Mississippi Movement

Black and white photo of people in office with papers and phones

courtesy SCLC

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 1, "Stayed on Freedom." Find more from that issue here.

The Mississippi Movement burst into the nation’s attention when three young civil-rights workers were murdered at the beginning of the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Summer. But organizing had been going on in the state for several years under the leadership of the NAACP, CORE and SNCC. 

Bob Moses, who directed SNCC’s Mississippi Project, had come to Mississippi in 1960 to recruit students for the second SNCC conference. There he met Amzie Moore, an activist who introduced him to other Mississippi freedom fighters. Moses returned to the South early in the summer of 1961 and began quietly working, laying the foundations for the many other activists who would eventually follow, working through SNCC and other organizations. Their style was to move into communities, to live among the people and become a part of community life. 

At the same time, the Kennedy administration, aware that the Freedom Rides had tarnished the nation’s image abroad, began to encourage young civil-rights workers, especially through the office of the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy urged the workers to concentrate on voter registration, which would both give Southern blacks power in elections and provide loyal Kennedy voters for future elections. Added reinforcement came from private foundations which, with Robert Kennedy’s help, offered large sums of money 40 for voter registration drives. 

But many students who had been involved in the Freedom Rides and other direct actions felt that voter registration was a tame operation that would siphon off their energy. Others felt that only through the vote would the real changes be made. Still others argued that voter registration and direct action would go hand in glove. The latter were proved right. 

Bob Moses was busy working in what many felt was the most repressive state - Mississippi. It was in Mississippi that Emmett Till and Charles Mack Parker had been brutally murdered by white terrorists and dumped into the Mississippi River. In Mississippi, the student sit-in demonstrators met perhaps the fiercest resistance of the white mobs. Here the Freedom Riders experienced Parchman State Prison’s medieval conditions at first hand. 

In 1964, prodded by Moses, several groups under the umbrella organization of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) decided to invite students - white and black - from all over the country to participate in a summer organizing project in Mississippi. Ella Jo Baker, “the godmother of SNCC, ’’reflects here on some of the steps leading up to that decision. Baker had served as the director of branches of the NAACP and as executive director of SCLC, and helped found both SCLC and SNCC.  


Ella Jo Baker

SNCC, in its early stages, began to face up to the need for political participation as well as voter registration. So in the first thrust it made into the hard-core Black Belt areas, there was a conviction to organize people for their own leadership rather than getting them mobilized to be dependent on some extraneous, or outside, or imported leadership. This became the basis of SNCC’s philosophy for really trying to organize people. 

Out of the experiences and resistance they had in Mississippi — for instance, just a simple effort to register and vote — they decided a much more massive effort was required, which led to the freedom vote in ’63 when the Reverend Ed King of Tougaloo and Dr. Aaron Henry were projected — Dr. Henry as governor and Ed King as lieutenant governor — with what was called a mock election. They tried to set up in barber shops and so forth a place where people could register. What was this doing? This was giving the lie to the old idea that a great deal of the reason why Negroes weren’t registering was because they weren’t interested in registering. But they came in thousands and they collected 85,000 (or whatever it was) registrations in this mock election. So this produced other confrontations. It just led them more and more into a realization of how limited the results were from the efforts. 

Also, those who were fearful of losing the nonviolent, direct-action technique were brought to realize that the moment you went in to organize people on the basis that they were talking about — politically — you produced a confrontation with the power structure and the next step was the use of mass demonstrations. 

You had it in Selma, Alabama. You had that in Albany, Georgia. Then in Mississippi the tremendous resistance that developed led us into a further evaluation of political action. A great part of why we were having difficulty in Mississippi and elsewhere was because the rest of the country had tacitly agreed to the patterns of racial repression that existed in the South. So how do you involve the rest of the country? 

There were two steps taken. The SNCC kids didn’t just arrive at this. Shel Hershorn/Black Star Fortunately, there were people who helped them arrive at it over time. First, they raised the question of the responsibility of the federal government, they began to address themselves to the federal government for remedial action. Then there was the other concept, that of involving the rest of the country. The Mississippi Summer of 1964 was a conscious political effort based on the rather simple premise that when Ted Jones, a black boy In Mississippi, got killed, he was just a black boy who got killed or beaten up. A lot of these black kids who had gone down to work had already gotten beat up. But if the son of the congressman from California was beaten up, it made a difference. 

See, by that time there was pressure on the part of the white students to be involved; they had come down. Some had given up schooling to come and join the SNCC group, on a small scale, a limited scale. But the conscious effort to create the Mississippi Summer with the involvement of hundreds of white students from the North was predicated upon the idea that the rest of the country had a responsibility for what was happening in Mississippi and the South. And the best way to confront the rest of the country was to involve the white students, the sons and daughters of the leadership and the power structure. 

