Drawing upon dozens of newly recovered Hamer texts and recent interviews with Hamer's friends, family, and fellow activists, Maegan Parker Brooks moves chronologically through Hamer's life. Brooks recounts Hamer's early influences, her intersection with the black freedom movement, and her rise to prominence at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Brooks also considers Hamer's lesser-known contributions to the fight against poverty and to feminist politics before analyzing how Hamer is remembered posthumously. The book concludes by emphasizing what remains rhetorical about Hamer's biography, using the 2012 statue and museum dedication in Hamer's hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, to examine the larger social, political, and historiographical implications of her legacy.
The sustained consideration of Hamer's wide-ranging use of symbols and the reconstruction of her legacy provided within the pages of A Voice That Could Stir an Army enrich understanding of this key historical figure. This book also demonstrates how rhetorical analysis complements historical reconstruction to explain the dynamics of how social movements actually operate.
MAEGAN PARKER BROOKS, Denver, Colorado, is a member of the National Fannie Lou Hamer Statue and Education Fund Committee. She is a lead researcher on a forthcoming documentary about Hamer, and she recently coedited, with Davis W. Houck, The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is (published by University Press of Mississippi).
1. “I Don’t Mind My Light Shining,” Speech delivered at a Freedom Vote Rally in Greenwood, Mississippi: Fall, 1963.
2. “Testimony Before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention,” Atlantic City, New Jersey: August 22, 1964.
3. “We’re On Our Way,” Speech delivered at a Mass Meeting in Indianola, Mississippi: September 1964.
4. “I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired,” Speech delivered with Malcolm X at the Williams Institutional CME Church, Harlem, NY: December 20, 1964.
5. “Making Democracy a Reality,” Speech delivered at the Vietnam Moratorium Rally, Berkeley, California: October 15, 1969. (excerpt)
6. “America Is a Sick Place and Man Is on the Critical List,” Speech delivered at Loop College, Chicago, Illinois: May 27, 1970.
7. “Until I am Free, You are Not Free Either,” Speech delivered at the University of Wisconsin. Madison, Wisconsin: January, 1971.
8. “We Haven’t Arrived Yet,” Speech Delivered at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin: January 29, 1976.
“I Don’t Mind My Light Shining,”
Speech delivered at a Freedom Vote Rally in Greenwood, Mississippi: Fall, 1963.
From the fourth chapter of St. Luke beginning at the eighteenth verse: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captive, and recover the sight to the blind, to set at liberty to them who are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Now the time have come that was Christ’s purpose on earth. And we only been getting by, by paying our way to Hell. But the time is out. When Simon [of] Cyrene was helping Christ to bear his cross up the hill, he said, “Must Jesus bear this cross alone? And all the world go free?” He said, “No, there’s a cross for everyone and there’s a cross for me. This consecrated cross I’ll bear, till death shall set me free. And then go home a crown to wear, for there’s a crown for me.”
And it’s no easy way out. We just got to wake up and face it folks. And if I can face the issue, you can too. You see, the thing, what’s so pitiful now about it, the men been wanting to be the boss all of these years, and the one’s that ain’t up under the house is under the bed.
But you see, it’s poison; it’s poison for us not to speak what we know is right. As Christ said from the seventeenth chapter of Acts and the twenty-sixth verse, says: “Has made of one blood all nations, for to dwell on the face of the earth.” Then it’s no different, we just have different colors.
And brother you can believe this or not: I been sick of this system as long as I can remember. I heard some people speak of depression in the ‘30s. In the ‘20s, it was ‘pression with me! De-pression. I been as hungry—it’s a funny thing since I started working for Christ—it’s kind of like in the twenty-third of Psalms when he says, “Thou prepareth a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Thou anointed my head with oil and my cup runneth over.”
And I have walked through the shadows of death because it was on the tenth of September in ’62 when they shot sixteen times in a house and it wasn’t a foot over the bed where my head was. But that night I wasn’t there—don’t you see what God can do? Quit running around trying to dodge death because this book said, “He that seeketh to save his life, he’s going to lose it anyhow!”
So as long as you know you going for something, you put up a life. That it can be like Paul, say, “I fought a good fight.” And I’ve “kept the faith.” You know, it had been a long time—people I have worked, I have worked as hard as anybody. I have been picking cotton and would be so hungry—and one of the poison things about it—wondering what I was going to cook that night. But you see all of them things was wrong, you see? And I have asked God, I said, “Now Lord”—and you have too—ain’t no need to lie and say that you ain’t. Said, “open a way for us.” Said, “Please make a way for us, Jesus.” Said, “Where I can stand up and speak for my race and speak for these hungry children.” And he opened a way and all of them mostly backing out.
You see he made it so plain for us. He sent a man in Mississippi with the same name that Moses had to go to Egypt. And tell him to go down in Mississippi and tell Ross Barnett to let my people go. And you know I feel good, I feel good. I never know today what’s going to happen to me tonight, but I do know as I walk alone, I walk with my hand in God’s hand.
And, you see, you know the ballot is good. If it wasn’t good how come he trying to keep you from it and he still using it? Don’t be foolish folks: they going in there by the droves and droves and they had guards to keep us out of there the other day. And dogs. Now if that’s good enough for them, I want some of it too.
You see, as I said, it was on the tenth of September when they shot in the house for me sixteen times, but I didn’t stop. Now some of the time since then I got hungry, but I got consolation because I had got hungry before I got in it. Wasn’t going to be no more hungry now than I was then. Then, on the ninth of June, this year, I was beat in a jailhouse until I was hard as metal. And I told the policeman, I said, “It’s going to be miserable when you have to face God.” I said, “Because one day you going to pay up for the things you have done.” I said, because, as the Scripture says, “Has made of one blood all nations.” He said, “It’s a damn lie,” said “Abraham Lincoln said that.” So that’s pitiful—I’m telling you the truth, but it’s pitiful you see—that people can have so much hate that will make them beat a person and don’t know they doing wrong.
But open your New Testament when you get home and read from the twenty-sixth chapter of Proverbs and the twenty-seventh verse: “who so diggeth a pit, shall fall down in it.” Pits have been dug for us for ages. But they didn’t know, when they was digging pits for us, they had some pits dug for themselves. And the Bible had said, “Before one jot of my word would fail, Heaven and earth would pass away. Be not deceived for God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
All we got to do—that’s why I love the song, “This Little Light of Mine”—from the fifth chapter of Matthew, He said, “A city that’s set on a hill cannot be hid.” And I don’t mind my light shining; I don’t hide that I’m fighting for freedom because Christ died to set us free. And he stayed here until he got thirty-three years old, letting us know how we would have to walk.
And we can come to this church and we can shout till we look foolish, because that’s what we’re doing. And we can come out here and live a lie and like the lie and we going just as straight to hell, if we don’t do something. Because we got a charge to keep too. Until we can sing this song of Dr. Watts: “Should earth against my soul engage and fiery darts be hurled, but when I can smile at Satan rage and face the frowning world.” Thank you.
“Testimony Before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention”
Atlantic City, New Jersey: August 22, 1964
Mr. Chairman, and to the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland and Senator Stennis.
It was the thirty-first of August in 1962, that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens. We was met in Indianola by policemen, highway patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the city police and the state highway patrolmen and carried back to Indianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.
After we paid the fine among us, we continued on to Ruleville, and Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for eighteen years. I was met there by my children, who told me that the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down, tried to register. After they told me, my husband came, and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. And before he quit talking the plantation owner came and said, “Fannie Lou, do you know—did Pap tell you what I said?”
And I said, “Yes, sir.”
He said, “Well I mean that.” Said, “If you don't go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.” Said, “Then if you go down and withdraw, then you still might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi.”
And I addressed him and told him and said, “I didn't try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.” I had to leave that same night.
On the tenth of September 1962, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls was shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also, Mr. Joe McDonald's house was shot in.
And June the ninth, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop—was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailways bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is in Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people—to use the restaurant—two of the people wanted to use the washroom. The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out, I got off of the bus to see what had happened. And one of the ladies said, “It was a state highway patrolman and a chief of police ordered us out.”
I got back on the bus and one of the persons had used the washroom got back on the bus, too. As soon as I was seated on the bus, I saw when they began to get the five people in a highway patrolman's car. I stepped off of the bus to see what was happening and somebody screamed from the car that the five workers was in and said, “Get that one there.” And when I went to get in the car, when the man told me I was under arrest, he kicked me.
I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Euvester Simpson. After I was placed in the cell, I began to hear sounds of licks and screams. I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, 'yes, sir,' nigger? Can you say 'yes, sir'?” And they would say other horrible names.
She would say, “Yes, I can say 'yes, sir.’”
“So, well, say it.”
She said, “I don't know you well enough.” They beat her, I don't know how long. And after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.
And it wasn't too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a state highway patrolman and he asked me where I was from. And I told him Ruleville and he said, “We are going to check this.” And they left my cell and it wasn't too long before they came back. He said, “You’s from Ruleville all right,” and he used a curse word. And he said, “We are going to make you wish you was dead.”
I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The state highway patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack. The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the state highway patrolman, for me to lay down on a bunk bed on my face.
And I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. And I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old. After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the state highway patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack. The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro had beat me to sit on my feet—to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush. One white man—my dress had worked up high—he walked over and pulled my dress, I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.
I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.
All of this is on account of we want to register, 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 of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America? Thank you.
“We’re On Our Way”
Speech delivered at a Mass Meeting in Indianola, Mississippi: September 1964
Thank you very much. Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I am very glad to be here for the first time in Indianola, Mississippi to speak in a mass meeting. And you just don’t have a idea what a pleasure this is to me. Because we been working across—for the past two years—and Mr. Charles McLaurin worked very hard trying to get a place here during the time that I was campaigning and he failed to get a place. But it’s good to see people waking up to the fact—something that you should’ve been awaken years ago.
First, I would like to tell you about myself. As McLaurin say, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street in Ruleville, Mississippi. It was in 1962, the thirty-first of August that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to this place, to the county courthouse, to try to register to become first-class citizens. When we got here to Indianola, to the courthouse, that was the day I saw more policemens with guns than I’d ever seen in my life at one time. They was standing around and I never will forget that day. One of the men called the police department in Cleveland, Mississippi and told him to bring some type of big book back over there. But, anyway, we stayed in the registrar’s office—I’m not sure how long because it wasn’t but two allowed in the room at the same time. After we got out from the registrar’s office, I was one of the first persons to complete, as far as I knew how to complete, on my registration form. And I went and got back on the bus.
During the time that we was on the bus, the policemens kept watching the car—the bus—and I noticed a highway patrolman watching the bus. After everybody had completed their forms, and after we started back to Ruleville, Mississippi, we were stopped by the highway patrolman and the policeman, and was ordered back to come to Indianola, Mississippi. When we got back to Indianola, the bus driver was charged with driving a bus the wrong color! This is the gospel truth, but this bus had been used for years for cotton-chopping, cotton-picking, and to carry people to Florida, to work to make enough to live on in the winter time to get back here to the cotton fields the next spring and summer. But that day the bus had the wrong color.
After we got to Ruleville, about five o’clock, Reverend Jeff Sunny drove me out into the rural area where I had been working as a timekeeper and a sharecropper for eighteen years. When I got there I was already fired. My children met me and told me, said, “Momma,” said, “this man is hot!” Said “He said you will have to go back and withdraw, or you will have to leave.”
During the time he was talking, it wasn’t too long before my husband came and he said the same thing. I walked in the house, set down on the side of my little daughter’s bed and then this white man walked over and said: “Pap, did you tell Fannie Lou what I said?”
He said, “Yes sir,” and I walked out.
And he said, “Fannie Lou, did Pap tell you what I said?”
I said, “He did.”
He said, “Well, Fannie Lou,” said, “you will have to go down and withdraw or you will have to leave.”
And I addressed and told him, as we have always had to say, “Mister,” I say, “I didn’t register for you,” I say, “I was trying to register for myself.”
He said, “We’re not ready for that in Mississippi.” He wasn’t ready, but I been ready a long time. I had to leave that same night.
On the tenth of September in 1962, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night, two girls was shot at Mr. Herman Sisson’s in Ruleville. They also shot in Mr. Joe McDonald’s house that same night. Now, the question I raise: is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave? Where people are being murdered, lynched, and killed, because we want to register and vote?
When my family and I decided to move back in Sunflower County in December, the car that we had been paying on for the last three years, it was taken. We didn’t have many things and part of them had been stolen. But just to show you that God want people to stand up—so, we began at this address, 626 East Lafayette Street.
Last February, my husband was arrested because I said, “I don’t believe that I’ve used 9,000 gallons of water.” And don’t have a bathtub or running water in the house. Can’t you see justice in disguise? Can’t you see justice in disguise? One morning about five o’clock, my husband got up to use the washroom. There was a knock on our door; he said, “Come in.”
That was two policemens, “What are you doing up at this time of night?” Five o’clock in the morning. Can you see how justice is working in Mississippi?
You see the point is about this, and you can’t deny it not either one of you here in this room—not Negroes—we have prayed for a change in the State of Mississippi for years. And God made it so plain he sent Moses down in Egypt-land to tell Pharaoh to let my people go. And He made it so plain here in Mississippi the man that heads the project is named Moses, Bob Moses. And He sent Bob Moses down in Mississippi, to tell all of these hate groups to let his people go.
You see, in this struggle, some people say that, “Well, she doesn’t talk too good.” The type of education that we get here, years to come you won’t talk too good. The type of education that we get in the State of Mississippi will make our minds so narrow it won’t coordinate with our big bodies.
