Considering the arc of American memory, why is it no surprise that few people have heard of National Freedom Day – a day observing the end of slavery in the United States?
But yes, there is a National Freedom Day. It commemorates the date (February 1, 1865) that Abraham Lincoln signed a joint resolution of the US Congress which proposed the 13th amendment to the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the United States. The amendment was ratified by the required number of states in December 1865. National Freedom Day was proclaimed a national day of observance by President Harry Truman in January 1949:
Whereas, near the end of the tragic conflict between the Northern and Southern States, the Congress adopted a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution which would outlaw slavery in the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction; and
Whereas the resolution was signed by President Lincoln on February 1, 1865, and thereafter led to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution; and
Whereas that Amendment is a corner stone in the foundation of our American traditions, and the signing of the resolution is a landmark in the Nation’s effort to fulfill the principles of freedom and justice proclaimed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution; and
Whereas, by a joint resolution approved June 30, 1948 (62 Stat. 1150), the Congress authorized the President to proclaim the first day of February of each year as National Freedom Day in commemoration of the signing of the resolution of February 1, 1865; and
Whereas the Government and people of the United States wholeheartedly support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, which declares that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”:
Now, Therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate February 1, 1949, and each succeeding February 1, as national Freedom Day; and I call upon the people of the United States to pause on that day in solemn contemplation of the glorious blessings of freedom which we humbly and thankfully enjoy.
National Freedom Day is one of many conflicting, and to some, conflicted celebrations of the end of slavery in the United States. Perhaps the most prominent day designated for commemorating emancipation and abolition is Juneteenth (June 19th), which is celebrated in Texas and several other states. But National Freedom Day is the first and only day that the federal government has established for a nationwide observance of slavery’s end. Continue reading →
An offer they couldn’t refuse?: “Lincoln has tempted thousands of men into his Army by offering reward. I now propose to outbid him… We can command thousands of men from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Austria, England, and France by offering them a home in the sunny South and a servant.” Refer to the letter from J. W. Ellis below.
Image Source: Unattributed photograph at the website “Dr. Sherrod’s Class -Advanced Placement & Dual Credit U. S. History – Slavery”
The best parting gift ever? How about 50 acres and a slave for every non-slaveholder and non-landowner who enlists in and musters out of the Confederate army to help win the Civil War? Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Or at least, that’s what J. W. Ellis, writing from Raleigh, North Carolina, seemed to think, when he suggested that extraordinary – and as it turns out, not unique – idea to Confederate States of America president Jefferson Davis. And Ellis was serious.
It was January 1865 when Ellis mailed his proposal to president Davis, a time when all was not well with the Confederate States. As mentioned in two previous posts (see here and here), the Confederacy was reeling from recent military losses to the Union army and a shortage of men for the Confederate army.
I don’t know anything about J. W. Ellis. But he was clearly a pro-slavery man, and concerned that ways be found to fill the ranks of the depleted Confederate army. So he came up with an interesting, but not novel idea: give every new enlistee in the Confederate army an enlistment bounty of 50 acres and a slave. This would only be given to men who were non-slaveholders or non-landowners.
Readers may be wondering, is this in any way related to the Union’s 40 acres and a mule plan, which would give land and an equine to former slaves in the southeast United States? The answer is… maybe. The 40 acres and a mule policy, promulgated as Special Field Orders No. 15, was issued by General William Sherman on January 16, 1865. Ellis’ letter to Jefferson Davis is dated January 29, 1865, a scant two weeks later. Depending on how well known Sherman’s plan was, Ellis might have been inspired to do suggest similar. But in his letter to Confederate president Davis, Sherman’s order is not mentioned. Maybe, possibly, perhaps, Ellis’ proposal was informed by Sherman’s plan, but I don’t know.
In any event, Ellis’ idea made good sense, at least to himself. This new recruitment policy would at once:
• incentivize un-enlisted and eligible white southerners to join the Confederate army
• attract (white) men from around the world to the Confederate cause
• eliminate the rich man’s war/poor man’s fight conundrum, in which many non-slaveholders were angry that they were fighting to protect the property of wealthy slaveowners
• cause Union soldiers to switch sides to grab this enlistment bounty
• strengthen support for slavery throughout the Confederacy
• eliminate the need for the drastic measure of enlisting slaves in the Confederate army.
Getting slaves wouldn’t be too difficult, Ellis believed. Slaveholders could contribute some of their slaves; taxes and donations could be used to raise money for slave purchases; state governments could provide some help; any captured black Union soldiers could be offered as slaves; and free blacks in the Confederacy could be thrown under the bus offered as slaves.