Step by step SNCC made certain efforts. They tried to work within the system. They tried to go through the channel of voter registration, which ought to have been a very easy road, but they got all kinds of physical reprisals as a result of it. So they were driven more and more into a realization that something different had to take place.  


Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

One of the many leaders of the struggle in Mississippi was Fannie Lou Hamer. A black Mississippian, she resided in Ruleville, in Sunflower County, her entire life. She worked at a plantation for 18 years before being fired for her activities in the Freedom Movement. At that time, she became a SNCC field secretary. In 1964, she ran for Congress and was vice-chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. 

The regular Mississippi State Democratic Convention was held on July 28, and resolved: “We believe the Southern white man is the truest friend the Negro ever had; we believe in separation of the races in all phases of life.” 

A week later, 300 people from all over Mississippi attended the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s state convention in Jackson. Unlike the regular state party, the MFDP pledged their support to the national party, and because of their loyalty, they were convinced they would be allowed to represent Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention. They elected 68 delegates and alternates from their number to travel to Atlantic City, with Aaron Henry as chairperson of the delegation and Fannie Lou Hamer as vice-chairperson. 

The MFDP delegates arrived in Atlantic City on Friday, August 21. They immediately began the task of contacting members of the Credentials Committee, urging them to vote to unseat the regular delegation, but it became clear early in the Committee proceedings that this would be a difficult task. Many MFDP supporters felt that if the issue could get on the floor of the convention, where the national television audience could hear the debate and see how their delegations voted, there would be enough pressure to seat the MFDP. 

The turning point of the convention was the MFDP testimony before the Credentials Committee on Saturday afternoon. Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer gave the most moving testimony. She recounted her experiences in attempting to register and of being beaten in Winona, Mississippi, in 1963. 

The strength of the MFDP created conflicts for Lyndon Johnson, who virtually controlled the convention but feared a walkout by the entire South if the Freedom Delegation were seated. He assigned Hubert Humphrey, a leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, the job of defeating the Freedom Delegation. 

Besides putting intense pressure on members of the Credentials Committee to reject the MFDP cause, the president offered a compromise: the MFDP could have two at-large seats, with the delegates selected by the president, and a pledge from the National Democratic Party never to seat a lily-white delegation again, beginning in 1968. The regular Mississippi delegation would be seated after taking a loyalty oath. 

Tuesday was the crucial day. With the Credentials Committee scheduled to meet at two p.m., the MFDP caucused at 10 a.m. Bob Moses asked the delegation if they would accept the seating ofjust two delegates. Led by Fannie Lou Hamer, they voted almost unanimously to reject the compromise, although Aaron Henry, who would have been one of the delegates, supported it. 

Though the compromise was portrayed by much of the press as a symbolic victory for the MFDP, the Freedom delegation, representing thousands of disfranchised black Mississippians, felt the acceptance of two at-large seats, occupied by hand-picked delegates, represented useless token desegregation. The Freedom Party delegates came to Atlantic City asking to be part of the national Democratic Party. Their challenge rested on the legal and moral grounds of exclusion, that they were forcibly restrained from taking part in the Democratic Party in their own state. The fact that the regular delegation from Mississippi would be allowed to occupy the Mississippi section and cast a full state vote was a total rejection of the MFDP’s demands, not a compromise. 

In discussing the president’s compromise, Ed King, who would have been the other hand-picked delegate, said he told Humphrey at the convention, “I’m sure Mrs. Hamer has to be part of it. ’’According to King, Humphrey replied, “The president has said that he will not let that illiterate woman on the floor of the Democratic convention.” 

Hamer, who died in 1977, gave her view of some of the events at the convention and in Mississippi during an interview conducted by Anne Romaine in 1966. 


Fannie Lou Hamer

When we went to Atlantic City, we didn’t go there for publicity, we went there because we believed that America was what it said it was, “the land of the free.” And I thought with all of my heart that the people would have been unseated in Atlantic City. And I believed that, because if the Constitution of this United States means something to all of us, then I knew they would unseat them. So we went to Atlantic City with all of this hope. 

I never will forget the experience. One day I was going in the hall and Roy Wilkins [then executive secretary of the NAACP] said, “Mrs. Hamer, you people have put your point across. You don’t know anything, you’re ignorant, you don’t know anything about politics. I’ve been in the business over 20 years. You people have put your point across, now why don’t you pack up and go home?” That was blow number one. 