This is one of the next things that I don’t like: every church door in the State of Mississippi should be open for these meetings; but preachers have preached for years what he didn’t believe himself. And if he’s willing to trust God, if he’s willing to trust God, he won’t mind opening the church door. Because the first words of Jesus’ public ministry was: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim and bring relief to the captive.” And you know we are living in a captivated society today. And we know the things we doing is right. The thirty-seventh of Psalms said, “Fret not thouselves because of evil-doers, neither be thy envious against the workers of iniquity for they shall be cut down like the green grass and whither away as the green herb. Delight thouselves in the Lord and verily thou shalt be filled.” And we are determined to be filled in Mississippi today.
Some of the white people will tell us, “Well, I just don’t believe in integration.” But he been integrating at night a long time! If he hadn’t been, it wouldn’t be as many light-skinned Negroes as it is in here. The seventeenth chapter of Acts and the twenty-sixth verse said: “Has made of one blood all nations.” So whether you black as a skillet or white as a sheet, we are made from the same blood and we are on our way!
We know, we know we have a long fight because the leaders like the preachers and the teachers, they are failing to stand up today. But we know some of the reasons for that. This brainwashed education that the teachers have got, he know that if he had to get a job as a janitor in this missile base that they are be building he’d probably turn something over and blow up the place because he wouldn’t know what it was.
Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. Sin is beginning to reproach America today and we want what is rightfully ours. And it’s no need of running and no need of saying, “Honey, I’m not going to get in the mess,” because if you were born in America with a black face, you were born in the mess.
Do you think, do you think anybody that would stand out in the dark to shoot me and to shoot other people, would you call that a brave person? It’s a shame before God that people will let hate not only destroy us, but it will destroy them. Because a house divided against itself cannot stand and today America is divided against itself because they don’t want us to have even the ballot here in Mississippi. If we had been treated right all these years, they wouldn’t be afraid for us to get the ballot.
People will go different places and say, “the Negroes, until the outside agitators came in, was satisfied.” But I’ve been dissatisfied ever since I was six years old. I remember my mother has worked for one measly dollar and a quarter a day. And you couldn’t say that was satisfaction. But to be truthful to you tonight, I first wished I was white. Some of you’ve wished the same thing. The reason I wished that was they was the only people that wasn’t doing nothing, but still had money and clothes. We was working year in and year out and wouldn’t get to go to school but four months out of the year because two of the months we didn’t have nothing.
Now you can’t tell me you trust God and come out to a church every Sunday with a bunch of stupid hats on seeing what the other one have on and paying the preacher’s way to hell and yours too. Preachers is really shocking to find them out. You know they like to rear back in the corners and over the rostrum and said, “what God has done for Meschnach, Shadrach, and Abednego.” But what he didn’t know, God has done the same thing for Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, and Lawrence Guyot.
And I can tell you now how this happened. After I had been working for eight or ten months, I attended a voter educational workshop in Charleston, South Carolina. On the ninth of June in 1963, we was returning from the workshop. We arrived in Winona, Mississippi about eleven o’clock. Four of the people got off of the bus to use the restaurant; two of the people got off of the bus to use the washroom. At this time, I was still on the bus. And I saw the four people rush out and I got off of the bus. And I said, “what’s wrong?”
And Miss Ponder, South-wide supervisor for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said, “it was the chief of police, and a state highway patrolman ordered us to come out.”
And I said, “This is Mississippi for you.”
She said, “Well, I think I’ll get the tag number and we can file it in our report.” And I got back in the bus. One of the girls that had used the washroom got back on the bus and that left five on our outside. When I looked through the window, they was getting those people in the car. And I stepped off of the bus again. And somebody screamed from that car and said, “Get that one there,” and a man said “you are under arrest.” When he opened the door, and as I started to get in, he kicked me and I was carried to the county jail.
When I got to the county jail, with the two white fellows that drove me to jail, they was calling me all kinds of names. And they was asking me questions and as I would try to answer they would cut me off. And as we got to the county jail there, when we walked into the booking room, one of the policemans walked over to one of the young men and jumped up with all of his weight on one of the Negro’s feet. And then they began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with Miss Euvester Simpson from Itta Bena, Mississippi. And during that time they left some in the booking room. And I began to hear screams. And I began to hear howls. And I began to hear somebody say, “Can’t you say ‘yes sir’ nigger?”
And I could hear Miss Ponder’s voice said, “Yes, I can say ‘yes sir.’”
“So, well, say it.” She said, “I don’t know you well enough.”
And I would hear when she would hit the floor again. And during the time they was beating Miss Ponder, I heard her when she began to pray. And she asked God to have mercy on those people because they didn’t know what they was doing. I don’t know how long this lasted. But after a while, Miss Ponder passed my cell. She didn’t recognize me when she passed my cell. One of her eyes looked like blood, and her mouth was swollen, and she was holding up by propping against the back of the brick cell.
And then three men came to my cell: a state highway patrolman, and a police, and a plain-dressed man. The state highway patrolman said, “Where you from?”
I said “Ruleville, Mississippi.”
He said, “I’m going to check that out.” And it wasn’t too long before he was back. And he used a curse word and he said, “You are from Ruleville, alright.” He said, “We is going to make you wish you was dead.”
I was led out of that cell and to another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. Three white men in that room and two Negroes. The state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack; it was a long leather blackjack and it was loaded with something heavy. And they ordered me to lay down on my face on a bunk bed. And the first Negro beat me. He had to beat me until the state highway patrolman give him orders to quit. Because he had already told him, said, “If you don’t beat her,” said, “you know what I’ll do to you.” And he beat me I don’t know how long. And after a while, he was exhausted and I was too. And it was a horrible experience.
And the state highway patrolman told the second Negro to take the blackjack. And I asked at this time, I said, “How can you treat a human being like this?”
The second prisoner said: “Move your hand, lady. I don’t want to hit you in your hand.” But I was holding my hand behind on the left side to shield some of the licks, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old and this kind of beating, I know I couldn’t take it. So I held my hands behind me, and after the second Negro began to beat me, the state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro that had beat me to set on my feet to keep me from working my feet. And I was screaming, and I couldn’t help but scream, and one of the white men began to beat me in my head and told me to “stop screaming.” And the only way that I could stop screaming was to take my hand and hug it around the tip to muffle out the sound. My dress worked up from this hard blackjack and I pulled my dress down taking my hands behind and pulled my dress down. And one of the city policemens walked over and pulled my dress as high as he could.
Five mens in this room while I was one Negro woman, being beaten, and at no time did I attempt to do anything but scream and call on God. I don’t know how long this lasted, but after a while I must have passed out. And when I did raise my head up, the state highway patrolman said, “Get up from there, fatso.” But I couldn’t get up. I don’t know how long, but I kept trying, and you know God is always able. And after a while I did get up, and I went back to my cell.
That Tuesday when they had our trial, the same policemen that had participated in the beatings was on the jury seat, people. And I was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. And I want to say tonight, we can no longer ignore the fact, America is not the land of the free and the home of the brave. When just because people want to register and vote and be treated like human beings, Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman is dead today. A house divided against itself cannot stand; America is divided against itself and without their considering us human beings, one day America will crumble. Because God is not pleased. God is not pleased at all the murdering, and all of the brutality, and all the killings for no reason at all. God is not pleased at the Negro children in the State of Mississippi, suffering from malnutrition. God is not pleased because we have to go raggedy each day. God is not pleased because we have to go to the field and work from ten to eleven hours for three lousy dollars.
And then how can they say, “In ten years’ time, we will have forced every Negro out of the State of Mississippi?” But I want these people to take a good look at themselves, and after they’ve sent the Chinese back to China, the Jews back to Jerusalem, and give the Indians their land back, and they take the Mayflower from which they came, the Negro will still be in Mississippi.
We don’t have anything to be ashamed of here in Mississippi. And actually we don’t carry guns because we don’t have anything to hide. When you see people packing guns and is afraid for people to talk to you, he is afraid that something is going to be brought out into the open and on him. But I want the people to know in Mississippi today, the cover has been pulled back off of you. And you don’t have any place to hide. And we’re on our way now; we’re on our way and we won’t turn around.
We don’t have anything to fear. I don’t know today, I don’t know tonight whether I’ll actually get back to Ruleville, but all that they can destroy is the Fannie Lou that you meet tonight, but it’s the Fannie Lou that God hold will keep on living, day after day.
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” The beatitude of the Bible, the fifth chapter of Matthew said: “Blessed are they that moan, for they shall be comforted.” We have moaned a long time in Mississippi. And he said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” And there’s no race in America that’s no meeker than the Negro. We’re the only race in America that has had babies sold from our breast, which was slavery time. And had mothers sold from their babes. And we’re the only race in America that had one man had to march through a mob crew just to go to school, which was James H. Meredith. We don’t have anything to be ashamed of. All we have to do is trust God and launch and out into the deep. You can pray until you faint, but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.
It’s very plain today, some of the things that you have read in the Bible. When this man looked out and saw the number and said, “These are they from every nation.” Can’t you see these things coming to pass today? When you see all of these students coming here to help America to be a real democracy and make democracy a reality in the State of Mississippi. Can’t you see the fulfilling of God’s word?
He said, “A city that’s set on a hill cannot be hid. Let your light so shine that men would see your good works and glorify the father, which is in Heaven.” He said, “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and shall persecute you and shall set almighty evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in Heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets which were before you.” That’s why I tell you tonight that you have a responsibility and if you plan to walk in Christ’s footstep and keep his commandments you are willing to launch out into the deep and go to the courthouse—not come here tonight to see what I look like, but to do something about the system here.
We are not fighting against these people because we hate them, but we are fighting these people because we love them and we’re the only thing can save them now. We are fighting to save these people from their hate and from all the things that would be so bad against them. We want them to see the right way. Every night of my life that I lay down before I go to sleep, I pray for these people that despitefully use me. And Christ said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” And He said before one-tenth—one jot—of his word would fail, heaven and earth would pass away. But His word would stand forever. And I believe tonight, that one day in Mississippi—if I have to die for this—we shall overcome.
We shall overcome means something to me tonight. We shall overcome mean as much to me tonight as “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” Because if grace have saved a wretch like me, then we shall overcome. Because He said, “Seek and ye shall find, knock and the door would be opened, ask and it shall be given.” It was a long time, but now we see. We can see, we can discern the new day. And one day the little Negro children—the little Negro boys and the little Negro girls—won’t be afraid to walk down the street because of so much hate that would make a police jump on the kid. And one day, by standing up going to the courthouse to try to register and vote, we can get people that’s concerned about us—because anytime you see a Negro policeman now, you can rest assured he’s a Tom. Because if he wasn’t a Tom, if he wasn’t a Tom, he would be elected by the people, not just a handful of folk. And he’ll get out on the street and beat your brains out and afraid to go around the corner and arrest a white man.
We want people, we want people over us that’s concerned about the people because we are human beings. Regardless of how they have abused us for all these years, we always cared what was going on. We have prayed and we have hoped for God to bring about a change. And now the time have come for people to stand up. And there’s something real, real peculiar but still it’s great: there used to be a time when you would hit a Negro—a white man would hit a Negro—the others would go and hide. But there’s a new day now, when you hit a Negro, you likely to see a thousand there. Because God care. God care and we care. And we can no longer ignore the fact that we can’t sit down and wait for things to change because as long as they can keep their feet on our neck, they will always do it. But it’s time for us to stand up and be women and men.
Because actually, I’m tired of being called “Aunty.” I wondered in life what actually time would they allow for me to be a woman? Because until I was thirty-six I was a girl: “Girl this.” And now I’m forty-six and it’s “Aunty.” But I want you to know tonight: I don’t have one white niece or nephew. And if you don’t want to call me Mrs. Hamer, just call me plain “Fannie” because I’m not your Aunt.
You know, people had said for years and years, “the Negroes can’t do anything.” That’s the report that they was sending out about the people of Mississippi: “The Negroes are ignorant.” But just who’s acting stupid now?
I heard a preacher say one night, I heard a preacher say one night that people could look at the cloud and say it was going to rain and it would rain. And still now they can’t discern the signs of time. We can see the signs people, the signs of time. And the time now is to stand up. Stand up for your constitutional right. And one day, if we keep on standing up, we won’t have to take this literacy test—to copy a section of the Constitution of Mississippi that we had never seen, and interpret it too. When if he had the same test, he couldn’t. One day we won’t have all of this to do. We’ll keep right on walking, and we’ll keep right on talking, and we’ll keep right on marching. And when your minister say “Well, it’s alright to stand up, but don’t march—
—I don’t like bringing politics into the church.” And when he says this it make me sick because he’s telling a big lie because every dollar bill got a politician on it and the preacher love it. And if this man, and if this man don’t choose to be a shepherd, he can be a sheep and follow the shepherd.
You know, actually, I used to have so much respect for teachers and preachers, I would be nervous when I’d be around them, but since I found out that that’s the scariest two things we got in Mississippi—how, how, how can you actually trust a man and have respect for him, he’ll tell you to trust God, but he doesn’t trust him himself? We want leaders in our community. And what people will say, say, “Well, if we can get rid of Fannie Lou,” said, “we can get rid of the trouble.” But what they don’t know, freedom is like an eating cancer, if you kill me, it will break out all over the place.
We want ours and we want ours now. I question sometime, actually, has any of these people that hate so—which is the white—read anything about the Constitution? Eighteen hundred and seventy, the fifteenth amendment was added on to the Constitution of the United States that gave every man a chance to vote for what he think to be the right way. And now this is ’64 and they still trying to keep us away from the ballot. But we are determined today, we are determined that one day we’ll have the power of the ballot. And the sooner you go to the courthouse, the sooner we’ll have it. It’s one thing, it’s one thing I don’t want you to say tonight after I finish—and it won’t be long—I don’t want to hear you say, “Honey, I’m behind you.” Well, move, I don’t want you back there. Because you could be 200 miles behind. I want you to say, “I’m with you.” And we’ll go up this freedom road together.
