Comprehensive Overview of the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute @ COFO

Historical Context

The Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy was founded at a National Endowment for the Humanities’ Summer Seminar for College Teachers in 1997. Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights leader who was born and raised in Mississippi and was instrumental in forming the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and leading the MFDP delegates to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 National Convention held in Atlantic City. In recognition of this great civil rights icon, the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute has conducted summer seminars and workshops for K-12 teachers and students as well as community and four-year college faculty. The Hamer Institute’s area of focus is the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, beginning with the Colonial Era through the Founding, continuing through the Antebellum and Civil War eras, through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and ending with the Modern Civil Rights Movement and its outcomes. Through the years, the Hamer Institute has annually offered a summer workshop for area students on local civil rights history exposing them not only to community leaders, but a university campus. Hamer has also partnered with Jackson Public Schools offering regular development opportunities for teachers, classroom visits, and summer workshops on civil rights. It also hosts the Medgar Evers/ Ella Baker lecture series that offers topics of interest to the community in locations throughout the metropolitan area and the Delta.

For several years, with funding provided from NEH and through institutional partnerships with Rhodes College (Memphis) and the National Civil Rights Museum, the Hamer Institute has conducted workshops for community college faculty on landmarks of the civil rights movement which has exposed faculty from Mississippi and the nation to the benefits of engaging students using such resources as local landmarks, oral history panels, music, and primary documents. Some of the Hamer Institute’s past activities have been: (1) ‘Landmarks of American History’ workshop where the Hamer Institute has conducted several two one-week workshops on “Landmarks in American Democracy: From Freedom Summer to the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike” funded by the national Endowment for the Humanities. Nearly 50 community college faculty from all parts of the United States participated in the eventful workshops.

Activities included oral history panels by movement veterans, scholarly sessions on the Mississippi and Memphis movements, and visiting historic sites around Jackson on foot and throughout Mississippi on a JSU touring. Money, Ruleville, Greenwood, and Clarksdale and Memphis were also visited; (2) ‘Summer Middle School and High School’ workshops were held each summer designed for students from sixth grade to twelfth grade. This program was intended to both introduce students to the JSU campus and to the history of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. Twenty local students attended workshops, heard oral history panels, worked with college faculty members, and toured Civil Rights sites in Jackson and the Mississippi Delta; (3) ‘Teaching American History Grant’ with Jackson Public Schools beginning in 2008-2009, the faculty of the Hamer Institute began a collaboration with the Jackson Public Schools to fulfill the requirements of a Department of Education grant to assist teachers of American History to gain access to the literature and historiography surrounding U.S. History, with an emphasis on the African-American experience. Members of the Hamer Institute provided four full-day professional development workshops during the academic year and a two-week workshop, with an over-night field trip. The program was organized chronologically and encouraged the participants to apply the academic material in appropriate pedagogical fashion; (4) The Hamer Institute has conducted numerous ‘civil rights tours’ for visiting academic classes, provided lectures, oral history panels, and assisted in the creation of tours working with such institutions as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Prairie View A & M, and Susequanna University, among many others; (5) Over the last several years, the Hamer Institute has written grants from the National Endowment for Humanities and the Mississippi Development Authority and collaborated with local community members in the construction of ‘Civil Rights Guidebooks’.

The Hamer Institute has already published guides for Indianola, Ruleville, Greenwood, and has prepared and given tours for Clarksdale, Canton, and Cleveland; (6) the Hamer Institute has collaborated with the Center for University Scholars at JSU to sponsor a community reading of a book of significance to the university community. The Hamer Institute works to select the books, put together the panel of discussants, and publicize the book to read. (7) the ‘Medgar Evers/Ella Baker Civil Rights Lecture Series’ is designed to bridge the gap between the academic community and the community proper. A special effort has been undertaken to engage Jackson State, the metropolitan area, as well as the Mississippi Delta. The lecture series have been well-received by all of its intended constituencies and has provided monthly offerings during the academic year every year since; the Margaret Walker Alexander Research Center has been a partner in this endeavor for many years. In the summer of 2014, the Hamer Institute hosted an NEH Summer Institute for College and University teachers titled: Finding Mississippi in the National Civil Rights Narrative: Struggle, Institution Building, and Power at the Local Level .’ This year, during the Summer of 2017, the Institute will host the same Summer Institute for College and University Teachers.

The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) was established in 1961 as an umbrella organization to unify and meet the needs of an increasing presence of civil rights organizations in Mississippi, including: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a host of local civil rights organizations. Each of the aforementioned student-activist organizations constituted the membership of COFO. For the first two years of operation, COFO centered its activities around voter registration throughout Mississippi and establishing targeted projects in hugely segregated towns such as Columbus, Greenville, Greenwood, Hattiesburg, Holly Springs, and Meridian. In 1963, COFO established its state headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi, at 1017 John R. Lynch Street—a corridor of black businesses and activism at the time—on the edge of the campus of JSU.

