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Fannie Lou Hamer, and Me

By February 9, 2024 6 Comments
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Seems to me you have to cut LBJ some slack here. The man didn’t ask to be President. Didn’t run for it. Came into it when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November of 1963, and he, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who hailed from rural Texas, suddenly became President, leader of a grieving nation split like a muskmelon over civil rights.

You’ve got to cut him some slack because if he’s known for anything today it is signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as expanding the reach of the New Deal by declaring a “War on Poverty.” He was a progressive in every sense, despite the fact that he was raised in rural Texas, where holding such notions was something of a curse. 

While all of that is true, the yarn I’m about to spin makes him seem a skunk, worse, a racist skunk. But he wasn’t.

To say Fannie Lou Hamer came up through the ranks would be an overstatement. Born dirt poor in Mississippi, her daddy a sharecropper, she was picking cotton when she was six. The baby of a family of 20 kids, she quit school when she was 12. Had to, needed elsewhere.

She was 45 years old in 1962, when she attended a workshop in her own rural Mississippi by a group called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee–or SNCC, whose purpose was to champion human rights for black folks like Fannie Lou Hamer. 

That meeting changed Fannie’s life, and that’s the kind of line people use all the time–“it changed her life.” This time, have no questions. SNCC did change her life. What Fannie Lou Hamer discovered was that people who couldn’t vote didn’t count—didn’t count and therefore weren’t human. 

During the 1964 Democratic Convention, Fannie and her SNCC friends determined to take a place at the convention with the Mississippi Democratic Committee. Let’s be honest. They weren’t at all subtle about it, just barged in and told the all-white delegation that, damnit, they were people too. When the Convention arranged for them to speak, on the docket was a firebrand preacher named Martin Luther King, and a sharecropper’s daughter named Fannie Lou Hamer. 

Now Lyndon Baines Johnson was scared his Southern constituents would bolt if America would hear Fannie’s speech. They weren’t proud of what she’d tell them because her personal story wasn’t at all pretty. One night not long before, Fannie and her friends were pulled from a bus, arrested, and jailed in a small town, then beat-up by the cops who’d arrested them. They’d been assaulted because they were Black–and they wanted to vote. “I’m sick and tired,” she used to say, “of being sick and tired.”

What the President of United States knew is her telling that story in front of the nation would so infuriate his white Southern Democrats that he couldn’t let Fannie speak. He had to keep her still.

Here comes the part that’s forever worth telling. The only way the President of the United States could keep America from hearing Fannie Lou was to call a Presidential news conference. So, he told the networks he had something to say, and they obligingly cut away from Fannie’s appearance on the floor of the convention. LBJ had no news, so he told America on all the networks that it was his nine-month anniversary as President. That was it. That was all he had to say, the most useless Presidential speech in American history.

The result? Fannie Lou Hamer’s story had no nation-wide audience.

The administration of Lyndon B. Johnson passed landmark legislation for justice and equality, but he pushed along a war in Southeast Asia. For a number of reasons, he declined to run in 1968, when the country was even more fractured. It was—1968 I mean– not a particularly forgettable year.

And Fannie Lou? Once the networks discovered they got conned, Fannie Mae Hamer lit up the screen all week long. Throughout the following years, her hard work for voting rights gained her loving attention and an armful of honorary degrees. When she died, she was buried in her own little Ruleville, Mississippi. What’s written on her stone is priceless: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

I was 16 during the summer of 1964, interested enough to watch the Republican Convention when my dad had it on. I never saw the Democrats. Dad couldn’t have imagined watching. MLK he’d heard of, and even SNCC, a bunch that sounded like problems. He was a fine man, a loving Christian, but he honestly thought that whole bunch to be social agitators, socialists even, maybe worse. What I do remember is Barry Goldwater’s speech, especially the line about “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Truth be told, I ran into Fannie Lou Hamer’s story just a couple of months ago. Took somewhere around sixty years.

Sixty years.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

6 Comments

  • Joel Carpenter says:

    Great story, Jim. It speaks to me of the burden of leadership and the compromises it often demands, versus the more straight-line role of the activist. We need both. Your first couple of sentences don’t ring true, however. Johnson did run for president in 1960, and he was a serious contender at the Democratic convention, but the party went for Kennedy. They were rivals and didn’t like each other much, but Kennedy recognized Johnson’s influence with southern Democrats and needed him on the ticket. Johnson’s greatest act as president, and most brilliant political feat, was getting the Civil Rights Act passed. But as we see here, it was a delicate dance, and more than once he tried to tamp down the ardor of the civil rights activists. Looking at it all from a distance, they each had their roles to play. In the heat of the moment, though, Johnson did look like a skunk. But his achievement was enormous.

  • Al Mulder says:

    Thanks for the story. Jim. We moved to Gallup, NM in Feb of 1968. Ed T Begay was an elder in Bethany Gallup at the time, and also a delegate at the 1968 democratic convention. It crystalized his commitment to racial justice, and by extension, mine too.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Ah, yes—another nuance of LBJ’s character and career. The shady gamesmanship of politics (does the end justify the means, ever?) and the tragic decisions involving war greatly defined him. I highly recommend a tour of his Presidential Library & Museum in Austin, TX. I got lost in the Civil Rights era wing; my historian brother got lost in the Vietnam War era wing; equally fascinating was the Lady Bird wing.
    History once was for me the story of great individuals, great yet flawed. It seems now that history will be the story of deeply flawed and cynical forces grasping for power in the illusory name of “greatness.”

    • James Schaap says:

      I’ve never been to the Library, but we did visit his boyhood home. His roots were definitely “small town.”

  • Jim says:

    Never thought how aptly Goldwater’s mantra turns out to describe Fannie Lou Hammer’s quest.

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