Before I leave you, I would like to quote from an old hymn my mother used to sing, “Should earth against my soul engage, and fiery darts be hurled. When I can smile at Satan rage and face this frowning world.” Thank you.
“I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired”
Speech delivered with Malcolm X at the Williams Institutional CME Church, Harlem, NY: December 20, 1964
My name is Fannie Lou Hamer and I exist at 626 East Lafayette Street in Ruleville, Mississippi. The reason I say “exist” [is] because we’re excluded from everything in Mississippi but the tombs and the graves. That’s why it is called that instead of the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” it’s called in Mississippi “the land of the tree and the home of the grave.”
It was the thirty-first of August of 1962, that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi to try to register to become first-class citizens. It was the thiry-first of August in 1962, that I was fired for trying to become a first-class citizen. When we got to Indianola on the thirty-first of August in 1962, we was met there by the state highway patrolmen, the city policemen and anybody—as some of you know that have worked in Mississippi, any white man that is able to wear a khaki pair of pants without them falling off him and holding two guns can make a good law officer—so we was met by them there. After taking this literacy test, some of you have seen it, we have twenty-one questions and some is not questions. It began with: “Write the date of this application. What is your full name? By whom are you employed?”—so we can be fired by the time we get back home—“Are you a citizen of the United States and an inhabitant of Mississippi? Have you ever been convicted of any of the following crimes?”—when, if the people would be convicted of the following crimes, the registrar wouldn’t be there. But after we go through this process of filling out this literacy form, we are asked to copy a section of the constitution of Mississippi and after we’ve copied this section of the constitution of Mississippi we are asked to give a reasonable interpretation to tell what it meant, what we just copied that we just seen for the first time.
After finishing this form we started on this trip back to Ruleville, Mississippi and we was stopped by the same city policeman that I had seen in Indianola and a state highway patrolman. We was ordered to get off the bus. After we got off the bus, we was ordered to get back on the bus and told to go back to Indianola. When we got back to Indianola the bus driver was charged with driving a bus the wrong color. That’s very true. This same bus had been used year after year to haul people to the cotton fields to pick cotton and to chop cotton. But, this day, for the first time that this bus had been used for voter registration it had the wrong color. They first charged this man $100. And from $100 they cut down to fifty. And from fifty to thirty, and after they got down to thirty dollars the eighteen of us had enough among ourselves to pay his fine.
Then we continued this journey back to Ruleville. When we got to Ruleville, Reverend Jeff Sunny drove me out to this rural area where I had been existing for the past eighteen years as a timekeeper and a sharecropper. I was met there by my daughter and my husband’s cousin that told me this man was raising a lot of Cain because I had went to Indianola. My oldest girl said that she believed I would have to leave there. Then my husband came and during the time he was talking this white man walked up and asked him had I made it back. And he told him I had. And he said, “Well did you tell her what I said?” My husband told him he did and I walked out. He said, “Fannie Lou,” say, “did Pap tell you what I said?” And I told him he did. He said, “I mean that. You will have to go down and withdraw or you will have to leave.”
I said, “Mr. Marlow,” I said, “I wasn’t trying to register for you today. I was trying to register for myself.” And this was it. I had to leave that same night.
On the tenth of September in 1962, sixteen bullets were fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker, where I’d been living after I was fired from this plantation. That same night, two girls was shot in Ruleville. They also shot in Mr. Joe McDonald’s home that same night. And until this day the place was swamped with FBI, until this day—it’s a very small town where everybody knows everybody—it hadn’t been one arrest made. That’s why about four months ago when the FBI came to talk to me about my life being threatened—they wanted to know what could I tell them about it—I told them until they straightened out some of the things that we had done happened, don’t come asking about the things that just happened. Do something about the problems that we’d already had. And I made it plain. I said, “If there is a God and a heaven,” I said, “if I was going to see you two up there, I would tell them to send me back to Mississippi because I know He wouldn’t be just to let you up there.” This probably don’t sound too good to everybody, but if I can’t tell the truth—just tell me to sit down—because I have to tell it like it is.
The third day of June, we went to a voter educational workshop and was returning back to Mississippi. We arrived in Winona, Mississippi between ten-thirty and eleven o’clock on the ninth of June. Some of the people got off the bus to go in the restaurant and two of the people got off the bus to use the washroom. I was still on the Continental Trailways bus and looking through the window, I saw the people rush out of the restaurant and then the two people rush out had got off to use the washroom. One of the people that had got off to use the washroom got on the bus and I got off the bus. I went straight to Miss Ponder, it was five of them had got off the bus, six in all but one had got back on the bus, so that was five. I went to talk to Miss Ponder to ask of her what had happened. And she said that it was state highway patrolmen and a city chief of police had tapped them all on the shoulder with billy clubs and ordered them out. And I said, “Well, this is Mississippi.”
I went back and got on the bus. When I looked back through the window they was putting those people in the patrolmen’s car. I got off of the bus, holding the eyes of Miss Ponder and she screamed to tell me to get back on the bus when somebody screamed from her car and said, “Get that one, too.” And a man jumped out of his car and said, “You are under arrest.” As he went to open the door, he opened the door and told me to get in. And as I started to get in, he kicked me and I was carried to the county jailhouse by this county deputy and a plain-clothes man. They would call me all kinds of names. They would ask me questions and when I would attempt to answer the questions, they would curse and tell me to hush.
I was carried to the county jail and when I got inside of the jail, they had the other five already in the booking room. When I walked in the booking room, one of the city policemen just walked over, a very tall man, walked over and jumped on one of the young men’s feet, James West from Itta Bena, Mississippi. Then they began to place us in cells. They left some of the people out of the cell and I was placed in a cell with Miss Euvester Simpson from Itta Bena.
After they left the people in the booking room I began to hear the sounds of licks and I began to hear screams. I couldn’t see the people, but I could hear them. And I would hear somebody when they would say, “Can’t you say yes sir, nigger? Can’t you say yes sir?” And they would call Annell Ponder awful names.
And she would say, “Yes, I can say yes sir.”
And they would tell her, “Well say it.”
She said, “I don’t know you well enough.”
And I would hear when she would hit the floor again. I don’t know how long this happened until after awhile I saw Miss Ponder pass my cell. And her clothes had been ripped off from the shoulder down to the waist. Her hair was standing up on her head. Her mouth was swollen and bleeding. And one of her eyes looked like blood. And they put her in a cell where I couldn’t see her.
And then three men came to my cell. The state highway patrolmen asked me where I was from. And I told him I was from Ruleville. He said, “We’re going to check that.” And they left the cell and after awhile they came back. And he told me, said, “You were right,” said, “You’s from Ruleville all right and we going to make you wish you was dead.” I was led out of that cell and into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The state highway patrolman gave the first Negro prisoner the blackjack. It was a long heavy leather something made with something you could hold it, and it was loaded with either rocks or something metal. And they ordered me to lie down on the bed on my face. And I was beat by that first Negro until he was exhausted. I was beat until he was ordered by the state highway patrolman to stop.
After he told the first Negro to stop, he gave the blackjack to the second Negro. When the second Negro began to beat, it seemed like it was more than I could bear. I began to work my feet, and the state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro that had beat me to set on my feet where I was kicking them. My dress worked up real high and I smoothed my clothes down. And one of the city policemens walked over and pulled my dress as high as he could. I was trying to shield as many licks from my left side as I could because I had polio when I was six or eight years old. But when they had finished beating me, they were, while they was beating, I was screaming. One of the white men got up and began to beat me in my head.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I went to a doctor in Washington, D.C., a specialist, and he said one of the arteries behind this left eye had a blood clot. After this happened in jail, we was in jail from Monday until Wednesday without seeing a doctor. They had our trial on Tuesday and we was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. I was in jail when Medgar Evers was killed.
What I’m trying to point out now is when you take a very close look at this American society, it’s time to question these things. We have made an appeal for the President of the United States and the Attorney General to please protect us in Mississippi. And I can’t understand how it’s out of their power to protect people in Mississippi. They can’t do that, but when a white man is killed in the Congo, they send people there.
And you can always hear this long sob story: “You know it takes time.” For 300 years, we’ve given them time. And I’ve been tired so long, now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change. We want a change in this society in America because, you see, we can no longer ignore the facts and getting our children to sing “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed.” What do we have to hail here? The truth is the only thing going to free us. And you know this whole society is sick. And to prove just how sick it was when we was in Atlantic City challenging the National Convention, when I was testifying before the Credentials Committee, I was cut off because they hate to see what they been knowing all the time and that’s the truth.
Yes, a lot of people will roll their eyes at me today but I’m going to tell you just like it is, you see it’s time—you see, this is what got all this like this—there’s so much hypocrisy in this society and if we want America to be a free society we have to stop telling lies, that’s all. Because we’re not free and you know we’re not free. You’re not free here in Harlem.
I’ve gone to a lot of big cities and I’ve got my first city to go to where this man wasn’t standing with his feet on this black man’s neck. And it’s time for you to wake up because, you see, a lot of people say, “Oh, they is afraid of integration.” But the white man is not afraid of integration, not with his kids. He’s afraid of his wife’s kids because he’s got them all over the place. Because some of his kids just might be my second cousin.
And the reason we’re here today, we’re asking for support if this Constitution is really going to be of any help in this American society, the fourth day of January is when we’ll find it out. This challenge that we’re challenging the five representatives from Mississippi; now how can a man be in Washington, elected by the people, when ninety-five percent of the people cannot vote in Mississippi? Just taking a chance on trying to register to vote, you can be fired. Not only fired, you can be killed. You know it’s true because you know what happened to Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. And any person that’s working down there to change the system can be counted just as another nigger.
But some of the things I’ve got to say today may be a little sickening. People have said year after year, “Those people in Mississippi can’t think.” But after we would work ten and eleven hours a day for three lousy dollars and couldn’t sleep we couldn’t do anything else but think. And we have been thinking a long time. And we are tired of what’s going on. And we want to see now, what this here will turn out for the fourth of January. We want to see is democracy real? We want to see this because the challenge is based upon the violation of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, which hadn’t done anything for us yet. And the U.S. Courts tied it to Section 201 and 226. Those people were illegally elected and they have been there—the man that I challenged, Jamie L. Whitten, has been in Washington thirteen years and he is not representing the people of Mississippi because not only do they discriminate against the poor Negroes, they discriminated up until the third of November against the poor whites, but they let them vote them because they wanted their votes. But it will run until the first of July and we need your support—morally, politically, and financially, too. We need your help.
And, people, you don’t know in Harlem the power that you got. But you just don’t try to use it. People never would have thought—the folks they said was just ignorant, common people out of Mississippi that would have tried to challenge the representatives from Mississippi. But you see the point is: we have been dying in Mississippi year after year for nothing. And I don’t know, I may be bumped off as soon as I go back to Mississippi but what we should realize, people have been bumped off for nothing. It is my goal for the cause of giving those Negro children a decent education in the State of Mississippi and giving them something that they have never had. Then I know my life won’t be in vain. Because, not only do we need a change in the State of Mississippi, but we need a change here in Harlem. And it’s time for every American citizen to wake up because now the whole world is looking at this American society.
I remember, during the time I was in West Africa—some of you may be here today because I don’t know what it’s all about, but I know I can tell you the truth, too—it was a lot of people there that was called the PIAA. “What are you doing over here? Who are you trying to please?”
I said, “All you criticize us when you at home and you’re worried to death when we try to find out about our own people,” I said, “If we had been treated as human beings in America, you wouldn’t be trailing us now to find out what we is trying to do over here.”
But this is something we going to have to learn to do and quit saying that we are free in America when I know we are not free. You are not free in Harlem. The people are not free in Chicago, because I’ve been there, too. They are not free in Philadelphia, because I’ve been there, too. And when you get it over with all the way around, some of the places is a Mississippi in disguise. And we want a change. And we hope you support us in this challenge that we’ll begin on the fourth of January. And give us what support that you can. Thank you.
“Making Democracy a Reality”
Speech delivered at the Vietnam Moratorium Rally, Berkeley, California: October 15, 1969. (excerpt)
I really feel grateful that what has happened here is something I said in front of Lafayette Park in Washington, DC in 1965. After I had sent President Johnson a telegram telling him to bring the people home from the Dominican Republic and Vietnam—and I said to President Johnson at that time, “If this society of yours is a Great Society, God knows I would hate to live in a bad one.”
But at that time, at that time, we felt very alone because when we start saying, “The war is wrong in Vietnam,” well people looked at us like we were something out of space. But when they talked about the other day of the Gallup Poll being fifty-eight percent of the people against the war in Vietnam then we see if you are right, you have to stand on that principle and if it’s necessary to die on the principle because I am sick of the racist war in Vietnam when we don’t have justice in the United States.
I’ve heard, I’ve heard several comments from people that was talking about with the people, for the people, and by the people. Being a black woman from Mississippi, I’ve learned that long ago that’s not true; it’s with the handful, for a handful, by a handful. But we going to change that, baby. We are going to change that because we going to make democracy a reality for all of the people of this country.
A couple of the Sundays ago, I was in Washington at the Cathedral there and I read in the Post magazine that here was Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s son had been classified as 4-F. And he had been classified because he had a tendency of a purine malatibination that would sometimes result in the Gout. I said, “What in the world is the Gout?” So we got the dictionary and looked this word up and what it was saying, sometimes his joints might swell up and resulted in a painful swelling of the big toe. Now ain’t that ridiculous? Look it up, “the Gout” that’s what the man had. And it didn’t say he would have it, said he may have it.