United States history would have been a lot more interesting if the Confederacy adopted this policy and it had half as much success as Ellis anticipated. But it was never implemented by the Davis administration. But it is a part of the historical record, and so we get to see it today. This is the text of Ellis’ letter:
His Excellency Jefferson Davis
SIR: It is not to be presumed that the press of public duty leaves you much time to read private letters, nevertheless I suppose that should you find a moment’s leisure you will not object to hearing the views of your countrymen, however humble, who are struggling with you for independence. How this war can be successfully managed, brought to a speedy and honorable end, bringing us independence, are questions that are upon every tongue.
I propose to give you my plan briefly: Declare by law that every soldier who, has or will enlist in our Army, and who at the time of such enlistment was not a slave-owner or land-holder, shall receive a bounty or pension at the end of the war, upon being honorably discharged, of one negro slave and fifty acres of land.
I will state it thus: We have 3,500,000 slaves. We have probably enrolled 1,000,000 of men. Half these men are slave-owners, leaving 500,000 who do not own them. I would give one slave to each such soldier and fifty acres of land, and if he died in the service, to his representatives.
Thus you spread the institution. You make every family in the Government interested in it. You do away with the doctrine that this is the rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight. And if the war is to continue you can make the slaves the very means of our defense – declare by law that all negroes captured from the enemy shall belong to the captors by general orders – declare to the enemy that all who will desert and enlist in our Army, take the oath of allegiance and fight in our cause, shall have a negro and fifty acres of land upon being honorably discharged, and shall further have all the negroes which they can capture from the enemy, to be their own property at the end of the war.
Lincoln has tempted thousands of men into his Army by offering reward. I now propose to outbid him, and as we have the most alluring means we shall get the most men. If we make it to the interest of the world to fight on our side, men from all quarters of the globe will take up arms in our defense. We can reduce Grant’s and Sherman’s armies one-half in numbers by desertions if we offer them the bait. We can enlist men from all quarters of the United States if we make it to their interest to come. In a word, we can buy out the armed forces of Lincoln, secure their service on our side.
We can command thousands of men from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Austria, England, and France by offering them a home in the sunny South and a servant. We will thus avoid the trouble of arming slaves. We will remove the prejudices against the institution and bring all the world up to its support from interested motives. The slave-owners can well afford to give up to the soldiers who have and will fight to maintain the institution 1,000,000 of slaves to secure forever the other 2,600,000. The mode of getting the land and negroes to pay these bounties with would be by taxation in kind, by general laws to purchase, by donations to the Government, by capture, by enslaving the free negroes in the South (emphasis added), by taxation and contribution by State Legislatures if needed.
With this system of laws wisely and properly regulated our people can be satisfied. Many of our farmers and mechanics can be released and sent home to attend to the industrial pursuits, and an army of 600,000 men can be put at General Lees disposal to march where he pleases, and feed them on the front instead of looking to his rear for supplies. Hoping, sir, that the wish of your heart, the independence of the South, may be speedily consummated,
I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,
J. W. ELLIS.
Interestingly, this proposal was not unique. The use of slaves as an enlistment bounty on American soil has been tried before, and goes back at least as far as the American Revolution.
Slave labor was a key part of the Confederate war effort against the Union military during the American Civil War. Almost immediately, slaves were employed to provide labor to the Confederate military. If slaves could be used to do all the dirty work required to keep up the new Confederate nation and support the armed services – work such as digging ditches or building fortifications – then white men could be dedicated to combat and related duties.
For that to work, though, slave holders needed to allow the Confederate military to use their slaves. And many slaveholders didn’t want to do that. It was quite common for slaves to be hired out by their masters to work outside their homes. But providing labor to the military was another story. Owners feared that slaves would get sick, injured, or even die while doing strenuous work under hazardous conditions. Owners were also afraid that slaves might exploit their situation to find ways to escape.
So it was that in September 1863, Confederate major J. F. Minter, a Chief Quartermaster in the Trans-Mississippi Department, issued the above poster (called a ‘broadside’) which pleaded with slaveholders to hire their slaves out to the army. (The Trans-Mississippi Department managed military operations to the west of the Mississippi River, in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.) The slaves would be employed as “teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers.” Note that, Minter does not ask for slaves who will become or act as soldiers. Until the very end of the war, slaves could not enlist in the Confederate army.