The location was ideal to attract and nurture community and student involvement in the movement. For decades the street was home to Jackson State College, now JSU, Campbell College, the historic Masonic Temple, which housed the offices of the NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, and a number of African American businesses including restaurants, dry cleaners, barbershops, a theater, and drugstore. J.R. Lynch Street was the cradle of civil rights activity in Jackson, Mississippi, and the neighborhood would witness numerous protests, marches, mass meetings, and demonstrations. The activities on Lynch Street, as it was known, did not go unnoticed by police. They [police] would often take the license plate numbers from cars parked at the Masonic Temple for further surveillance of civil rights workers.

COFO established major programs in its short life span on J.R. Lynch Street and became the hub of civil rights activity for the region. The most recognized campaign initiated by COFO was the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964—known as Freedom Summer—where masses of mostly white college students from the northern states traveled to Mississippi to: participate in voter registration efforts throughout the state and establish freedom schools and community centers. This effort was perceived as an assault on the “way of life” by many white Mississippians. As a result, there were dozens of church bombings, countless beatings of civil rights workers, the tragic killing of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, during the summer of 1964. The murders received more national press coverage than any other civil rights murders at the time. A year before the Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner murders, Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway in Jackson, MS.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was also an outgrowth of COFO’s Freedom Ballot efforts. The MFDP was organized to replace the official election since African-Americans were denied the right to vote. Nearly 80,000 African-Americans cast their ballots, and consequently, the MFDP formed in April 1964. The MFDP sent its elected delegates to the Democratic National Convention held in New Jersey to challenge the regulars who had been elected without the will and consent of the majority of Mississippians and to be seated at the Convention. Among the sixty-four MFDP delegates were Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, and Edwin King. The MFDP gained considerable support as they argued their case, enough to be offered a compromise of two seats out of the 64 needed to seat the entire delegation. In her famous televised speech, Fannie Lou Hamer expressed the attitude of the MFDP stating, “We didn’t come all the way up here for no two seats since we all tired.” President Lyndon B. Johnson quickly interrupted her speech by calling an immediate press conference. This event in modern civil rights history can be considered a turning point in the movement. After years of organizing and being subjected to brutality and deaths, it became apparent that even the White House was not as supportive as it had preached and soon afterwards the Black Power movement emerged.

The Modern Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi has been overlooked for quite some time, but recent scholarship and the interests in Mississippi have been peaked partly due to the number of “50th” anniversaries celebrating civil rights movement history. James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962; Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963; Freedom Summer in 1964; and, in 1966, the historic call for Black Power was first made in Greenwood, Mississippi. Even though there have been several authoritative books published on the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, the list continues to grow and scholars from around the world visit the state in search of people, documents, artifacts, and historic sites, which presents brilliant opportunities for institutions and organizations involved in preserving Mississippi history to provide the requisite collections, archives, and space for scholars and researchers to engage the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement in real time. There is currently no intellectual or cultural space for this activity except the enhanced Hamer Institute @ COFO.

Contemporary Context: The Fannie Lou Hamer Institute @ COFO

The COFO Civil Rights Education Complex first opened in 2009 to honor the past, deal with issues of the present, and offer hope for the future. It opened in the same building as the original Council of Federated Organizations through funding from the Small Business Administration. The building, on the State Register of Historic Places, has its original façade which pays homage to its uses during the civil rights era.

The reinvented Hamer Institute @ COFO has developed and delivered educational programs to increase student, faculty/staff, and community visitation and program participation. Several faculty and staff and hundreds of community members have participated in and/or have been impacted by the Hamer Institute @ COFO’s programming and outreach initiatives. These programs were implemented through collaborative efforts with the College of Liberal Arts, the Division of Student Life, Gallery1 (an art gallery located on campus), and community organizations that include: Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, Mississippi Student Justice Alliance, Southern Poverty Law Center, Upward Bound, McNair Scholars Program, ExCel Program, Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, and Young People’s Project. Additionally, Hamer Institute @ COFO has hosted opportunities for university recruitment with visits from middle school and high school students through educational enrichment trips and off campus tours. Hamer Institute @ COFO’s outreach through its programming has helped to enhance the branding and visibility of the university, locally, nationally, and globally. Programs have not only impacted the university and local communities, they have presented opportunities for visitors from across the nation and from around the world to join in conversations on social justice and cultural understanding. Newly forged community partnerships have helped to increase university supporters, and have created additional opportunities for collaborations between students, faculty and staff at other institutions of higher education, and opportunities for the recruitment of students for both undergraduate and graduate programs.

In summary, the new Hamer Institute @ COFO mission is relevant and significant to a 21st century liberal arts education in a global context. By creating the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute @ COFO: A Human and Civil Rights Interdisciplinary Education Center, JSU—as an historically black university—is committed to preserving the history and legacy of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and expanding this regional perspective to include global perspectives, programs, and educational offerings that address human rights and social justice issues from around the world. The building houses exhibits that attract visitors from as far as Japan and as near the local middle schools minutes away. We represent living history and can affect change in a very real and substantive way through community outreach, programming, and exhibitions—at home and abroad.