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Gilbert: Fannie Lou Hamer

08/08/12 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) The upcoming Democratic and Republican National Conventions cause commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert to think of the 1964 Democratic National Convention - and an inspired civil rights activist.

(Gilbert) In the summer of 1964 at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey,  Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who'd picked cotton most of her life, testified before the Credentials Committee that delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which she had helped start, should be seated. She argued that the official, all-white Mississippi delegation had been elected under racially discriminatory practices so egregious as to deprive it of its legitimacy.

She told the Committee her story, that when she and others had traveled to their county seat to register to vote, they were arrested, taken to jail, and then beaten nearly to death by state troopers and people under their direction. When she got home and she refused to have her name removed from the voting list, the owner of the plantation where she had worked and lived for eighteen years sent her packing. That night sixteen shots were fired into the house where she had taken shelter for the night. All this happened, she told the Credentials Committee, simply because they had tried to register to vote. Her testimony was powerful stuff, and it infuriated President Lyndon Johnson, who would be the party's nominee.

Democratic Party leaders tried to find a compromise that would satisfy Hamer's party but not cause millions of southern whites to abandon President Johnson and vote instead for the Republican, Barry Goldwater. Party leaders proposed seating two non-voting delegates from Hamer's Freedom Democratic Party. Hamer famously replied, "We didn't come all this way for no two seats, ‘cause all of us is tired."

"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."

Compromise couldn't be reached that summer, Hamer's delegates were not seated, but she had made her point. By the next Democratic National Convention four years later, the party's credentialing rules had changed for the better. However, that year Richard Nixon would win the White House using the so-called Southern Strategy, which exploited anti-black racism, fear of social unrest, and distrust of the federal government.

Hamer died of breast cancer in 1977 at the age of fifty-nine. On her grave stone is one of her most famous comments: "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Perhaps nothing is more fundamental to the nobility of American democracy than the right to vote. This year the United States Attorney General has opened a record number of investigations (more than a hundred) into possible voting rights discrimination. And so, while there's been progress in the last fifty years, it seems that the work that Fannie Lou Hamer and others dedicated their lives to, many risked their lives for, and some died for isn't finished.

Fanny Lou Hamer thought that she'd be forgotten; but she isn't, and she shouldn't be.

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