The Kings, Queens, and Martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement

MLK-Memorial
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC,
Source: National Park Service

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero. His leadership, intellect, courage, and ambassadorship to white America and the world at large make him deserving of all the recognitions and honors that he’s received.

Yet, I am filled with ambivalence every time we come to another MLK Jr Day. Yes, Dr. King was a great man. But he was not an army of one.

The Civil Rights Movement had numerous heroes and martyrs. All of them deserve recognition. Rather than a day to celebrate the memory of King, I would have preferred a Nation Civil Rights Movement Day to celebrate all of those who were a part of the Movement.

For example, my other “favorite” super-hero from the Movement is Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer. She started

working in the fields when she was six, and was only educated through the sixth grade. She married in 1942, and adopted two children. She went to work on the plantation where her husband drove a tractor, first as a field worker and then as the plantation’s timekeeper. She also attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, where speakers addressed self-help, civil rights, and voting rights.

In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) registering black voters in the South. She and the rest of her family lost their jobs for her involvement, and SNCC hired her as a field secretary. She was able to register to vote for the first time in her life in 1963, and then taught others what they’d need to know to pass the then-required literacy test. In her organizing work, she often led the activists in singing Christian hymns about freedom: “This Little Light of Mine” and others.

She helped organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a campaign sponsored by SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP.

In 1963, after being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to go along with a restaurant’s “whites only” policy, Hamer was beaten so badly in jail, and refused medical treatment, that she was permanently disabled.

Hamer is most famous for her work as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, sometimes called the “Freedom Democrats,” in 1964. The Freedom Democrats challenged the seating of Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. The Freedom Democrats brought national attention to the plight of black people in the state, and led to reforms in the way persons are seated at the Democratic Convention.

In 1972 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her national and state activism, by a vote of 116 to 0. This was an extraordinary recognition, given the state’s resistance to integration. Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977.


Fannie Lou Hamer, Freedom Democrat (Library of Congress photo)

To me, no understanding of the Movement can be complete without knowing her story. But as I talk to people about Civil Rights history, especially young people, I am saddened that they have little or no idea of who she was or what she accomplished.

Continue reading

On Watch at the African American Civil War Memorial

On-Guard-at-Monument3

Marquett Milton, a Civil War reenactor, stands watch at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC. He is portraying a member of the United States Colored Troops, which was a part of the Union army during the Civil War. He is wearing a skyblue greatcoat, which was used during the winter months. Milton is also a volunteer at the African American Civil War Museum, which is across the street from the Memorial.

CSA President Jefferson Davis on the Emancipation Proclamation: “millions of the inferior race… are doomed to extermination.”


Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and family, circa 1885 (20 years after the end of the Civil War).
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-23869; see here for more details

In the lead-up to the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, there was some concern that it might be interpreted as inciting slaves to engage in bloody insurrection against slaveholders. President Abraham Lincoln sought to address these concerns by placing the following language in the Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863: “And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence.”

Such language did not prevent a predictably outraged reaction from the Confederate States of America. In mid-January 1863, CSA President Jefferson Davis made an infuriated response that was recorded in the Journal Of the Confederate Congress:

The public journals of the North have been received containing a proclamation dated on the first day of the present month signed by the President of the United States in which he orders and declares all slaves within ten States of the Conferderacy to be free, except such as are found in certain districts now occupied in part by the armed forces of the enemy.

We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellowmen of all countries to pass judgement on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation “to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.”

Our own detestation of those who have attempted the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses. So far as regards the action of this Government on such criminals as may attempt its execution I confine myself to informing you that I shall unless in your wisdom you deem some other course more expedient deliver to the several State authorities all commissioned officers of the United States that may hereafter be captured by our forces in any of the States embraced in the proclamation that they may be dealt with in accordance with the laws of those States providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection. The enlisted soldiers I shall continue to treat as unwilling instruments in the commission of these crimes and shall direct their discharge and return to their homes on the proper and usual parole.

Davis undoubtedly echoed the thoughts of many Confederates when he spoke of “our detestation” to “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” To him, the Proclamation was clearly an incitement to violence. And Union officers woud pay the price for that: Davis warns that Union men who command blacks will be punished like “criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection.” One penalty for such crimes was execution. Continue reading

African American Soldiers on Guard for the Emanicpation Proclamation

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the (final version) of the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of the document was on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from December 30, 2012, through January 1, 2013.

A group of Civil War re-enactors stood guard over the document for this photograph at the National Archives Facebook page. The re-enactors are from B Company, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, US Colored Troops.

New Year’s Day, 1863: Emancipation Barbecue


“’Emancipation Day in South Carolina’—The Color-Sergeant of the 1st South Carolina (Colored) Volunteers Addressingg the Reiment, After Having Been Presented with the Stars and Stripes at Smith’s Plantation, Port Royal Island, January 1.—From a Sketch by our Special Artist.—See Page 275.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 24, 1863, 276

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Many negroes throughout the country celebrated. In South Carolina, they had a barbecue. This is from an 1863 NY Times article titled INTERESTING FROM PORT ROYAL.: A Jubilee Among the Negroes on the First– The President’s Emancipation Proclamation–How the Soldiers Enjoyed the Dar–Cultivations of the Plantations, &c. The dateline is Port Royal, SC, Jan 2, 1983. This excerpt indicates that the slaves were as cautious and circumspect as they were celebratory:

Yesterday, the first day of the new year, 1863, was an important day to the negroes here, and one of which they will long retain the remembrance as the first dawn of freedom. Upon that day President LINCOLN’S Proclamation of freedom to the negroes went into effect, and in view of this Gen. SAXTON, the Military Governor of South Carolina, issued the following:

A HAPPY NEW-YEAR’S GREETING TO THE COLORED PEOPLE IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE SOUTH.

In accordance, as I believe, with the will of our Heavenly Father, and by direction of your great and good friend, whose name you are all familiar with, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, and Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, on the 1st day of January, 1863, you will be declared “forever free.”

When, in the course of human events, there comes a day which is destined to be an everlasting beacon-light, marking a joyful era in the progress of a nation and the hopes of a people, it seems to be fitting the occasion that it should not pass unnoticed by those whose hopes it comes to brighten and to bless. Such a day to you is January 1, 1863. I therefore call upon all the colored people in this department to assemble on that day at the headquarters of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, there to hear the President’s Proclamation read, and to indulge in such other manifestations of joy as may be called forth by the occasion. It is your duty to carry this good news to your brethren who are still in Slavery. Let all your voices, like merry bells, join loud and clear in the grand chorus of liberty — “We are free,” “We are free,” — until listening, you shall hear its echoes coming back from every cabin in the land — “We are free,” “We are free.”

R. SAXTON, Brig.-Gen. and Military Governor.

In obedience to this call, some 3,000 negroes — men, women and children — assembled at Camp Saxton, the camp of the First South Carolina Volunteers, near Beaufort, to celebrate the day with a barbecue.

The negroes were accommodated at rudely constructed tables, upon which were ranged rows of tin-ware, and were served by the officers of the regiment. The contrabands went right in for enjoyment, and their faces were soon glistening with grease and happiness. Some of them were provident, and what meat they could not eat they crammed into their pockets. They all seemed to enjoy themselves hugely, and evidently enjoyed the roast beef more than the oratory. They understood it better.

In comparison with the number of negroes here this assemblage was not large. The fact is, that most of the negroes do not understand the meaning of this jubilee; they do not realize the occasion; the future is all obscure and uncertain and they would wait before giving way to too much joy. Some of them, too, I am inclined to think, looked upon the whole affair with a shade of suspicion, and preferred to stay away.