And you see the strange and the awful thing about it, the people that’s conducting this war in Vietnam don’t have sons to go do it. And we are sick and tired of seeing people lynched, and raped, and shot down all across the country in the name of law and order and not even feeding the hungry across the country.
There’s something, there’s something else funny too. There’s something very funny when a man like Senator James O. Eastland, the biggest welfare recipient in the whole country, there’s something wrong when he can help to set policies for Vietnam and own 5,800 acres in the State of Mississippi and people on the plantation suffering from malnutrition. There’s something wrong with that.
And we got to go a long way back people and talk about real conspiracies because it was something wrong in New York City when Malcolm X was shot down through conspiracy. It was something wrong in America when again—Kennedy hadn’t been a very liberal man, but when he seen there was so much wrong that he had to do something about it—he was shot down. And again, on the fourth of April a couple of years ago, one of the most non-violent souls of our time—Dr. Martin Luther King was shot down through conspiracy. I want you to know what’s happening to us today, America is sick and man is on the critical list.
We want a change throughout the country, and the only way we can have a change is to bring those men home from Vietnam. People have been greatly punished—they have been criticized—because we are in a racist war that don’t give a man a chance, that carry him to Vietnam. And I don’t believe, you know, the first escape boat this country got to get away on is communism. Now, I know as much about communism as a horse know about New Year, but nobody and that mean nobody, have to tell me that it’s not something wrong with the system. And no communist have to tell me that I’m without food and clothing and a decent place to live in this country.
And I think that charity really begin at home. And we are not dealing, you know, some people don’t like for you to call him a devil, but we are not dealing with men today. The sixth chapter of Ephesians and the eleventh and the twelfth verse say: “Put on the whole armor of God. That he may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” The twelfth verse say: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers, against principality, against the rulers of darkness of this world—spiritual wickedness in high places.” That’s when the ministers would stand behind the podium and make a deal with the power structure. So we are telling the ministers, we are going to start singing some songs for them and some of the songs is going be, “shall we gather at the river,” and we going to leave them there!
Because people now no longer believe in a lot of the stuff they been reading. You know, I was really shocked, I got to go into a lot—a little of our history to come back to Vietnam and our policy. The truth hadn’t been told to us no way. Because I was really shocked when I found out that Columbus didn’t discover America, when he got here it was some black brothers said: “Get on off honey, and tell us where you want to go.”
You kept too many things hidden, not only from my kids, but you kept them from your kids. That’s the reason why your own kids is rebelling against you because of a sick system. But we want the boys—you know I don’t think that we have time to say, “Well, we can get them out after another million is killed.” We want the fellows to come home, now!
And you know I do believe with this kind of audience, and I think it’s this kind of audience in other places, I think a man should be impeached when they are not really dealing with the people.
And I want to say, I want to say to you white America, you can’t destroy me because I’m black to save your life without destroying yourself.
[member of the crowd shouts: “We don’t want to destroy you.”]
Alright, well we want to have peace, we want to have peace, and the only way that we can have peace is to bring the boys home from Vietnam, start dealing with the problems in the United States, stop all of this urban renewal and model cities that’s pushing people out of a place to stay and start dealing with facts of life.
It’s a lot of people, it’s a lot of people that said: “Well, forget about politics.” But, baby, what we eat is politics. And I’m not going to forget no politic. Because in 1972, when I go to Washington as Senator Hamer from Mississippi, you going to know it’s going to be some changes made. Because we are going to change Mississippi.
Even a storm, a person is mistreated in a storm. When we had Camille in Mississippi, the Government sent for the refugees. The black people was put in Jackson State College, the white people was put in Robert E. Lee Hotel. When they started sending the people out, the white people was put in trailers. The black people was put at Camp Shelby. The National Guardsmens was caught looting. The National Guardsmens is what we call the “draft-dodgers.” They are not going to do anything at home, but beat the people down that’s trying to bring a change in this country.
And people, whether you believe it or not, you better remember this today: a house divided against itself cannot stand. A nation that’s divided against itself cannot stand. And it’s two past midnight and we are on our way out. But we have to have a change. And the change is going to first start in bringing the boys home from Vietnam.
And I don’t want you to think that you have to pick out a way for me to exist in this society. You know, black people is caught a lot of hell too. We first been told that we wasn’t fit into—we got the kind of education to fit into this society. But as sick as it is, I wonder do I want the kind of education that’s going to really rob me of having real love and compassion for my fellow man? We got to start, we got to start in every institution in this country because the history that we been getting, baby, had never happened and it never will. And we got to change some curriculum and in making the change, we can have more peace, and real democracy when we bring the boys home and some of the billions of dollars that’s being spent in Vietnam can go into rural areas like Mississippi.
And I want you to know something—don’t kid yourself, baby. You can say up-South and down-South. The only difference in Mississippi and California, Berkeley, is we know what them white folk think about us and some of you don’t know what they think about you here. They will shoot me in the face there and as soon as you turn around they’ll shoot you in the back. So you ain’t doing no big thing here. The problem here is like the problem all over the country and decent people—I’m not talking about I’m going to attack somebody because it look foolish to me to come out of my house and throw a bottle at my brother’s house—I’m not talking about that kind of crap, I’m talking about some real changes that’s going to help people throughout the country and the only way we can do that is stop engaging ourselves—and I have to say “us”—in this racist war.
We watched what happened in Chicago last year when they had this National Democratic Convention. Tell you, I was a delegate there. And they had a little blue-eyed guy assigned to me. I made his life miserable because I learned to dodge, you know, when I felt like it. But they must have told him, said “Don’t you let that woman get out of your sight.” But some of our bags was flanked and things was taken out of our bags—thank God we didn’t have nothing. So, they was looking for us, you see, to do a big thing there. They planned to kill a lot of us, but we’d done our homework. Told our black brothers, said: “Don’t you go out there, because they’re planning to get us, man.” So, they didn’t go. But they was so determined to do something they beat you kids nearly to death.
Now a society is sick when a convention would have to be held with fixed bayonets. And that mean, stick you if you stand there and shoot you if you run. But we need a change and the only way we’re going to have a change—don’t you think that this is not important—one man’s feet can’t walk across the land, two men’s feet can’t walk across the land. But if two and two and fifty make a million, we’ll see the day come around.
And we keep on saying we’re against the war. One crowd of people can’t change the status quo, but if two and two and fifty make a million, we’ll see the day come around that we will have our boys home. And we’ll be able to stand and fight together for the things that we rightfully deserve, not in Vietnam, not in Vi-Afra, but right here in the United States to make democracy a reality for all of the people of the world regardless of race or color. Thank you.
“America Is a Sick Place and Man Is on the Critical List,”
Speech delivered at Loop College, Chicago, Illinois: May 27, 1970
Thank you very kindly. I’m happy to be here tonight. One of the funniest things that happened to me today that I guess never happens: I left Mississippi—it was very hot—so I wore a short-sleeved cotton dress. You know, looks kind of thin. So when I got to the airport, didn’t have a sweater, didn’t have a coat but I had this dress in my overnight bag. The only thing I could say is that somebody got to get me a sweater or loan me something to wear tonight. So you can imagine what it was to me, to walk out tonight in a storm for the first time in low-heeled shoes.
But I’m very glad to be here, and if we are going to talk about “from1960 up until 1970,” I’ll have to talk about what was happening to me in 1960. In 1960, I was a sharecropper on a plantation four miles east of Ruleville, and I had been a sharecropper and a timekeeper at that plantation for some time. I was always mad out in the field because, you know, I had some funny feelings about my work in the field because I would always see the landowner always end up with what was happening and we knew it would be horrible in the winter. So 1960, I was mad. ’61, I was mad. 1962, and I get out in the field and I tell folks and I say, “Look folks, don’t you know the white folks is using us?” I said, “You see? Now, there is no way in the world, they could tell us they are not getting anything out of cotton, but this is impossible they got two or three cars—the wife got a car, the landowner got a car, the son got a car, and we have to thumb a ride.” I said, “Now something wrong.” You know, I said “Something wrong with this.” And I’ve been thinking it a long time.
So, as I was in charge with keeping up with the cotton weights on this plantation, this landowner not only would rob us economically through the cotton, but I would have to weigh the cotton and keep up with the weight and this man had the nerve to have a “p,” [a device used to weigh cotton] a p to weigh the cotton lower. So I would always carry my p to the field and I would use my unloaded p until I would see him coming. And when I would see him coming at us, I’d switch p’s and use his loaded p, but it would always, you know, give us a few pounds.
I had a lot of gripes because you see not only was I keeping up with the time on this plantation, keeping up with the cotton weights at this plantation, but when it would rain and when I couldn’t be in the field, I had to be in this man’s house. Now one thing that would really bug me was when they would tell me that I couldn’t eat at the table with them; I would have to wait for all them finished. So, what I would do was eat first. I would just eat and have myself a time. And maybe some of the things I'd done wasn’t right because I would eat out all of the spoons and watch them eat behind me. And then whenever they would leave home, I would get in that bathtub, because I didn’t have one. I would get in that bathtub and I would take me a bubble bath. And I would put some of everything on me that they had been using because—one thing about it, you know, just like a man who drinks whiskey: if you drink, you can’t smell mine because you already got some in you. So they couldn’t smell this perfume because they had some on them. I would walk out feeling very proud, I just carried my little own protest, you know. So I had to wash the clothes; I had to iron the clothes—I wore them clothes, too. I would wear them clothes, you know, if they was having a party in ten miles I would show off one of them dresses because I had them at my house. I would wear it and I would look at them, you know, the next day wearing something that I had been wearing. And you just don’t know. And that’s why it’s so, it’s so funny to see people today saying what we can’t do, when we’ve already done it.
You know, I used to watch my mother. She would help the white people kill hogs, and they would give her what people call “soul food” today. They would give her the chittlins, the head and the feet. I hated chittlins. So, when I started helping to kill hogs, I would go to the landowners and I would help to kill the hogs, and I would have that five-pound, that five-gallon can full of pork chops and put chittlins in the trough. So, I could do my own little thing in my own way.
So in 1962, I was really fed up. So one day I went to church, a little Baptist church in Ruleville, the church was named Williams Chapel. I know that little church it was once out on W.O. Pepper’s place, plantation. So Ida Winters here, we went to school together in Ruleville, Mississippi so she know what I’m talking about. But anyway, they had a meeting one Sunday, on the fourth Sunday at this little church, and the pastor announced at the end of the services, he said it was going to be a mass meeting that Monday night, and everybody was invited. Now up until 1962, I had never attended a mass meeting in my life. So I wanted to go and I did go. My husband—you know, in the South people have to work very hard. Right now they don’t have to work very hard because there’s no jobs available and people are just there starving—So in 1962, that Monday night after the fourth Sunday, I went to this mass meeting, after my husband told me, “Well I tell you, what” said, “I’ll carry you out to that mass meeting tonight if you pick 300 today.” So you don’t fool around when you pick 300 pounds of cotton, you have to really roll and there’s an art in that just like people have, people say “those people are uneducated,” but you couldn’t do it if you didn’t really have the art to do it. So, I picked the 300.
So then that night we went to the church. James Bevel was there from the Southern Christian Leadership conference. Mr. Amzie Moore was there from the NAACP. Dave Dennis was there from the Congress of Racial Equality. Jim Forman was there from SNCC.
James Bevel preached that night from the twelfth chapter of St. Luke, and the fifty-fourth verse: “Discerning the signs of time.” And after he preached this sermon, he talked about how a man could look at a cloud and predict the rain and it would become so. And today men cannot discern this time; it was a beautiful sermon. After James Bevel had preached, Mr. Moore, Dave Dennis and some of the others talked, and then Jim Forman from SNCC got up and talked about how it was our constitutional right, that we have a right to register and vote. And he talked about, you know, what we could do if we had the power of the vote. And during the time Jim Forman was talking about how it was our right and how they’d passed the fifteenth amendment that I’d never heard of, I was one of the persons that made up my mind that this was something important to me. And it seemed like it was something that I wanted to take a chance on.
So they asked at the end of the services, “who would go down that Friday to try to register to become a first-class citizen?” I was one of the eighteen persons that went to the county courthouse twenty-six miles from Ruleville. We went with a black man that owned the bus, the old bus from Bolivar County. And this bus had been used year after year to haul cotton choppers, and cotton pickers to Florida where they could try to make enough money to help their families exist through the winter months. So we’ve never had any trouble with this bus, but the thirty-first of August when we went to the courthouse in Indianola, 1962, twenty-six miles from Ruleville.
When we got there it was eighteen of us. We got off the bus and we went on inside the courtroom and the circuit clerk’s office and he asked us, “what did we want?”
And we told him we were there, I said, “We are here to register.”
And he said, “All of you will have to get out of here except two.” So, I was one of the two persons that remained inside. Mr. Ernest Davis stayed inside with me and he was giving us literacy tests that consist of twenty-one comments and questions like: write the date of this application, what is your full name, by whom are you employed—meaning we’d be fired by the time we got back home—where’s your place of residence in the district—this mean you would be giving your address to the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan. And then it said that if there’s more than one person of the same name in your precinct, by which name do you wish to be called? And then it asked if you, are you a minister of the gospel in charge of an organized church or the wife of such minister?
Then the registrar brought out a huge black book and he pointed out a section to me with the sixteenth section of the constitution of Mississippi and he told me to copy that section, and it was dealing with de facto laws. And I knowed about as much about a de facto law as a horse knows about New Year’s. I copied it exactly like he asked me to copy it. After I had copied the section, the sixteenth section of the constitution, he told me to give a reasonable interpretation—“tell the meaning” and I guessed, good God! He told me to tell the meanings of the section that I had just copied. Quite naturally, I flunked the test.
