'I question America': Remembering Fannie Lou Hamer's challenge to white supremacy

Fannie Lou Hamer speaking at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 22, 1964. (U.S. News & World Report photo donated to the Library of Congress.)

This week marks 50 years since Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), delivered a historic speech to the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention about voter suppression and racist law enforcement violence -- themes that are making headlines again today.

The MFDP was organized in 1964 during the civil rights movement by African Americans in Mississippi with help from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Council of Federated Organizations. It sought to challenge the legitimacy of what was then the segregationist Mississippi Democratic Party.

In August of 1964, more than 60 MFDP members traveled by bus to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey with the aim of unseating the official, all-white Mississippi delegation by challenging the legality of the segregated delegate election process, which violated party rules and federal law.

The Democratic Party referred the MFDP's challenge to the convention's Credentials Committee, which televised the Aug. 22 proceedings. Fearing that an MFDP victory would result in his losing Southern support to Republican opponent Barry Goldwater, President Lyndon Johnson preempted Hamer's televised testimony with a press conference. But later that night, the major news networks broadcast the former sharecropper's shocking story of the racist brutality she suffered simply for registering to vote and encouraging other black citizens to do likewise.

The speech garnered widespread support for the MFDP, though in the end the party's effort to be seated at the convention failed. Johnson, with the help of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and party leader Walter Mondale, offered a deal in which the national Democratic Party would give the MFDP two at-large seats, allowing them to watch the floor proceedings but not take part. The MFDP refused.

"We didn't come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired," Hamer famously said.

While the MFDP didn't succeed in unseating the Mississippi delegates, it did draw attention to white supremacist violence and black disenfranchisement in the South. That in turn helped secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which led to a dramatic increase in the number of registered black voters in Mississippi and other Southern states.

But today, gains made by African Americans as a result of the Voting Rights Act are in jeopardy following last year's U.S. Supreme Court Shelby County v. Holder decision that struck down a key provision of the law and weakened federal oversight in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, most of them in the South. Following the decision, legislatures from North Carolina to Mississippi made changes to election laws and procedures that make it more difficult for blacks and other minorities to vote.

Hamer also drew attention to racist brutality by law enforcement, another issue in the headlines again today because of the recent deadly police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri -- a place that in its segregation, poverty, and lack of black political representation is not completely unlike the Mississippi of Hamer's time.

Though law enforcement officers did not kill Hamer, they came close: On June 9, 1963, she was traveling home to Mississippi on a bus with fellow activists who had attended a voter registration workshop in South Carolina when they were arrested on bogus charges. Hamer was brutally beaten in jail by two other black prisoners using a blackjack under orders from a Mississippi Highway Patrol officer, leaving her with a damaged kidney and eye.

"All of this on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens," Hamer told the Credentials Committee. "And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America."

Though the MFDP lost its bid to be seated in 1964, four years later Hamer became the first African American since Reconstruction and the first woman ever to serve as an official Mississippi delegate to the Democratic National Convention, where she spoke out against the Vietnam War. She continued to be active in the civil rights movement until her death from heart failure in 1977 at the age of 59. Her tombstone features one of her famous quotes: "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Marking the 50th anniversary of Hamer's historic testimony, we share the audio of her speech and the full transcription:

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 Sen. James O. Eastland, and Sen. Stennis.

It was the 31st of August in 1962 that 18 of us traveled 26 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 Rev. Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for 18 years. I was met there by my children, who told me that the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down to try to register.

After they told me, my husband came, and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. 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." He said, "If you don't go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave." Said, "Then if you go down and withdraw," said, "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 10th of September 1962, 16 bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also Mr. Joe McDonald's house was shot in.

And June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop, was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is 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." 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 Ivesta 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. I told him Ruleville and he said, "We are going to check this."

They left my cell and it wasn't too long before they came back. He said, "You are 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 patrolman 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.

I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. 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 who 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 the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

Thank you.