Major Minter offered another reason for slaves to be hired out to the Confederate military. The Union was then engaged in a plan to confiscate and liberate slaves, so they could be laborers or even soldiers for the Union cause. Minter suggested that by hiring slaves out to the Confederacy, their loss to the enemy could be avoided.
What did the slaves make of Minter’s request for their labor? Major Minter’s broadside doesn’t address that question. His comment that the people must “sacrifice freely… (to) remain freemen” did not include bondsmen as part of “the people.” Slaves were simply a resource to be used by one side or the other. And Minter’s job was to make that labor safe and useful for the Confederate cause. But as the war continued, the bondsmen would show that they were not just tools of the Union or the Confederacy, but rather, agents of their own liberation. Minter didn’t say it and perhaps didn’t see it; but in time, this truth would be inescapable.
From the American Social History Project: “In May 1863, Louisiana black regiments fought with great gallantry and almost reckless disregard for their own lives in the assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana. The bravery of these troops, which previously had been doubted by many northern commanders, was soon extolled in the pages of the illustrated press.”
Image Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1863, by artist Francis H. Schell; image from Dickinson College’s ‘House Divided’ site.
Howell Cobb, southern politician and brigadier general in the Confederate States of America army: “The day you make soldiers of (slaves) is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”
Source: Image by Matthew Brady; from the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-USZ62-110081, LC-USZ62-28297
By January 1865, “gloom and despondency rule(d) the hour,” according to Howell Cobb, an army general of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy was losing the American Civil War. Recent Union military successes and a shortage of manpower forced Confederates to seek ways to bolster their forces and stave off the destruction of their nation.
One of the most stinging critiques of black enlistment came from Howell Cobb. Prior to the Civil War, Cobb served in the US Congress and was the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1849 to 1851. He was also the 40th Governor of Georgia (1851–1853) and Secretary of Treasury under President James Buchanan (1857–1860). After Lincoln’s election, he championed the slave states’ secession from the Union. After the shooting war began in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, Cobb joined the Confederate army. He became a brigadier general in early 1862.
In January 1865, Cobb wrote a letter to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and offered his views on the use of slaves as soldiers. Cobb did not merely criticize the idea; he condemned it. Using slaves as soldiers was “the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began,” he claimed. And he lamented that Robert E. Lee – who was Cobb’s military commander – was being used to promote this policy.
As Alexander Stephens, a fellow Georgian and Vice President of the Confederacy put it in March 1861, the cornerstone of their new nation rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Black enlistment fundamentally challenged that belief, and by extension, challenged the reason for the Confederacy’s very existence. As Cobb saw it, “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong… The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”
But slaves would not make good soldiers, he said; “as a class (slaves) are wanting in every qualification of a soldier.” He warned that “you can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves.”
Howell was also fearful that slave enlistment would drive off the Confederacy’s white soldiers. And not just because whites would not fight alongside black troops; he was afraid that white troops would use the influx of black soldiers as an excuse to “retire” from the army and relieve themselves of the duties and dangers of wartime service.
Cobb went on to say that, if given a choice, he would rather take the extreme measure of freeing the slaves to get the support of England and France, than resort to black enlistment. (Many believed that anti-slavery sentiment in England and France prevented them from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation.) Although one wonders if that statement was merely a rhetorical flourish; it’s hard to imagine Cobb stomaching either black emancipation or black enlistment.
Cobb’s hope was to find other means to recruit white men into the army. Whatever those means were, they either weren’t implemented or weren’t enough: in March of 1865 the Confederate government passed a law enabling slave enlistment. But it was too little too late: General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia in April 1865, and that began the end of the Confederacy. Continue reading →
Confederate general Robert E. Lee: “I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves.”
Source: Image of Robert E. Lee; Julian Vannerson, photographer; from Wikipedia Commons; from an image at the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-DIG-cwpb-04402, LC-B8172-0001
The Confederates were losing the bloody American Civil War against the United States, AKA the Union. By January 1865, the Union controlled the Mississippi River and large swaths of land to the river’s east and west; the December 1864 Battle of Nashville had beaten the largest remaining Confederate forces west of the Appalachian Mountains; Union General William Sherman had completed his almost unimpeded march through Georgia, and was heading for South Carolina; and the Confederacy’s position in Virginia was being made tenuous by pressure from the forces of Union general Ulysses Grant and a lack of manpower.
