Resource

Voting Rights and Violent Suppression

Excerpts from Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony at the Democratic National Convention, 1964.

Content Warning: This resource addresses physical and sexual violence and contains a racial slur.

Fannie Lou Hamer speaking at the Democratic National Convention

Fannie Lou Hamer speaking at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 22, 1964. Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Washington D.C.

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Summary

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. My name is Fannie Lou Hamer. I live in Ruleville, Mississippi.
It was the 31st 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. On August 31, 1962, 18 people traveled 26 miles to register to vote in Indianola. I was one of those people.
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. A police officer met us in Indianola. Only two people in the group were allowed to take the test to register. As the group started to go home, they were stopped. The driver of their bus was charged with a 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 to try to register. The group paid the fine. I am a sharecropper. When I got home, my children told me that the plantation owner (the man we work for) was angry because I tried to vote.
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.

The plantation owner came and asked me if I knew why he was so angry. I said, “yes.” He said if I did not withdraw my registration we would have to leave.

He said Mississippi was not ready for a black woman to vote.

I said I registered for myself. Not for Mississippi.

He made us leave that night.

On the 10th of September 1962, sixteen 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. On September 10, 1962, I was at the home of Robert Tucker and his wife. That night, someone shot 16 bullets at the house. It was for me. There were other shootings that night too.
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. On June 9, 1963, I was returning to Mississippi after a voter registration event with a group. The bus stopped for a break in Winona.
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.

Four people got out to use the bathroom or eat. I stayed on the bus. But when I saw the four people rush out of the building, I got out to ask what happened. A woman said the head of the police kicked them out.

I got back on the bus.

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 saw that the people not on the bus were getting arrested. I got off to see what happened. I was arrested and a police officer 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.

I was taken to the county jail. I was in a cell with a woman named Ivesta Simpson. I could hear someone being beaten violently in another cell. The victim was screaming and praying for it to stop. The police officer was yelling horrible things.
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.” Three white men came to my cell. One of them asked me where I was from and left.
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.” Then they came back and threatened me. They 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. They took me to another cell with two Black prisoners. They gave one of the prisoners a blackjack weapon
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. The white men made the Black man force me onto a bunk bed face down.
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. One of the Black men beat me with the weapon until he was too tired.
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.

The second Black man beat me when the white men ordered him. I tried to move my feet. The white men made the first Black man sit on my feet. When I screamed, one of the white men beat me in the head.
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. One white man pulled my dress up. I pulled it down and he pulled it back up.
I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered. I was in jail when the civil rights activist 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.

All of this happened because Black people want to vote and be citizens. If the Freedom Democratic Party is not recognized, I question America. How can America claim to be free if Black people are threatened for wanting to live as decent human beings?

Thank you.

Brooks, Maegan Parker, and Davis W. Houck, eds. The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011. doi:10.2307/j.ctt12f641.

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Background

By 1964, Black activists in Mississippi were exhausted by their inability to improve voting access for people of color in the state. Without the vote, they could not change policy. Everything hinged on this one factor. 

That summer, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was formed. The MFDP presented itself as the alternative to the “regular” Mississippi Democratic Party. The regular party excluded all Black people. The MFDP welcomed Black Americans and others. The group registered over 80,000 members soon after it was established. 

During the 1964 presidential primaries, the Democratic Party once again blocked Black participation. The MFDP held its own election and chose 68 delegates to attend the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Atlantic City, New Jersey. 

The MFDP wanted the DNC leadership to recognize them as Mississippi’s legitimate delegation. They claimed that the regular party was segregated and therefore illegitimate. The DNC allowed the MFDP to present its case. Many MFDP members and allies, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., testified and submitted evidence. 

The testimony was powerful, and some DNC members thought the MFDP made good points. But President Lyndon B. Johnson was afraid of losing Southern support. He used his influence to deny the MFDP roles at the convention. 

The DNC’s refusal to acknowledge the MFDP was a huge disappointment. After the summer of 1964, many disillusioned activists started to turn towards more radical strategies.

About the Document

Fannie Lou Hamer was an activist and community organizer from rural Mississippi. She was a poor sharecropper who served as the vice chair of the MFDP. This is a transcript of her testimony during the hearings. 

The hearings were televised nationally. President Johnson was particularly concerned about Fannie Lou’s testimony because he suspected it would include graphic details about her experiences and make his leadership look bad. In response, he arranged an impromptu press conference to take place in the middle of her testimony. He anticipated that news outlets would cover his news conference and not her speech. This tactic backfired. The news outlets realized that President Johnson was trying to block Fannie Lou’s testimony. They aired her remarks in full later that day. Many historians believe fewer Americans would have heard her speak if Johnson had not held his press conference that day. Instead, her speech was the climax of the hearings.

Vocabulary

  • blackjack: A stick-like weapon or baton.  
  • credentials: Qualifications.
  • literacy test: A test that was supposed to determine a person’s ability to read but was actually designed to prevent people from registering to vote. It was a well-known voter suppression tactic. 
  • Medgar Evers: A civil rights activist who focused his work in Mississippi and was assassinated in 1963. 
  • Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP): A short-lived political party formed in 1964 to offer Black Mississippi residents an alternative to the all-white political parties controlling the state. 
  • plantation owner: A person who owns a farm or plantation. Plantation owners often paid sharecroppers to work the land. 
  • sharecropper: A farmer who works on land owned by someone else and shares the profits with their landlord.
  • Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): A national organization founded to recruit and organize young people interested in the civil rights movement.

Discussion Questions

  • Fannie Lou Hamer describes three incidents connected to her efforts to register to vote. What happened during each?
  • How would you describe Fannie Lou Hamer’s experience in the county jail cell? What does this tell you about the relationship between Black activists and white police officers in Mississippi? 
  • What does this speech tell you about Fannie Lou Hamer as an activist?
  • How does Fannie Lou Hamer conclude her speech? What is she asking? What is her opinion of America? 
  • How does the background information add to your understanding of this document? Under what circumstances did she make this speech?
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Suggested Activities

  • Connect this resource to other materials in WAMS, including the life stories of Mamie Till-Mobley, Pauli Murray, and Ella Baker as well as resources related to the Little Rock Nine, to deepen students’ understanding of women’s roles in the Civil Rights Movement. 
  • Connect Fannie Lou’s testimony to the deeper history of Black citizenship and voting rights by inviting students to explore the many resources in New-York Historical Society’s curriculum guide Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow
  • Fannie Lou’s testimony is a clear example of how the Nineteenth Amendment did not guarantee access to voting for all women. Connect this document to the suffrage section of Modernizing America to think about how the promise of suffrage failed millions of American women. 
  • Fannie Lou describes in graphic detail her experience of police brutality. Help students to make past-present connections by inviting them to research current protests and debates around the relationship between the police and Black citizens and connecting this research to Fannie Lou’s testimony. 
  • The televised version of Fannie Lou’s testimony was cut short when President Johnson called a last-minute press conference. Invite students to compare this version to one that reflects the televised testimony. What is lost in this version? What did people not hear during the live televised version? What does this matter? 
  • Give students a chance to hear Fannie Lou speak these words by playing the audio recording available here. Ask students to reflect on why it is important to pair written transcripts with audio recordings. How does the audio change or enhance their ideas about this document? 
  • Pair reading this document with a screening of this brief clip from PBS that describes Fannie Lou’s testimony and President Johnson’s decision to hold a last-minute press conference. How does this context enhance or change students’ perspective on this document? 
  • Fannie Lou was a sharecropper. Learn more about sharecropping and deepen students’ understanding of this document by combining it with photographs of sharecroppers.

Themes

AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP; ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

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