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer attended a mass meeting at the Williams Chapel Church in Ruleville, Mississippi. A handful of civil rights workers from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were in Sunflower County spreading the news of voter registration. Sunflower County, in the heart of that “most southern place on earth,” the Mississippi Delta, was perhaps the most solid core of the iceberg of southern segregation. Appropriately, SNCC had recently selected the Delta as one of the strategic points of its voter registration initiative. If the movement could crack the Delta, the reasoning went, it would send unsettling reverberations through the state’s recalcitrant white majority.1
There was great excitement in the chapel as James Bevel, one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, young colleagues in the SCLC, stood to address the people. His short sermon was taken from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. He asked the congregation—mainly black men and women who worked on the nearby cotton plantations—to consider the words of the Lord when he rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees. He read the Scripture: “Jesus answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather, for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” How can we discern the signs of the times, Bevel asked. How can we not recognize that the hour has arrived for black men and women to claim what is rightfully their own—indeed the right to vote? To be sure, most folk are not trained to discern the weather nor to forecast the future. But that is not our demand, Bevel told the people. Our demand is that we not ignore the clear signs before our eyes. God’s time is upon us; let us not back down from the challenge.
Bevel’s words stirred Mrs. Hamer’s tired spirit. She had endured the burdens of white racism for forty-four years, living the hard life of a field hand on the Marlowe cotton plantation near Ruleville, a small town in the Delta. The youngest child born to Ella and Jim Townsend, by the age of seven Fannie Lou Hamer was in the fields picking cotton with her fourteen brothers and five sisters, the family working long days together and still not making “enough money to live on.”2
“My parents moved to Sunflower County when I was two years old,” Mrs. Hamer recalled. “I will never forget, one day [when I] was six years old and I was playing beside the road and this plantation owner drove up to me and stopped and asked me, ‘could I pick cotton.’ I told him I didn’t know and he said, Yes, you can. I will give you things that you want from the commissary store,’ and he named things like crackerjacks and sardines—and it was a huge list that he called off. So I picked the 30 pounds of cotton that week, but I found out what actually happened was he was trapping me into beginning the work I was to keep doing and I never did get out of his debt again. My parents tried so hard to do what they could to keep us in school, but school didn’t last four months out of the year and most of the time we didn’t have clothes to wear.”3
Fannie Lou Hamer’s mother, with her “poor, ragged, rough black hands,” raised her children “to be decent” and respect themselves.4
Still the family’s crushing poverty made her task’s every detail an uphill battle:
I used to watch my mother try and keep her family going after we didn’t get enough money out of the cotton crop. To feed us during the winter months mama would go round from plantation to plantation and would ask the landowners if she could have the cotton that had been left, which was called scrappin’ cotton. When they would tell her that we could have the cotton, we would walk for miles and miles and miles in the run of a week. We wouldn’t have on shoes or anything because we didn’t have them. She would always tie our feet up with rags because the ground would be froze real hard. We would walk from field to field until we had scrapped a bale of cotton. Then she’d take that bale of cotton and sell it and that would give us some of the food that we would need.
Then she would go from house to house and she would help kill hogs. They’would give her the intestines and sometimes the feet and the head and things like that and that would help to keep us going. So many times for dinner we would have greens with no seasoning and flour gravy. Sometimes there’d be nothing but bread and onions.5
Her mother’s sight was irreparably damaged when an object struck her eye as she was swinging an axe to clear away roots and weeds from the ground. Unable to receive adequate medical attention, Ella Townsend suffered permanent damage to her eyes and would eventually become blind.6
Fannie Lou Hamer’s father was a resourceful and hard-working plantation hand. But in Mississippi these virtues did not translate into a better life for his family. His agricultural skills and success with his own small farming ventures threatened the cruel and unyielding economic arrangements of white supremacy. In the middle 1940s, Jim Townsend “cleared some money” and bought some wagons, cultivators, plow tools and mules, with the hope of renting a plot of land the following year. But just about the time the family began to see the rewards of the father’s labors—when they had “started to fix up the house real nice and had bought a car”—a white man stole one night into the trough where the mules fed and stirred a gallon of Paris Green into the animals’ food. “It killed everything we had,” Mrs. Hamer recalls. “When we got there, one mule was already dead. The other two mules and the cow had their stomachs all swelled up. It was too late to save them. That poisoning knocked us right back down flat. We never did get back up again. That white man did it just because we were getting somewhere.”7
Fannie Lou Hamer knew something was wrong with the world she inherited, yet on that night in August 1962, she had not even heard about her civil rights. “We hadn’t heard anything about registering to vote because when you see this flat land in here, when the people would get out of the fields, if they had a radio, they’d be too tired to play it. So we didn’t know what was going on in the rest of the state even; much less in other places.”8
But Bevel’s sermon, followed by SNCC member James Forman’s talk on the constitutional right to vote, spoke deeply to Mrs. Hamer’s longing for justice. Her imagination was charged by new moral and spiritual energies; she felt empowered to discern the signs of the time. And with more certainty than a red sky presages a fair tomorrow or a red sunrise stormy weather, Mrs. Hamer understood that her life would be very different from this point on. “When they asked for those to raise their hands who’d go down to the courthouse the next day, I raised mine. Had it up as high as I could get it. I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a-been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared. The only thing [the whites] could do was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”9
She heard the call of Jesus—and James Bevel—a call demanding sacrifice, but a call also promising freedom and empowerment. She was excited by the speakers’ description of the power of the vote. “It made so much sense to me,” she said.”10
These very women and men gathered at Williams Chapel Church—dirt-poor sharecroppers, field
hands, and domestics—could force out of office the hateful politicians and sheriffs who had controlled the oppressive social order for as long as anyone could remember.
