Friday, July 14, 2006


Fitting Tribute

I learned last night, when I looked up the roll call vote for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, that the full title of the bill is the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act. That's appropriate. Although I'm very familiar with Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, I didn't know as much as I should of Fannie Lou Hamer's career. Wikipedia enlightened me.

Fannie Lou Hamer ... was instrumental in organizing Mississippi's "Freedom Summer" for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later became the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, attending the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in that capacity. Her plain-spoken manner and fervent belief in the Biblical righteousness of her cause gained her a reputation as an electrifying speaker and constant champion of the civil rights. [...] On August 23, 1962, Rev. James Bevel, an organizer for SNCC and an associate of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a sermon in Ruleville and followed it with an appeal to those assembled to register to vote. Black people who registered to vote in the South faced serious hardships at that time due to institutionalized racism, including harassment, the loss of their jobs, and physical beatings and lynchings; nonetheless, Hamer was the first volunteer. [...] In the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or "Freedom Democrats" for short, was organized with the purpose of challenging Mississippi's all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. Hamer was elected Vice-Chair. [...] Hamer was invited, along with the rest of the MFDP officers, to address the Convention's Credentials Committee. She recounted the problems she had encountered in registration, and the ordeal of the jail in Winona, and, near tears, concluded:
"All of this is on account we want to register [sic], to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings - in America?"
In Washington, D.C., Johnson panicked, calling an emergency press conference in an effort to divert press coverage away from Hamer's testimony; but many television networks ran the stunning speech unedited on their late news programs that night. The Credentials Committee received thousand of calls and letters in support of the Freedom Democrats. Johnson then dispatched several trusted Democratic Party operatives to attempt to negotiate with the Freedom Democrats, including Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (who was campaigning for the Vice-Presidential nomination), Walter Mondale, Walter Reuther, and J. Edgar Hoover. They suggested a compromise which would give the MFDP two seats in exchange for other concessions, and secured the endorsement of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the plan. But when Humphrey outlined the compromise, saying that his position on the ticket was at stake, Hamer, invoking her Christian beliefs, sharply rebuked him:
"Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand 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."
Future negotiations were conducted without Hamer, and the compromise was modified such that the Convention would select the two delegates to be seated, for fear the MFDP would appoint Hamer. In the end, the MFDP rejected the compromise, but had changed the debate to the point that the Democratic Party adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation from their states' delegations in 1968. Hamer continued to work in Mississippi for the Freedom Democrats and for local civil rights causes. She ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965, and was eventually seated as a member of Mississippi's legitimate delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1968, where she was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. She continued to work on other projects, including grassroots-level Head Start programs, the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign.
The Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization passed in the House 390-33, after four attempts to weaken it were defeated. (You get one guess as to the Party of all 33 members who voted no.)
Terrific post. Though I pride myself on knowing a great deal about the movement, I hadn't known that Hamer stood up to Hubert Humphrey.

But they were, all of them, giants. The Republican Party wants to make the movement equate to MLK, Jr., reduce it to "I Have a Dream...", and relegate it to one day on the calendar. But there were dozens and hundreds and thousands of people as brave and staunch as MLK, Jr.-- just not as brilliant at oration. Even Joey Lieberman still gets points from me for having joined the Freedom Rides.

If I am tempted to get discouraged about this generation, I remember that the movement was just ordinary people who stood forward when they were called to do justice and love mercy.
It's ironic that Hubert Humphrey's speech to the 1948 Democratic convention was crucial for gaining enough support to include a plank supporting civil rights in the party platform, and that Lyndon Johnson pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. But during the 1964 convention, their personal ambition overrode their principles.

What was that you were saying about Joe Lieberman?
Lieberman, back over forty years ago (back when even Rudy Giuliani was a Democrat), back when his conscience wasn't purchased by Big Pharma and the insurance industry (his wife's a drug-industry lobbyist), was a Freedom Marcher in Mississippi -- and at a time when one risked more than a few blisters to do it.

But, as I said, that was a long time ago.
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