And then I talked at one time with who is now the vice-president of the United States. All that we had been hearing about Hubert Humphrey and his stand for civil rights, I was delighted even to have a chance to talk with this man. But here sat a little roundeyed man with his eyes full of tears, when our attorney at the time, Joseph Rauh, said if we didn’t stop pushing like we was pushing them and fighting to come to the floor, that Mr. Humphrey wouldn’t be nominated that night for vice-president of the United States. I was amazed, and I said, “Well, Mr. Humphrey, do you mean to tell me that your position is more important to you than 400,000 black lives?” And I didn’t try to-force nobody else to say it, but I'told him I wouldn’t stoop to no two votes at large. 

This was blows to me, really blows, and I left there full of tears. You see, for year after year, for the past 300 years, all that we have ever got was a compromise, you know. They said 100 years ago we were free, but today people are being beaten, people are being shot down, people are still begging for the same chance that they were begging for 100 years ago. In fact, it’s worse now than it was 100 years ago. 

I was very close to Dr. Henry, and I remember one time he met me in the hall and he said, “Mrs. Hamer, Bob Ana lavage/Southern Patriot we going to have to listen to some of them that know much more about politics than we know. And we going to have to listen to them.” And I said, “Tell me what leaders you talking about.” And he said, “You know we got great leaders.” I said, “That’s right, because all those people from SNCC are some of the greatest leaders I ever seen. But now don’t go telling me about anybody that ain’t been in Mississippi two weeks and don’t know nothing about the problem, because they’re not leading us.” And that’s the truth. 

The reason I respect SNCC now is it was the only organization that did the hard work that had to be done in Mississippi. I went to them one time because I got so upset, I might be just, you know, just too full out. So I went to Bob [Moses], I went to Jim Forman, I went to Ella Baker, and I said, “Why don’t you tell me something. I believe I’m right, but I might be wrong. I respect you, and I will respect your decision. Whatever you say, if you think I’m wrong, even though I felt like I was right, I would have done it.” 

They told me, I’ll never forget this, everyone would say almost the same thing, they’d say, “Now look, Mrs. Hamer, you’re the people living in Mississippi, and you people know what you’ve experienced in Mississippi, we don’t have to tell you nothing, you make your own decision.” See, we’d never been allowed to do that before. Cause you see, if we are free people as Negroes, if we are free, then I don’t think you’re supposed to tell me how much of my freedom I’m supposed to have. Because we’re human beings, too. You see there just is a difference in our colors. 

In Mississippi, there’s no more time for white people choosing the leader, hand-picking the leader that’s going to lead me, cause we ain’t going to follow. They might kill us, but you ain’t going to pick this white owl over there for me, when I know everything she going to say when she get in front of that white man, “Yes sir, yes sir.” We’re getting sick of this. We want somebody that’s going to say, “Well, now this is wrong, let’s talk about doing something this way.” And that’s what we been fussing about. 

A few of the Mississippi delegation favored the compromise and wanted me to convince the others, but I said, “I’m not making a decision for the 68 delegates. I won’t do it.” So, you see, after they talked to these people and we didn’t know nothing about it, then they had the press outside waiting [to write] that they was going to accept the compromise. They had them out there. You know, I said, “I’m just going to get up and say what I feel.” People come in to talk that day that we hadn’t never seen before. “I think you people is making a moral victory.” I said, “What do you mean, moral victory, we ain’t getting nothing.” What kind of moral victory was that, that we’d done sit up there, and they’d seen us on television? We come on back home and go right up on the first tree that we get to because, you know, that’s what they were going to do to us. What had we gained? 

I said, “I don’t see how all of these people are stepping on the bandwagon now that didn’t come way up there from Mississippi, 68 delegates subject to being killed on our way back, to compromise no more than we’d gotten here. They only gave us two votes at large cause they knowed we wouldn’t have nothing.” I said, “We just didn’t come here for just that.” 

This was what was going to happen. I was standing between Dr. Henry and Reverend Edwin King, so they wasn’t going to hear nothing but what me and Henry and Reverend King said. If Henry had said compromise, the country would have thought today we had compromised. But that’s one time they weren’t going to hear that word, not out of Henry. 

I’ve never carried no weapon, but I would have bit him so hard, he wouldn’t have known what had happened. 

Ever since then, so many rumors have got out about me that you would think I was King Kong. A lot of people say I advocate violence. I’ve never been violent, you know, never in my life. But if I know I’m right you don’t stop me. Now you might kill me but you will not stop me from saying I am right. Now they thought they had us sewed up, bag sewed up, but I told it everywhere. You can kill a man, but you can’t kill ideas. Cause that idea’s going to be transferred from one generation till after while, if it’s not too late for all of us, we’ll be free.