By the time the eighteen of us going in two by two had finished taken the literacy test—now there’s people, mind you there that day with guns, dogs, and rifles. Some of them looking exactly like Jed Clampett with the Beverly Hillbillies, only they wasn’t kidding—So after the eighteen of us had finished taking the literacy test, it was almost four o’ clock. We walked out and we got on the bus and started back to Ruleville. On our way back to Ruleville, we were stopped by a state highway patrolman and a city policeman. They ordered us to get off of the bus, we got off of the bus, and they told us to get back on. We got back on the bus and they ordered the bus driver to turn around and carry us back to Indianola. We was carried back to Indianola and there the bus driver was fined $100 for driving a bus that day with too much yellow in it. They finally cut his fine down to thirty dollars. The eighteen of us had enough to pay this fine. And then we continued our journey to Ruleville.
When we got to Ruleville, Reverend Jeff Sunny—another minister there who had gone down that same day to register—he carried me out in a rural area where I had worked the eighteen years as a timekeeper and sharecropper. My oldest daughter met me and she told me that the landowner was very angry. And she said: “Mama, I just don’t know what’s going to happen because this man has been raising Cain ever since you went to the courthouse today.”
During the time she was talking, my husband came and he told me the same thing. I walked on in the house because, as I was going in the house and my husband was telling me what the landowner had said, I was thinking about how unjust the boss was being to me because this same man when he was in service, I was taking care of his kids while his wife was out bowling. But because I wanted to do something for myself . . . I just couldn’t understand why.
Then, during the time my husband was talking, the landowner walked up, and asked my husband, said, “Has Fannie Lou made it back yet?”
And you, any of you from the South know what I mean when they say, “Yes sir.” My husband said, “Yes sir.” “But did you tell her what I said?” He said, “Yes sir.”
He said, “I mean that, she’ll have to go back and withdraw her registration, or she’ll have to leave.”
And I got up from on the side of the bed, and I walked out on the porch so I could just look at him when he said that. And he said, “Fannie Lou,” said, “I got three calls while you was in Indianola, and they going to worry hell out of me tonight and that mean I might have to worry the hell out of you,” said, “But you got a choice you either go back and withdraw your registration or you’ll have to leave this plantation.”
I said, “I didn’t go down there to register for you, I went down there to register for myself.”
I had to leave that night. I went to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker, the thirty-first of August 1962. The tenth of September, I know all you read about it in Jet Magazine, and other news media. The tenth of September, 1962, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker where they’d shoot in there to kill me because I’d refused to go back and withdraw my registration. That night in Ruleville, two girls was shot. They were shot at Mr. Herman Sisson’s. They also shot at Mr. Joe McDonald’s in Ruleville. My husband become very upset and he told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there in Sunflower County. So he asked me then to go to one of my niece’s in another county in Mississippi, which was Tallahatchie County.
I went to Tallahatchie County, my husband wanted to leave the plantation, and the landowner told him, said, “If you leave this plantation you not going get a rag out of this house. You will have to help harvest in what we have before we give you anything.” So I went to live with a niece in Tallahatchie County. I had the two children with me at that time. And we was some time, it was raining we didn’t have food to eat. We didn’t get a chance to pick cotton much because we could pick enough cotton to kind of feed us, if the weather had permitted, but it was very bad.
So one Saturday out in the field, it was in October, I told my niece that I was staying with, I said, “I’m going back to Ruleville today.”
And she said, “Please don’t go back,” said, “because anything can happen.”
I said, “Well it can happen if I don’t go back.” I said, “I’m not a criminal; I hadn’t committed a crime, and I don’t have no right to be dodging nobody. And I’m going back to Ruleville, and if I’m killed in Sunflower County I’ll still be a part, but I’m not running any further.”
I did come back to Ruleville that Saturday night, but when I got there they had guys call my husband had, they called some of those people into town where they did have telephones, because we didn’t have telephones where I had been living. And they told him about one of his cousins had been blown up in a plant in Argo, Illinois. So I left that same night, coming into Chicago. I came to Chicago and I was here in Chicago two weeks. And I said, “I’ve had it, I’m going back to Mississippi.”
I went back to Mississippi and I went to live with my sister about a mile and a half east of Ruleville. And I began to look for a house because I didn’t intend to run any longer. But it was December third before found we found the place, a old three room, run-down dilapidated shack at 626 East Lafayette Street in Ruleville, Mississippi. When my husband got ready to move—we didn’t have nothing in the first place—most of that had been taken. So we moved to this address, 626 East Lafayette Street, one Sunday the third day of December.
On the fourth day of December, 1962, I went back to the courthouse, and I told the registrar that he couldn’t have me fired again because I was already fired. I said,
“I won’t have to move because I’m not living in a white man’s house.” I said, “I want you to know something, Mr. Campbell: You will see me every thirty days until I become a registered voter.”
This time he gave me the forty-ninth section of the constitution of Mississippi, was dealing with the House of Representatives. It was a funny thing because when I went back to check the second time, I had passed the literacy test. But the thing that was so crucial about this, the registrar that was giving the test when the Justice Department and Civil Rights Commission came to Mississippi and, you know, gave them some of the same literacy tests, they flunked it too.
So, then, after I’d become one of the first black women in Sunflower County to become registered, it was like I become a hunted person, criminal. I remember one morning in February of 1963, there was a knock on our door. At five o’clock that morning, my husband had gone in the washroom, and when he walked to the door to open the door, it was two armed cops, flashlights in one hand, guns in the other hand, and they wanted to know what my husband was doing up that time of morning. Now one of these mens was called “Sundown Kid,” and he looked it. The other one was S.L. Milam—S.L. Milam might not mean much to some of you, because some of you are too young. But S.L. Milam was J.W. Milam’s brother, one of the brothers that helped to lynch Emmett Till, the little kid from Chicago that came to Mississippi to visit his grandparents, and a white woman passed and he whistled, and it was called the “wolf whistle.” He was lynched in Sunflower County, carried to Leflore County, and the weights from a cotton gin was put on his body, and he was put in Tallahatchie River—this was the beginning of the harassment. Later on in 1963, I went up to the City Hall to tell the mayor it was impossible for me to use 9,000 gallons of water when I didn’t have running water in the house. I said, “Now I just want you to know that I know better.” I said, “I’ll pay it, but I want you to know that I don’t owe you.” My husband was arrested as a result, and he was jailed. Later on in 1963, my oldest daughter, Dorothy Jean, was arrested.
Then on the ninth of June 1963, I had gone to a voter registration and a voter educational workshop, to be taught the sections of the constitution of Mississippi, then we could go back to Mississippi to teach other people how to pass the literacy test. On our way back to Mississippi, we stopped—we was riding on the Continental Trailways bus—we stopped in Winona, Mississippi, and four people got off to use the restaurant, and another person got off to use the washroom. And I was looking out the window of the bus when I saw the people, when they rushed out of the terminal and the girl rushed them around the bus terminal where she had gone to the washroom, and I stepped off of the bus to see what had happened.
And as I stepped off of the bus, Miss Ponder said, “Mrs. Hamer,” said,
“it was some policemans inside, and they began to tap us on the shoulder with Billy Clubs, and ordered us to get off, get out of the restaurant.” Now, this was after the ICC ruling, that you had a right to go in any of the places to eat. So I said, “Well, Miss Ponder,”—Miss Ponder was a South-wide supervisor for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—I said, “Miss Ponder this is Mississippi.”
So, I went to step back on the bus, but as I was getting back on the bus and looked out the window, they was putting the five people into a state highway patrolman’s car. Again, I stepped off of the bus to see what had happened, and the patrolman screamed from the car he was in and told another man said, “Get that one there!” And this police jumped out of a two-colored car, it was beige and brown, and it was two of them in the car and he jumped out of the car and he said, “You are under arrest.” He opened the back door and as I went to get in the back, he kicked me. I was carried behind the five that was in the patrolman’s car to the county jail.
When we got to the county jail—they had cursed me all the way to jail, asking me questions about what was we trying to do and when I would start answering they would tell me to hush—So when I got there and got out of the car, as we walked into the booking room, one of the policemen that was about six-feet [tall] jumped up on the black guy’s feet. And then they began to place us in cells.
I was placed in a cell with Miss Euvester Simpson and they left other people out in the booking room. And I began to hear some of the saddest and some of the loudest screams and sounds I’d ever heard in my life. And finally they passed my cell, with the girl, was June Johnson, fifteen years old. Her clothes was torn off of her waist, and the blood was running from her head down in her bosom, and they put her in a cell. And then I began to hear somebody else when they would scream and I would hear a voice say, “Can’t you say yes sir, nigger?”
And I understood Miss Ponder’s voice, and she said, “Yes I can say, ‘Yes Sir.’”
“So why don’t you say it?”
And she said, “I don’t know you well enough.”
And I don’t know how long they beat Miss Ponder, but I would hear her body when it would hit the floor, and I would just hear the screams, and I will never forget something that Miss Ponder said during the time that they was beating her. She asked God to have mercy on those people because they didn’t know what they was doing. And finally, they passed my cell, and they had Miss Ponder, her clothes were ripped from the shoulder down, one of her eyes looked like blood and her mouth was swollen almost like my hand. And they carried her to a cell where I couldn’t see her, and the only way she was holding up, was by propping herself against the brick walls. She wasn’t even aware that she had passed my cell.
Then three white men came to my cell and they asked me where I was from. One of these was a state highway patrolman, and he had an insignia across his pocket that said “John L. Basinger” and on his pocket, on his arm was a brown signal that said “State Highway Patrol.” And he asked me where I was from and I told him I was from Ruleville. And he said, “We are going to check that.” They left out of the room and when they came back he said, “You are from Ruleville alright,” and he called me a name that I wouldn’t mention in this room, but he said,
“We are going to make you wish you was dead.”
I was led out of that cell into another cell, where they had two black prisoners. The state highway patrolman ordered me to lay down on the bunk bed on my face, and he ordered the first prisoner to beat me. The black prisoner said, “Do you want me to beat this woman with this?” It was a long leather blackjack that was loaded with some kind of metal, and he used a curse word and he said, “If you don’t beat her,” said, “you don’t know what we will do to you.”
The first prisoner began to beat me, and he beat me until he was exhausted. I was steady trying to hold my hands behind my back to try to protect myself from some of the terrible blows that I was getting in my back. And after the first prisoner was exhausted, I thought that was all. The state highway patrolman ordered the second prisoner to take the blackjack. And the second prisoner began to beat, I began to work my feet and I couldn’t control the sobs then because I was screaming and couldn’t stop. The state highway patrolman ordered the first prisoner to sit on my feet—that had beat me. And during the time the second one was beating, he would hit so hard with this leather blackjack that my dress worked up real high behind my body. And I had taken my hands and smoothed my clothes down because I had never been exposed to five mens in one room in my life, because one thing my parents taught me when I was a child was dignity and respect. And during the time my dress worked up and I smoothed my dress down, one of the white men walked over and pulled my dress up, and in the process from the prisoner beating me, one of the white men was trying to feel under my clothes.
They beat me, they beat me, and I couldn’t hush. And then one of the men, the plain- clothes white man, walked over and began to beat me in the head. I remember wrapping my face down in a pillow, just burying it down in the pillow, where I could muffle out the sounds. I don’t know how long this lasted, but I remember raising my head up and the same cop was standing there cussing, telling me to get up.
At first it didn’t seem like I could get up because at this point my hands was navy blue, and I couldn’t even bend my fingers. And he kept telling me to, “Get up, bitch. You can walk, get up fatso!” And he kept saying, “Get up,” and I finally got up, by straining every muscle in my body. They carried me back to my cell where they had brought me from, and just to bend my knees forward, you could hear me screaming I don’t know how far.
They got us up at night with their guns to try to make us sign a statement they hadn’t hurt us. I wasn’t able to walk to my trial, they had to carry me. When I got to my trial, I was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. I really thought that somewhere there, that some of those people might tell the truth. And I looked over at the man that had arrested me, and carried me to jail, and I said, “Would you tell them the truth? Would you tell them that I hadn’t done anything to resist? And what have I done, if so?”
Said, “Oh, you did, you just ran, and you cut up sideways.”
And I said, “Well you might kill me today, but I’m innocent, I’m not guilty, and I will never say I’m guilty.” That was on Sunday, the ninth of June 1963.
I was in jail without any kind of—the rest of us, all of us had been beaten, was in jail without any kind of medication. And I was in almost a stone wall, buried with bricks, you could just see the windows, one window and it was down.
Lawrence Guyot heard about us being in jail and he came to see what had happened. They almost beat him to death. They carried him to another jail in Carrollton, Mississippi. They had taken paper to burn off his private. They opened the jail cells to give him a chance to escape. He refused to leave jail because he knew that was giving them just excuse to kill him. So we was in jail from Sunday until Wednesday without any medication.
When we got out of jail that Wednesday, after I had walked about six or eight feet, James Bevel was the one that come to bond us out of jail, and Reverend Andy Young from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dorothy Cotton. And when we was about six to eight feet from the jail, after we’d been bonded out, they told us about Medgar Evers, had been shot in the back.