Given their circumstances, Confederates began to debate a fundamental shift in political and military policy: the use of slaves as soldiers in the Confederate army, along with emancipation for those who served. Andrew Hunter, a Virginia politician, wrote to General Robert E. Lee to get his opinion on the controversy. Lee responded: slaves should be employed as soldiers “without delay.”
It’s not like Lee preferred to make this radical shift in policy. He maintained that the “relation of master and slave” was “the best that can exist between the white and black races.” But he argued that the use of slaves as soldiers would “increase our military strength and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent.” And even more, it might counteract the horrifying prospect that slaves, having been promised freedom by the Emancipation Proclamation, would continue to take arms for the Union, and destroy slavery on the Union’s terms and/or the slaves’ terms in the event of Confederate defeat.
Lee went even further in his policy proposal: he recommended a plan of “gradual and general emancipation” that would eventually free all the slaves, not just soldiers and their families. After all, the Emancipation Proclamation offered to immediately free all the slaves; Confederates needed to come close to that offer, he reasoned, to ensure the “efficiency and fidelity” of the slaves in their new roles as soldiers. Yes, freedom for the slaves might mean hardship for whites, but Union victory would be even worse. Better to give freedom to the slaves and defeat the Union, than to have the Union give the slaves freedom and defeat the Confederacy in the process. Lee believed that if employing slaves as soldiers “ends in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races.” Lee did not detail what “means” would be devised to manage the “evil consequences” of freedom for the bondsmen.
Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both. I should therefore prefer to rely upon our white population to preserve the ratio between our forces and those of the enemy, which experience has shown to be safe. But in view of the preparations of our enemies, it is our duty to provide for continued war and not for a battle or a campaign, and I fear that we cannot accomplish this without overtaxing the capacity of our white population.
Should the war continue under the existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population. It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all… Many have already been obtained in Virginia, and should the fortune of war expose more of her territory, the enemy would gain a large accession to his strength. His progress will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people. Their negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining force of the enemy free to extend his conquest. Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this. If it end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races. Continue reading →
Confederates use slaves to mount a cannon during the Civil War: an example of “Black Confederates?”
Source: National Park Service
Question: was the slave John Parker a “Black Confederate?” This is a poll question, and you can give your answer below. Any comments regarding this question are welcome.
So, who was John Parker? John Parker was a southern African American who lived during the American Civil War. This New York Times article describes Parker’s role in the Battle of Bull Run, one of the War’s earliest major battles, and a decisive win for the Confederate army over the Union army:
On the morning of Sunday, July 21, 1861, John Parker and three other men opened fire on Union forces. In the chaos of the Civil War’s first major battle, the group, which was operating a cannon, “couldn’t see the Yankees at all and only fired at random.”
Like so many men on both sides who experienced war for the first time that day, Parker was terrified. “The balls from the Yankee guns fell thick all around,” he later told a reporter. “In one battery a shell burst and killed 20, the rest ran. Thank the Lord! none were killed in our battery. I felt bad all the time, and thought every minute my time would come; I felt so excited that I hardly knew what I was about, and felt worse than dead.”
Parker and his comrades’ lives depended on their competence with the gun — but not in the usual way. All four men were slaves, ordered by their owners to fight for the Confederate cause. “We wish[ed] to our hearts that the Yankees would whip,” Parker recalled, “and we would have run over to their side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.”
A few thousand blacks did indeed fight for the Confederacy. Significantly, African-American scholars from Ervin Jordan and Joseph Reidy to Juliet Walker and Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root, have stood outside this impasse, acknowledging that a few blacks, slave and free, supported the Confederacy.
How many supported it? No one knows precisely. But by drawing on these scholars and focusing on sources written or published during the war, I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters. They built roads, batteries and fortifications; manned munitions factories—essentially did the Confederacy’s dirty work.
Meet John Parker, Black Confederate
Douglass corroborated Johnson’s story. He published in the March 1862 issue of Douglass’ Monthly a brief autobiography of John Parker, one of the black Confederates at Manassas. A Virginia slave, Parker was sent to Richmond to build batteries and breastworks. After completing this job, he and his fellow slaves were ordered to Manassas “to fight,” as he said. He was put in an artillery unit with three other black men. On Sunday, July 21, “we opened fire about 10:00 in the morning; couldn’t see the Yankees at all and only fired at random.”
During the battle, Parker said, he worried about dying, hoped for a Union victory and thought of fleeing to the Union side. “We wished to our hearts that the Yankees would whip us. … We would have run over to the other side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.” He and his fellow slaves had been promised their freedom “and money besides” if they fought. “None of us believed them; we only fought because we had to.”