The call also made sense because the faith of the black church had prepared Mrs. Hamer for this moment. The church had sustained her wearied spirit when all other institutions had served contrary purposes. While Jim Crow society was designed to convince blacks they were nobodies, the black churches—even those that remained quiet on civil rights—preached a gospel that embraced the longings and desires of a disenfranchised people. A new social space took shape, offering an alternative to the social world of Jim Crow—a “nation within a nation,” as E. Franklin Frazier once wrote—a world displaying the very reversal of the racist patterns embedded in the segregated South.11
After enduring the indignities of demeaning jobs and discriminatory practices six days a week, black people could experience on Sunday mornings a rare though passionate affirmation of their humanity.12
The last could become first; a field hand or a janitor could become a deacon, the maid or the cook a leader in the women’s union.13
Moreover, as a “nation within a nation,” the black church not only awakened spiritual energies but also inspired the exercise of political ownership through such practices as electing officers and organizing church programs.14
Thus, by the time James Bevel delivered his testimony in Ruleville, Mississippi, in August of 1962, Mrs. Hamer had been made ready by her involvement in church life to “step out on God’s word of promise”—to put her faith into action.15
She was ready to move, and did the next week when she joined a busload of people heading to the county courthouse to register to vote.
On August 31, Fannie Lou Hamer and seventeen other people boarded a beat-up bus and rode the thirty miles to the county seat of Indianola. No vehicle deserved the honor more. Owned by a black man from a neighboring county, the bus had been used in summers to haul cotton pickers and choppers to the plantations, and in winters to carry the same people to vegetable and fruit farms in Florida because there was not sufficient work in Mississippi to keep food on the table.16
Yet when the eighteen passengers arrived in front of the courthouse in the sobering light of a mid-morning sun, most of the enthusiasm aroused in the mass meetings and in the bus ride over had disappeared. Everyone on the bus took note of the situation; and nobody moved toward the door. Charles McLaurin, the SNCC worker who had come to Ruleville earlier in the year to coordinate voter registration activities in Sunflower County, described the moment: “[When] we got there most of the people were afraid to get off the bus. Then this one little stocky lady just stepped off the bus and went right on up to the courthouse and into the circuit clerk’s office.”17
The others on the
bus slowly followed Mrs. Hamer to the voter registration desk in the courthouse, where they were asked by the circuit clerk to state their business. Mrs. Hamer explained that they had come to the courthouse to register. The clerk replied that all but two of the group would have to leave. Mrs. Hamer and a young man named Ernest Davis remained in the office to complete the application.
The “literacy test,” as the registration application was officially called, consisted of twenty-one questions, beginning with such seemingly straightforward queries as “What is your full name?” and “What is the date?”18
The most trivial of errors—like the absence of a comma in the date or a discrepancy in punctuation—would often result in an immediate failure. The registration form also included the question, “By whom are you employed?”—a question certain to send chills down the spine of all who sought to register. “This meant that you would be fired by the time you got back home,” Mrs. Hamer explained.19
In any case, the local newspapers routinely published the names of the people who had completed an application.20
Even more intimidating to many people seeking to register was the question, “Where is your place of residence in the district?” It was feared—for good reason—that the white Citizens’ Council or the Ku Klux Klan would have the applicant’s home address by the end of the day. But whenever the literacy test was completed, the clerk would produce a text of the state constitution and select a passage to be copied and given a “reasonable interpretation”—which was to say, interpreted to the satisfaction of the clerk. On the morning she tried to register in August of 1962, Mrs. Hamer realized for the first time in her life—at the age of forty-four—that the state of Mississippi had a constitution!21
The day was long and exhausting. She was assigned a passage from the state constitution dealing with de facto laws. In addition to the stressful demands of the exam, the constant flow of white people through the registrar’s office heightened her anxiety. Mrs. Hamer described the scene: “People came in and out of the Courthouse with cowboy boots on, and with rifles and with dogs—some of them looked like Jed Clampett of the ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’ but these men weren’t kidding.”22
She worked on the answer throughout the afternoon until the office closed at 4:30. “I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day,” Mrs. Hamer said.23
Of course, her knowledge of de facto law—or lack of it—had nothing to do with her failing the exam. Had she been white, she would have been excused from the impossible requirement of providing an exegesis of the state constitution.24
On the ride back to Ruleville at the end of the day, just two miles beyond the city limits of Indianola, an approaching highway patrolman signalled the bus to a stop. The driver was arrested on the charge of operating a bus that too closely resembled a school bus, and he was taken to jail, leaving the rest of the people alone to contemplate their prospects for a safe return home. Everyone became frightened, McLaurin recalls. “They didn’t know whether they were going to have to sit out there on the road or whether in a few minutes the police were going to come back and put everybody in jail.” Then Fannie Lou Hamer, standing toward the back of the bus, started to hum, then sing,
Have a little talk with Jesus
Tell him all about our troubles,
Hear our feeble cry,
Answer by and by,
Feel the little prayer wheel turning,
Feel a fire a burning,
Just a little talk with Jesus makes it right.
Soon the others followed the lead of her deep, strong voice, and the group sang through their fears. They sang other songs as well; “This Little Light of Mine,” “Freedom’s Coming and It Won’t Be Long,” “Down by the Riverside.” Someone shouted with delight, “That’s Fannie Lou, she know how to sing.”25
In the end, the driver was fined $100 for the misdemeanor of driving a bus that was “too yellow” (as the citation stated). Though only $30 could be scraped together, the officers reluctantly agreed to a lower fine and permitted the bus to carry the tired men and women back home to Ruleville. But Mrs. Hamer’s day was far from over. She later remembered that before leaving home that morning, she had had a feeling that “s...