I didn’t go home because I didn’t want my family to see the condition that I was in because at that point, my body was hard as wood, it was hard as metal. And I’m just one of the few that have suffered this kind of harassment in the State of Mississippi because I know some of the people here know, about a black man with nine children, Herbert Lee, that was doing voter registration work and was shot down in Amite County, a place called Liberty, Mississippi. He was shot down by a state representative, in Mississippi. Reverend Lee of Belzoni, doing voter registration work, supposed to have a crash. And when the doctor, Dr. Battle, that they framed not too long ago, and put him in the mental hospital because he had dared to tell the truth, when he came back to Mississippi to do practice, he was sent to Whitfield and that hadn’t been three months ago. But he told them said, “This man didn’t have a wreck, this man was shot with buck shots.” He had to leave Mississippi, and he worked for a long time at Meharry Medical Center with Dr.Walker, Matthew Walker.
But this was just the beginning because after then, a person to come to my house, I remember one evening that Larry Steel from Jet Magazine came to my house, and he got a ticket after he left there for drunken driving because they said he was driving too careful. People that would visit my house, they got a ticket. But not only am I concerned about getting the black people registered in the State of Mississippi, but it’s poor white people that’s been taught that they are better than I am because of the color, the pigment of their skin. But when I see the suffering in the State of Mississippi, I know that I can’t just pin the fight down just for black people, because due to all of the suffering that I have gone through in the State of Mississippi, I refuse to bring myself down to the depths of hell to hate a man because he hated me.
I’ve seen what hate, and we all see what hate, is doing to this whole sick country at this moment. America is a sick place, and man is on the critical list. But we are determined to bring a change not only for ourselves, but I believe that we are some of God’s chosen people, you know a lot of folks say, “Well, I don’t believe in God.” and a lot of young people said that, “I don’t believe in God,” but the reason they said, they see so much hypocrisy in the churches [inaudible]. But I believe in God and I believe in the beautiful passage of the fortieth chapter of Isaiah and the fourth verse that say, “The valleys will be exalted”—and that’s people. “The mountains and the hills would be made level, and the crooked roads be made straight.” We tried to go from the level of voter registration and getting people registered—and I want to tell you something about this county I’m from. It’s what you call the ruralest of the ruralest, poorest of the poorest, U.S.A. This is the home of Senator James O. Eastland that in 1967, received $255,000 to let his land waste, while people on the plantation suffered from malnutrition. So this is a sickness that’s not only occurring in Mississippi, because you have a hell of a lot of problems in Chicago.
We tried to go into the regular Democratic Party, in the State of Mississippi. I remember it was eight of us went up to the first precinct meeting there. And when they had the doors locked in our face, we held our own precinct meeting. We elected our own secretary, our delegates, and our alternates, and we passed a law of resolution, and we went from there to the precinct level to the county, and from the county, district, from the district, county, county to the state, and on up. And on the twenty-sixth of April 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was organized in the State of Mississippi.
And you remember what happened to us in Atlantic City, New Jersey? When we went to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City when they offered us two votes at large, we refused to accept the compromise, and they had never dealt with the new breed we got, they having to deal with now. So I was saying in 1964, that something supposed to been mine a hundred years ago, don’t offer me a piece of it now, give me all of it or nothing!
We refused to accept the compromise. We went back home, without any power. We went back home and we tried to get on the ballot again, to run for Congress. They refused to put my name on the ballot to run for Congress, and we conceived of our own Freedom Ballot, to prove what it would mean if we had the power of the ballot. And I ran on the Freedom Democratic Party ticket and I received 33,009 votes against my opponent’s, forty-nine votes. I’m not talking about 49,000—forty-nine votes. This is what made us go to Washington in 1965, to go before the door of Congress and challenge the five representatives’ seats from Mississippi, and this is the reason I know people listen, this is not Mississippi’s problem alone, this is America’s problem.
We was told in Washington, D.C. that we couldn’t go into the House of Representatives unless we was a congressman or congresswoman. So we told him to give us a chance to prove that we had been right. We asked lawyers from all over the country to come to Mississippi, and to help us prove that we had been right with our challenge. We had lawyers to come from all over the United States, including Chicago, and we were able to gather 15,000 pages of evidence that the five congressmens shouldn’t be in Congress. They still there though.
The thirteenth of September, 1965, we had a hearing before the Subcommittee on Elections. They called me in Mississippi, and asked us to be in Washington. This hearing was closed to the press, but they told us in Washington at that time said, “We won’t say that you niggras are not right”—well, that’s the way they say it when they don’t want to say “nigger,” but its still nigger folks. That’s the reason I’d rather for them to call me black, and they don’t have any trouble saying that—“We won’t say you niggers are not right, but if you get away with this kind of challenge, they will be doing it all over the South.” So we said that, if we throwing out all over the South, then we will throw them out all over the South.
On the seventeenth of September 1965, we watched this challenge being dismissed. During the time we was doing research for this challenge, we found that another man, a black man from Mississippi almost a hundred years ago, had placed this same type of challenge before Congress and succeeded. Almost a hundred years later, we failed. See this brings me up to the progress in America, because then in 1966, Adam Clayton Powell was unseated. Now Adam Clayton Powell, what he had done wasn’t no more than none of them other folks there. The only thing that was different, he was black. And they wasn’t unseating Powell, they was unseating us. But we still, regardless of all that pressure, we have elected ninety-one black people to office in Mississippi, and we are going to turn the tide in Mississippi.
We know it’s rough as hell now, but we are going to come out in the lead in Chicago because, I was here in ’68 at that convention, and I wondered: was I in Mississippi? That’s the first time in my life that I enjoyed on the radio, “I Wish I Was in Dixie.” Because you know people, there is something very wrong, when a convention is held with fixed bayonets. You see what the fixed bayonets was there for, they was there to kill a lot of black folks, but we had done our homework. I said, “Don’t you cats go out in the streets.” I come up here, you know, we got quite a little while before the convention and I talked to them cats and I said, “Don’t you’ll go out there in the streets because they’re after us.” So after they didn’t have none of us to beat, they beat their own kids.
See you know, there is something wrong in a country that they tell us we have a right to speak out, the freedom of speech, and shoot you if you speak. Do you know there’s something wrong, people? There’s something very wrong in a country that people can go in because I was so upset and some of you going to be upset when I say it tonight, but I was so upset, when they killed the Panther brothers in the bed because when I watched that on TV there ain’t never been a black man shooting at no white man laying down! See, and all I want you to know is to know that we know, now I know there’s FBIs in this building, Central Intelligence Agents, stool pigeons.
I was in New Haven, Connecticut a few weeks ago just before a demonstration for the Panther brother, Bobby Seale, and somebody, the press every time they would walk up to me they would want to know one thing: “What do you think of the Black Panther Party?”
I said, “Hold it, just a minute.” I said, “What do you think of the White Citizen’s Council? What do you think of the Ku Klux Klan? What do you think of the Mafia? What do you think of the Minutemen? What do you think of all of these things that not only killing people in this modern time?” I said, “We talked about what happened under Hitler’s administration that killed six million Jews, but have you thought about how they wiped out forty million black folks?” And people will say that they can’t understand a hippie, a yippie, a Black Panther, a nationalist. All I’m saying to you tonight, whatever you have, you help to make them that.
But what I’m trying to say to you tonight, we are faced with some difficult days ahead. And I hope white America learns to love, before they teach every one of us to hate. This is what is happening in this country. And you see I couldn’t tell anybody in my right mind that I am fighting for equal rights because I don’t want any. I’m fighting for human rights, because I don’t want to be equal to the people that rape my ancestors, dead, kill out the Indians, dead, destroyed my dignity, and taken my name.
I remember when I was walking the streets of Africa, in 1964. I went to a palace—and as we know most of our people came from the West Coast of Africa—and walking the streets of Africa I saw a lot of people that looked a whole lot like my grandmother. And I wept like a baby because I said, “Now, right here—just like I’m living in America. And the black people over here is my own people. I can’t even speak the language because you’ve taken it from me.” They didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them.
White America, we know that the problem today is grave. But I want you to know something. What’s happening in this country at this point, is not bravery. People in this country today is scared as hell that they is going to reap what they’ve sown. And we are not even, we are not even wrestling with men today because I believe in God, but the sixth chapter of Ephesians and the eleventh and twelfth verse said put on, the eleventh and twelfth verse said, “Put on the whole armor of God, that he may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” The twelfth verse said, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, spiritual wickedness in high places”—that means no-good-chicken-eating ministers will go up to the man and make a deal about you know who.
But the reason we are going to survive, if I told you tonight that I hate you I would be lying to you, because I see what hate had done to you. And I am going to do good, where you have done evil about me. I’m going to do good. And I know it worked because in Ruleville, Mississippi, it was a time that people couldn’t drive up to my house and they couldn’t stop. If they stopped for any length of time, they was arrested. But I remember a man, the mayor told me one time, said, “Fannie Lou, if you’re really tired of what’s going on in Mississippi,” said, “You ought to leave.”
I said, “Well I’ll tell you what, mayor, if you sick of looking at me in Ruleville, then you pack your ass up!”
So the fifth Sunday in March, it was Easter Sunday, was called “Fannie Lou Hamer Day,” and I received a letter from this same mayor—because I don’t care how high you go, you got to come down to the ground if you’re going to eat—And this man wrote a letter, and said, “You know it’s been people decorated for bravery, and battles won where they didn’t really face danger.” He said, “This is not true in your case. You faced ever-present danger but you taken your troop and you walked them to the Captain enemy.” He said, “And your name is going to be in history.” He said, “Now, I know you’re concerned about the tangible things”—And I am concerned about the tangible things, because I’m concerned is when I went to this White House conference on nutrition, the president said they didn’t have enough money to feed us. But a couple of weeks later, saying, they put twenty-five million dollars into Vi-Afra and what I been saying, “Vi-Afra brothers don’t take it because they’re trying to get their hands on something over there.” See what I’m saying?
Now there is something wrong when they can spend billions of dollars to put a man on the air—because I don’t know whether he went to the moon or not—but we can send a man up, and can’t feed people on earth. Then there’s something wrong that in 1967, when I couldn’t get a doctor for my daughter, Dorothy Jean, and I watched my child hemorrhage. And by the time we drove 119 miles to Gadsden Hospital, it was too late. My twenty-two-year-old daughter died and left two little girls and a husband. And the part that’s so wrong about that, today that man is in Vietnam fighting for what we don’t have.
You see I know, it’s you know, when I first in 1965 stood in front of Lafayette Park, and said President Johnson bring the folks out of the Dominican Republic and put them in home, because I know then people attacked me in a Newsweek magazine, they called me “demagogue,” which a lot of people say is wrong now. But you know I know if Stennis and Eastland had something to do with it, then it damn sure had to be wrong.
But we are going to make this place a better place for all of us. I think about in Mississippi, I’ll be going into court—if somebody don’t shoot me while I’m up here, because I feel safer in Mississippi—but on the eleventh of June, we going into court. We going into court because they are talking about desegregating the schools. And as I told the superintendent of education in Sunflower County, I said, “The most beautiful thing about this county, we have more black children in Ruleville than you have in the county, white children, that’s pretty, ain’t it?” Just little black children, when I look at that county map it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
So we got all kinds of children, and I’ll tell you the next thing that I don’t buy, I don’t buy distributing birth control pill and legalizing abortion, because they’re talking about us! If you want to abortionize somebody, do it to yourself because [I’m] going to try to keep the children. Because you see my whole hang up with that, if you can bring folks over here from everywhere else, and then two years they have a better position than we have, then you got room for these folks here. Because I know that’s the reason I can stand up, and look at that flag with pride, because every red stripe in that flag represents the black man’s blood that has been shed.
And what kids are saying to you throughout the country is why didn’t you tell us that we have the longest history of civilization of mankind? And why didn’t you tell us it was a black man that made the alphabet? And why didn’t you tell us it was also a black man that discovered science? And why didn’t you tell us something about Dr. Drew, the man that learned to save blood plasma that died out in a hall because he couldn’t get a blood transfusion? And all we want to know now is all that stuff that you’ve had hid from us, bring it out, because you see, this is where your children is rebelling, because you told your children that we were dumb, we were ignorant and we couldn’t think. And you see honey, we would be in your house thinking. And as Jerry Butler said, “Only the Strong Survive.”
You know of all of the things that have happened to us in this country—rape, lynching, murder, hanging, shooting, and killing, we still got it black doctors, black professors, black scientists. So you can’t take it from us. So what you’re going to have to do is remember these words: A house divided against itself cannot stand. A nation that’s divided against itself cannot stand. And I want to say to you today, whether you’re white and black, or white or black, we are divided, but if we were to come out of this situation and out of this situation where we can go to college campus—and that’s the next thing that make me so mad, is seeing the National Guard go to the college campus and shoot down innocent kids, and they’re the draft dodgers that’s dodging the Army, then go to the camp where folks hang out on the street there. And I think about those kids that was killed in Jackson, Mississippi. You see, we know there are problems, and we know without you saying that somebody going to snipe you, nobody has ever caught the sniper, because that’s something that didn’t really exist. Six months after the thing in Newark, New Jersey, they found that it wasn’t any sniper.
Folks you better straighten up and fly right because at this point on out people all over the world hates us. They hate us and don’t you, you might feel like that you got it made, but as you carry me down, I’m going to bring you down with me. And if you stand up, you can’t stand up to save your life, without letting me stand up too. As I told them in Mississippi, you know, when I was talking about school situations, the mayor asked me said, “Now look Fannie Lou, do you really want your kids to go to school with mine?”
I said, “Look fellow, you’re not afraid of your kids going to school with mine. You’re afraid of your wife’s kids going to school with mine, because you got them in every damn school in the state.”
We are going to make things better, and we are going to straighten out the crooked roadways, not only in Mississippi, but throughout this country. As I close I always like to think about a song my mother used to sing, a lot of people is ashamed of this old Baptist teachings, but my mother used to sing a song, it was a hymn that said, “Should earth against my soul engage, And fiery darts be hurled, When I can smile at Satan's rage, And face this frowning world.” Thank you.
“Until I Am Free, You are Not Free Either”
Speech delivered at the University of Wisconsin. Madison, Wisconsin: January, 1971
Thank you very much, Martha Smith. I don’t know whether I’ll have to holler or not because I am just used to talking loud. So, I don’t have too much trouble having to carry my voice. But with this kind of introduction—Martha Smith is a very good friend of mine. I remember going on educational television with Martha here about two years ago here at the University in Wisconsin and honest to God this woman tickled me to death. You know, I had all kinds of trouble, but she just brought all of that out and for a while I could relax, just doing this show with Martha Smith. I would like to say this a beautiful audience out here to me this afternoon because I always like people. A couple of weeks ago I was doing a show in New York City for NBC on the role of a black woman and somebody asked a question during the time we was on this panel: “how did I feel talking to a lot of people?”
I said “I feel like I always feel because I know out there in front of me is just some more folk,” you know. So, you don’t have to worry about other people—no, you get up and tell them the truth.
Now, you might be expecting me to have a long essay written down and I would have to use my glasses every time—[indicating] this and this way. But I don’t carry around a manuscript because it’s too much trouble. I’m just up here to rap and tell you what it is and to tell it like it is.
As Martha said, I was born fifty-three years ago in Montgomery County. Now Mississippi, you heard about this twister the other week, but it was already a disaster area before the twister. And it’s been a disaster area fifty-three years and I know people is older than me said it’s been a disaster area before then. Now I was born fifty-three years ago to Mr. and Mrs. Jim Townsend. And I am the twentieth child. And so help me God, I respect my mother so much that they didn’t have them birth control pills because if they had them I probably wouldn’t be standing here today. So as I made that narrow escape to be here, I fight for the other kids too to give them a chance. Because if you give them a chance they might come up being Fannie Lou Hamers and something else.
But, during the time I was a child my education was very limited because I had to start work when I was six years old. I remember one day I was playing beside a gravel road and the landowner asked me could I pick cotton and I told him I didn’t know and he told me he wanted me to go to the field that week and pick thirty pounds of cotton. I went to the field and I did pick thirty pounds of cotton, but the next week I was tasked sixty pounds of cotton and by the time I was thirteen years old I was picking two- and three- hundred pounds of cotton.
My family was some of the poorest people that was in the State of Mississippi, and we were sharecroppers. Now sharecroppers is really something; it’s out of sight. Number one, what I found since I been old enough, it always had too many “its” in it. Number one, you had to plow it. Number two, you had to break it up. Number three, you had to chop it. Number four, you had to pick it. And the last, number five, the landowner took it. So, this left us with nowhere to go; it left us hungry. Because my family would make sixty and seventy bales of cotton and we would pick all of the cotton and then, after we was finished picking the cotton, we would sometimes come out in debt. We never had so many days in my life that we had cornbread and we had milk and sometimes bread and onions. So, I know what the pain of hunger is about.
My father and mother finally got enough money out of one crop to buy some livestock when I was about thirteen years old. And a man went to our lot one night—and he wasn’t black—and he take about a gallon of Paris Green and stirred it up in our livestock’s food and killed everything we had. At that point my parents had bought three mules and two cows. Ella, Bird, and Henry was the mules and Maude and Della was the two cows. And they killed everything that we had.
I used to watch my mother when she would come out of the fields and she would have a big bundle of things by her side and she would mend our clothes over and over. And I watched her when she would wear things that was so heavy after she had mended them time after time looked like she would have trouble carrying them. At first I couldn’t understand why this just always happened to black people so I asked my mother one day “how come we wasn’t white?” The reason I asked her that was because we worked all the time the white folks never worked and they had everything. Now, this was really curious to me, as it still is. So my mother told me: number one, she wanted me to remember to respect myself as a black child and as I got older she told me to respect myself as a black woman. And she said: “maybe you don’t understand what I am talking about now, but one day if you respect yourself other people will have to respect you.”
My grandmother was a slave—Liza Bramlett—Liza Gober Bramlett. She had twenty boys and three girls. And I know what has happened to us in the past, but after I become about thirteen years old and find out how mean that people could be to people, I said that I was going to do something about what was happening in Mississippi. So that’s the reason I become involved in politics in 1964.
But it had been other things in my life that I had done that some of the white people don’t know that I’d done yet. Because number one: I always had to work at their house. So they would tell me that I couldn’t eat with them or I couldn’t bathe in their tub so what I would do was eat before they would eat and bathe when they was gone. I used to have a real ball knowing they didn’t want me in their tub and just relaxing in that bubble bath. Then I would fill up with everything they put on them and walk out and they couldn’t smell mine because they had the same thing on them. So when they was saying that I couldn’t eat with them, it would tickle me because I would say to myself, “Baby, I eat first!” And one of the other things I’d done when I was a kid and after I had grown to be a woman—you know we had to wash Martha, you know how people had to carry clothes home to wash for the white people—and if they had a dance in fifty miles, I wore the best dress because I wore their clothes. You know—we had—I was rebelling in the only way that I could rebel.
So, what I am saying to you white America, please don’t say what black people can’t do because some of the things we’ve been already doing. The sad thing that has been in the whole country, is what white America done to us and how we can forgive. When I think about the question that comes up so often about how six million Jews was destroyed under Hitler’s administration, I felt a kinship because it wasn’t six million of my people destroyed; it was forty million of my people destroyed as they was bringing my ancestors here on the slave ships of Africa.
When I think about the crime that’s been committed against us, as human beings and as people, I can forgive easy for a lot of things, but when white America taken my name, that was a crime. I went sometime ago to Charleston, South Carolina and I looked at the documents there and some of the documents there would say—would call the name of the person and said, “she doesn’t have any education, but she’s a good breeder: twenty-five dollars.” I saw where my people had been sold as things and not human beings.
And I think about some of our past history when you never taught us, white America, that it was a black doctor that learned to save blood plasma to give a blood transfusion—you never taught that in the institution. And you never taught us that the first man to die in the Revolution was Crispus Attucks, another black man. And so many other things that I found out.
And so many things that I found out about the church—if you really want to see some hypocrites—if you really want to see some hypocrites, go at eleven o’clock church service throughout the country. Not only in the black churches, but in the white churches. While they would tell us, and tell you as kids, “Well, those people are alright, but just don’t bring them home with you.” But the contribution that we have made in the past—and we know as well as you know—that this country was built on the blood and the sweat of black people. And all we are saying to you today—now, what you have done in the past, you’ve done that—but we can’t let you get away with just trying to wipe us out as human beings.
And some of the black folks have got so confused they talking about setting up seven states with us, which I refuse to let them do. Setting up seven states with us and one night the White Citizen’s Council, and the Klu Klux Klan, and the Birchers, which you have here, could wipe us out. And I am not going in seven states by ourselves, we plan to be in this country with you whether you want us here or not. And we plan to make this a better place for all the citizens both black, red, whites and browns and we want you to understand this.
I never been hung up in all of my work in just fighting for the black. I’ve never been hung up in that because I know that a lot of black people have given their lives. But I also know it was people like Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney that gave their lives in the State of Mississippi so that all of us would have a better chance. And when they died there they didn’t just die for me, but they died for you because your freedom is shackled in chains to mine. And until I am free, you are not free either. And if you think you are free, you drive down to Mississippi with your Wisconsin license plate and you will see what I am talking about.
These are the kind of changes that we have to have and these are the kind of changes we are going about. In 1964, when we went to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, and challenged the seating of the representatives of the delegation from Mississippi, when they turned us down and told us to accept two votes at large, I told them at that time, sixty-eight people was there in that delegation and all of us are tired. In 1968, we came back to Chicago and we won our seats. ‘64 I was in the convention—out of the convention—wishing I could go in. In 1968, I was in there wishing I could get out. I composed a song when I was there: “Jingle Bells, Machine Gun Shells, Convention all the way!” Because I had never in my life seen in the land of the free and the home of brave—which we have translated in Mississippi to the “land of the tree and the home of the grave”—I had never seen a convention that had to be held with fixed bayonets [inaudible]. That mean, they would stick you if you stand there and shoot you if you run.
I was in that convention and I made, I made some of them guys they had trailing me, I made their lives miserable. I don’t know what he was an FBI, a Central Intelligence Agent, or what in the hell he was, but he was there. See what happened all my life, I’ve been behind white people and I watched them. See, that’s where you made your mistake white America. You put us behind you and we watched you and now we know you and you don’t know us. So, I watched this guy while he be watching me and whenever I got ready to dodge him, I’d put this dodge to him. And they must have told him, “You better not let her get out of your sight,” because this little man had some of the saddest little blue eyes, and he’d be jumping through that convention and I’d be standing there laughing. And after I would let him go through total hell, I would step out where I could see him and you could see him just relieve all over.
You would have to be in that convention to know what we are faced with today when we say “with the people, for the people, and by the people.” That’s a lie. It’s “with a handful, for a handful, by a handful.” Because I know sometime when some of the votes would come up and they said all in favor of so and so happening say “aye.” Ten people would say “aye,” there were a few say “nay,” half a million said “no,” and they say “ha, ayes have it” and so it’s carried. Some convention. But we had to give up because with the young people of today, we are going to make democracy a reality for all of the people.
And I don’t want you telling me to go back to Africa, unless you going back where you come from. I got a note one day telling me to go back to Africa and ever since that time—it’s been three times a week, I say it, when I am in a white audience—I say we’ll make a deal: after you send all the Koreans back to Korea, the Chinese back to China, the Jewish people back to Jerusalem, the Koreans back to Korea, and you give the Indians their land back and you get on the Mayflower from which you come, [inaudible] right? You don’t agree, but as we all here on borrowed land, then we have to figure out how we’re going to make things right for all the people of this country.
And we know what has happened in the past with food stamps, welfare, and all of this kind of stuff. And it is not only in the South—it’s up South and down South—where our people have suffered from malnutrition. One of my daughters stayed in the hospital six weeks, suffering from malnutrition. And I remember other things with other people where kids literally starved almost to death. And then I start traveling throughout this country to try to do something about the problem. So, I would come to Madison, Wisconsin, New York City, California and all over the country trying to raise funds to purchase food stamps. But the real crime, I think it’s a crime, that if a man and woman is hungry, that they have to pay for the food stamps when thousands of people in the State of Mississippi have made less than $500 in 1970.
So one day, a man called and said he had some land. He had forty acres of land and he wanted to sell the forty acres. So I called a very small organization here in Madison, Wisconsin called Measure for Measure. Martha Smith is a part of that organization. Jeff Goldstein, Sarah, “Broccoli.” And it’s a small organization, but I called them and told them about the forty acres of land. And if we could get the forty acres of land to grow our own vegetables, and to grow our cabbage, and to grow our pork, we could wipe out hunger in Sunflower County. I called another friend of mine was at Harvard University—in charge of the political science there—and he also started raising money too. We finally succeeded in getting forty acres of land. And this land is organized and founded in ’69 is called Freedom Farms Cooperative. Last summer we fed a lot of people there, but then we needed more land. So it was a man told me one day that he would sell 640 acres of land.
[break in tape]
And you know it was just like I’d been hearing in the past that, “ah, there ain’t nothing to that, we might get two or three dollars, but we’ll have to try.” Last April, we were able to put $20,000 up for the auction on the 640 acres of land. Then on the fourteenth of January 1971, we finished the down payment of $65,500 on 640 acres of land and we had enough from that same march out of Madison, Buffalo, and Milwaukee to do that. And we also have about sixty-eight people that’s living in decent homes. We put the down payment on that land. So now what we plan to do is to grow our own vegetables, is to grow our own cattle, and to grow our own pork and have a hundred houses in that area. Now it’s no way on earth that we can gain any kind of political power unless we have some kind of economic power.
And all of the qualifications that you have to have to become a part of the co-op is you have to be poor. This is the first kind of program that has ever been sponsored in this country in letting local people do their thing theirselves. Because I’ve seen government-funded programs with cooperatives and after you get through making the proposal with a stack of paper this high and after you finish paying all the administration from $25,000 to $12,000 it would be exactly two dollars to go to the program. The only person that’s paid at this point is the secretary.
And you can’t—you don’t—tell me that you can’t change a man’s mind by not hating. We have gone through all kinds of pressure, but I refuse to hate a man because he hate me. Because if I hate you because you hate me, it’s no different: both of us are miserable. And we going to finally have something: hating. But as a result of what I can give of myself that I can love you if you hate me, we have poor whites that’s coming into this organization and we’re going to feed not only the black people of Sunflower County, but all of the people that’s hungry regardless of color.
And the young people are the people that’s made this possible for us. You know, I just about fell out with all of the people my age—I am fifty-three—and most of them my age are hopeless cases. But I am fifty-three, but I think nineteen. I catch myself sometimes when I am talking to the young people and their talking about how old people can’t relate to them I said, “you’re not kidding. I don’t understand what’s wrong with those people!” Because I am not going back with every step, I am going forward.
And it’s been a sad thing that happened in Mississippi recently. We had a twister that hit several counties in the State of Mississippi. The Red Cross came and after they was there two days I told them, “if I go to Heaven and see the Red Cross sign, I will tell the administration to let me go back home.” Because they were a hopeless case. People are suffering because it didn’t just only kill people, but it’s people now that want to put the trailer houses where they don’t have any kind of sewage.
But you got to care enough to do something because what you do here in Madison, Wisconsin at this University—you are not only doing this for us in the South, but you’re doing it for yourself. I noticed what was happening with the Young World Development with the walk, the walk that would be held on the eighth and ninth of May. I see this as a opportunity of bridging the gap between young people. Bridging the gap because not only do I think that white children and young white men and young white women should walk, but I think it’s the responsibility of the black people to walk here, too. And if they walk throughout this country with 350 walks in this country and forty other countries funding it—sponsoring the walk it would be millions of people walking throughout the country—out the world. Because one thing I found out: that it’s not only hungry in the State of Mississippi, but two-thirds of the people in the world are hungry. And we have to be concerned. And you have to be concerned here. Because we know with the administration that we have today it’s not too many people going to eat.
But I want you to know one thing—that President Nixon wasn’t no fool when he got Agnew because that’s his safety. Nobody is going to hurt President Nixon and leave us stranded with Spiro Agnew. But all of you here have to be concerned. Not only do we have to be concerned about hunger, but we also have to be concerned about peace in this country. You know it’s something strange to me when they tell me that we are over there in Vietnam fighting for the rights of people to elect their government and all of this kind of crap with Eastland in the Senate helping to make policies when we can’t do it in Mississippi. And you young people are going to have to help make this change. Because we can’t continue in the same way—expanding the war in Vietnam, killing the people over there. And people being shot down in the streets throughout this country, sometime in the name of law and order.
I’ve been to jail. And I’ve been beaten in jail till my body was hard as metal. And I’ve been charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and there’s a lot of other young people throughout this country that has been beaten down, but I want you to know something in this audience today—a house divided against itself cannot stand. A nation divided against itself is on its way out. We are going to have to stand up and make demands that will make this country worthwhile. Because I have trouble today and I’ve had trouble in the past few years. When I got out of jail and couldn’t hardly sit down and a man carried me to see the Statue of Liberty and a woman standing with a torch and facing another problem. I told the man that I was riding with that day, I said: “I would like to see this statue turned around to face her own problems. And the torch out of her hand with her head bowed because we have as many problems in this country as they trying to point to in other countries.”
I can’t stand today, not with dignity, and sing the national anthem. “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed…” Poor oppressed people throughout this country don’t have anything to hail. And I just think that in my own way when I have to stand and sing that song, because you know as well as I know that America is sick and man is on the critical list and when people can be shot down at a college like Kent and at a college like Jackson State College by people by that’s dodging the army. There’s something very wrong. I call the National Guard draft dodgers. Not only have they dodged being drafted, but they was caught looting in southern Mississippi after the storm.
We have to work to make this a better place and we have to deal with politics and the history of this country that’s not in the books. You know we’ve been reading about what was in the book, you know about “Columbus discovered America.” And when he got here there was a black brother walked up there and said, “Let me help you man.” And there was some Indians here too. So how could he discover what was already discovered? The education has got to be changed in these institutions. Because it wasn’t many people realize with our challenge in 1965—the congressmen from Mississippi—that we were able to gather 15,000 pages of evidence and they still there and the same kind of challenge had been done almost a hundred years ago and they succeeded. But in 1966, Adam Clayton Powell was unseated and he hadn’t done any more than any congressman there, the only difference: he was a black man. We got to tell the truth even in these institutions because there’s one thing about it folks—you elderly folks my age is almost hopeless—you got to know now that the children know what’s going on and you not going to be able to fool them any longer.
Before I close, I would just like to say that I believe in God and He said He would raise up a nation that would obey Him. So the young people that’s out here today, that’s fighting for justice for all human beings, I believe are the chosen people that’s going to lead this country out if it’s not too late.
I have one announcement and then I’ll close, the community club of the Third World Development starts March the eighteenth at seven am, St. Frances House.
These are the young people that some of you sponsored, that made it possible for us to have today 680 acres of land. Are enabling us to determine some of our destiny. And is enabling us to stand up as human beings. Not to try to take the State of Mississippi, because tonight I figure if the State of Mississippi would become a hundred percent black, I would be on my way out. But to make it a state where all human beings will have a chance.
And as I close I would like for you to take a look in the mirror and ask yourself—as we have paid such a big price—ask yourself: “Must I be carried to the sky on flowery beds of ease while others fight to win the prize and sail through bloody seas?” Thank you.
“We Haven’t Arrived Yet”
Speech Delivered at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin: January 29, 1976
Thank you very much. I am glad to be here. As I look out into the audience and look at Sarah and Jeff and I saw Debra’s mother—Mrs. Sweet—a lot of people, yeah, I see you all now again. A lot of my friends here that’s done a tremendous job in helping us in the State of Mississippi.
I want you to become aware—even though we’ve received, you know, quite a bit of assistance from the organization Measure for Measure and this concerned people from Madison, Wisconsin—we haven’t arrived. You know, you here and we there haven’t arrived yet, because this morning before leaving Martha Smith’s house, you know . . . I thought that we, at one time we were really moving forward, but as I looked at George Wallace making his pitch in Boston, Massachusetts, you know, what is really a place they call “Freedom” and a place of Democracy—when I looked at him making his pitch this morning and how the people was standing up applauding . . . you know I’m still saying, Jeff, “this up South and down South because it ain’t no different.” And these white folks with this power. And I want you to understand that because 1976 we are really living in a crucial time. We were just at the peak of being in dictatorship under Nixon’s administration with his rogue-ish self.
See, some of you all ain’t going to like it because you know, and I am just telling the truth and so you can, you know, you can respect the truth because if changes is not made in this sick country, it’s not going to be me crumbling, we are going to crumble, because a house divided against itself cannot stand. A nation that’s divided against itself is on its way out and when you see a place that’s so prejudiced that anything is divided, you know anything is divided, not only for kids is for grown ups. To brainwash and to give you what America is really, what is all about, you know like everybody is running around talking about the “bicentennial year of the two hundred years of American progress.” Now I just want to ask one question: how do you think black people, Indian people, and any other oppressed folk feel celebrating something that, years ago, that destroyed over twenty-five million of my people that was being brought here on the slave ships of Africa? Wiped out our heritage; raised families by our grandmothers; and taking our name and today saying that it’s wrong to bus a child for equal education! See this kind of crap is nothing but an excuse. See this is an excuse when they talking about you know, “we don’t want the kids bused,” and folks is buying it! And we saying that we are for democracy and justice and placing mercenaries and Central Intelligence Agents to kill my people in Angola.
And it’s something wrong when any place . . . you know we have supposed to been an example for the rest of the world, but how you think it feel when a man as non-violent as Dr. Martin Luther King, that preached nothing but love and says it’s wrong to kill, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee? But it was people involved in that from the top to the bottom and they didn’t all live in the South.
You see, we are sick. America is sick and man is on the critical list. You know I have watched in the South, I have watched politics, and it got a beautiful name, because it’s becoming “politic” and, you know, saw what they are doing and you know I wonders, will there ever come a time that we will actually have free elections and freedom of speech? It’s people right in this room that’s been fired because of what they said and believed, so that’s not too much of freedom of speech. There were people in this room with twelve and thirteen kids that live on less than $100 per month and the excuses that they are giving in the institutions and throughout the country “of people on ADC are shiftless and lazy.” And if people had a chance, they would be glad to work. But it’s people, minority people in this country—not only Indians, Puerto Ricans, blacks, and poor whites—that can’t get jobs. And you see, I just can’t see how people can say that we will support people in other countries and give millions of dollars and not doing nothing for their own people. See, I can’t see that. And you can’t see it; you might not want to admit it.
You know, I used to just love to go North because I figured that people was, you know, kind of free, but you isn’t—but blacks in the North is in the worse condition, most of them, than we are in the South because we know where we stand! And a lot of you don’t. You know, some of you get a few degrees, a pretty good house, and a bill you can’t hardly pay—trying to live like somebody else and think you have arrived. But, honey, regardless of how you feel, we are in this bag together. And there’s nobody at the University of Wisconsin and no other place in this country is free until I am free in the South. And, to be perfectly honest, we got more contact with each other than is here in the cities throughout this country. We can talk and we got more communication than you have in most of the places in the North.
In 1964, I was one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that was organized to challenge the injustices and the different kind of inhumane things that was happening to us in the South. Today across the country other splinter groups have come up and made challenges—challenging not only Mississippi, but challenging America’s democracy because it’s pretty hard to stand up and pledge allegiance to something we’ve never had. You know the words really mean something if it was enforced. But the shame that we have before us today is whatever happened to us can have to be legislated. But you can’t legislate love. That’s one thing that you can’t do. And what America and the rest of the world need today—some kids put out a song some time ago is what the world need now is love—but today people is not seeking and trying to find love, one of the greatest things of survival on earth, but seeking for more power and power corrupt. And you know what, maybe some of you say, “Well I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in God.” But, he’s there.
And the sixth chapter of Ephesians and the eleventh and the twelfth verse said: “put on the whole armor of God that He may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” And the twelfth verse say: “for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against power. Against principalities. Against the rulers of darkness of this world. Against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
And people will go to any limit just for personal power. It doesn’t really matter how the masses suffer, but just the few people, you know, controlling. I was really sickened when I watched one day I turned on television and they was saying how much had been put in Angola to help a handful of white folk over there exploit millions of black people over there. So, what I’m saying, if there’s going to be any survival for this country, there must be, we have to make democracy a reality for all people and not just a few.
Because there’s no way in the world you can tell me how it feels to be hungry, if you’ve never been hungry yourself. And you cannot say that you represent me when you don’t know how I feel. People is going to have to have a chance to work and work together to bring about a change.
You know today I feel, I feel, very humbled and being in your midst going through some of the problems that we going through, I was almost ready to—I don’t know really how to put it in words—but when we had a woman mayor elected which is a doctor, and a mayor, and a judge, and a justice of the peace and a real goof-off that have goofed-up the town of Ruleville, the little town where I’m from. And then you know, I started reading and I read about Eve and about Adam and how when Eve and Adam was in this beautiful garden and all of this temptation was put out there. And finally they were told of the fruit not to eat—now, you know a lot of people say you know well that’s sex, but it was actually a tree—and it was called the tree of knowledge and out of all of those trees it was just that one tree, the tree of knowledge, were they forbidden not to eat that fruit. And that woman, Eve, was just exactly like the Mayor we’ve got. And you know she, she ate the fruit and then persuaded Adam to eat him a mess of it. Do you all get what I’m saying?
You know I want the women—you know I’m talking to everybody—but I really want the women to think. Because we are living in real perilous times; we are living in the time when people can legislate to you whether you should kill your baby or go on and have your children. And you know somebody put it, said well: “You know they might not be married and what about this kid that come out of wedlock?” I said, “Well, you know they wasn’t married before they conceived it, right?” They know they wasn’t married. So, you can’t legislate how you murder a person.
Take it from me, we are sick. And we’ve done so many things. A man was driving us, my cousin Sufronia Conway and me, a couple of weeks ago from the national airport to Bethesda, Maryland, and he was telling us that in the ‘40s when he was in the service, a black man, when he was in service, they had captured so many Germans, and he said, “you wouldn’t believe this Mrs. Hamer,” he said, “even though they was prisoners they were given more rights than we were.” Said, “they was allowed to go in places and theatres that we were barred out, but we had to stand on the outside to protect them.” This is ridiculous!
Where millions of my folks have been destroyed, stripped black men of their heritage—and Indians and any other minority group—but stripped us of our heritage, taken our names, integrated our families—from the beginnings . . .my grandmother was a slave and I just had plenty white blue-eyed uncles . . . and today telling me, George Wallace, in Boston, Massachusetts, that “let the states handle it, and don’t bus the kids.” Do you realize how sick we are? Because the political science that you are reading and that you are teaching here at the university is not the political situation that we are faced with out there day after day. But I want you to know something: we are not only fighting to free ourselves in the State of Mississippi, but we are fighting to save you here in Madison, Wisconsin and all over the country!
And our struggle has been very hard from the jailhouses to the graveyard, but we still have put 215 blacks in office in the State of Mississippi. We are going to fight for the kind of education that not only black folks should be aware of, but whites as well. Because you have been conditioned into the system too. I know you don’t agree, maybe, with what I’m saying, but there is one thing for sure: you got a feeling it’s the truth.
When I watch sometime, I don’t allow my kids to watch it, but when I sat down and look at television and this guy playing the role of Tarzan, and the Navy—the kind of things that you have distorted and said about my people in Africa and going to Africa, meeting people, and having a chance year after year to meet my people from Africa, it’s nothing for us to be ashamed of is being black. And I am not fighting to be equal with you, but I’m fighting for human dignity.
Because we are really sick when the kind of stuff that’s coming out now, they try to cover it up and they cover it from one side and it leak out over here and they wonder who done the leaking and who is telling on who? And then about all of them is confused as Richard Nixon. I will never forget the time that I went to a conference on nutrition and Nixon spoke to us that night and after that I told him, when the conference was over, I said: “Well, you don’t worry about me coming back to a conference on hunger to Washington because they don’t even know what they’re talking about.”
But we are sick, you know when we have a man like President Nixon that finally resigned for stealing, but was powerful enough to dictate who the next president would be, which is your president now, Gerald R. Ford. I was on television in Washington on the panorama and the man said, “Well, President Ford is a good man.” Well we was on television, I didn’t want to hit that black man, because that man is powerful. I didn’t want to hit him. Not going to see us on television. If he would’ve been around the corner, we would have been running till now!
But to do just some selected few, a few people out of millions with jobs and people throughout this country suffering from hunger, malnutrition and this kind of thing. We better straighten up America, because everybody is not going to be as nice as the Indians when they welcomed Columbus and his group here that he said he discovered and it was already fourteen. Just like you know we walked out there and get in a car and said we discovered it, how did we discover it if it was already made?
It’s later than you think and it’s time for us to work together to make this a better country because together we stand, but divided we all cave. Thank you.