Parker is a “Black Confederate” according to Stauffer. But does that properly describe Parker? Let’s think about it.
Before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, we know that millions of enslaved persons picked cotton, cut sugarcane, thrashed rice, or otherwise served their masters. In the process of being enslaved, these persons were subjected to physical, emotional, and sometimes sexual abuse. We know that perhaps hundreds of thousands of slaves saw family members sold away during the course of colonial and antebellum slavery. We know that slavemasters got rich off the exploited labor of the bondsmen.
Question: would anybody say that the fact that slaves picked cotton or cut cane or thrashed rice means that they “supported” the institution of slavery? Today, probably not too many. Today most us reckon that slaves did not “support” the institution of slavery, but rather, were forced to be subjected to its degradation.
So, why would anyone say that the use of coerced labor by members of the Confederate military means that slaves “supported” the Confederacy?
Of course the key thing is the definition of “support.” If “support” means that slaves were used as a resource by Confederates, then in that case, yes, slaves “supported” the Confederacy. And by the exact same logic, we can say that slaves supported the institution of slavery. Although it’s odd to hear it that way.
But if support means giving approval or encouragement, then we need to look at things differently. In the case of John Parker we have an example of an enslaved man who did not approve of, or willfully encourage, the Confederate regime. In fact, as Stauffer notes, Parker escaped bondage, provided military intelligence to the Union, and went North to become an anti-Confederate propagandist. Parker wanted Confederates to lose. But because he was a slave, he could not act on his volition.
The fact is, Parker was no more a Black Confederate than a cotton picking slave on the Mississippi River or a rice thrashing slave on the South Carolina coast. The only thing that was different was the site of his coerced labor. Stauffer never really explains how it is that locating enslavement near the site of a battlefield elevates or otherwise transforms a slave to the condition of a “Confederate.”
Instead of straining credulity by calling these slaves “Black Confederates,” why not call them what we all know they actually are – slaves? Why is that so hard?
Ultimately, this issue comes down to, what is the definition of a Confederate? Stauffer seems to think that the performance of slave labor on a battlefield makes a slave into a Confederate. I do not agree. As I see it – and more importantly, as actual (white) Confederates saw it – Confederate-ness was a political and social construct, not a military one. To white southerners, a Confederate was a citizen or prospective citizen of the Confederacy, or one of the several Confederate states. Citizenship entailed duty and loyalty to the Confederate state. Thus, Confederate citizens could be compelled to serve in the Confederate army, and defend against threats posed by, for example, the Union army.
Do you see? White men were not transformed into Confederates as a result of their military service. Rather, they were already Confederates as a result of being citizens of a Confederate state. Their military service made them Confederate soldiers, but they were Confederates before they signed their enlistment papers.
Meanwhile, slaves were not, and could not, be Confederate citizens. Slaves were property, like livestock. Slaves used as resources in the way that horses and oxen were used as resources. This is not to deny the existence of genuine affection and even love between some slave owners and their slaves; or to say that whites in general did not recognize the humanity of the bondsmen. But legally and politically, slaves were a class of property. Slaves were non-citizens and non-Confederates. They resided in the Confederate states, but residency did not make them Confederates. The fact that a slave served a master in an army camp did not transform the slave politically, socially, or legally into a Confederate.
The problem with the term “Black Confederate” as I see it is two-fold. First, it can give the mistaken impression that these African Americans, like actual (i.e., white) Confederates, served out of duty and obligation as citizens of the Confederate state.
Second, it can give the impression that these African Americans “supported” (i.e., served out of approval for) the goals and objectives of the Confederate regime.
Actual (white) Confederates did not operate under such false impressions. The use of the term “Black Confederates” was rare during the Civil War itself. Meanwhile, the terms “loyal slave” or “faithful servant” were used quite often. Actual Confederates understood that slaves operated out of obedience to their owners. The fact that these slaves performed so loyally in the presence of a battlefield proved and reinforced the notion of slaves as being devoted to the service of their masters.
This is a Confederate and his horse. The man in the photo is a citizen of his state, and by extension, a Confederate citizen. He has duties and obligations to his state and nation, which he fulfills in part by his military service. The animal under him is NOT a Confederate. That is, the horse is not a Confederate citizen. It is not an “equine Confederate.” The Confederacy did have its own horses, which could be considered “Confederate horses.” The horses were owned by the Confederacy, they were not “Confederates” themselves.
This is a Confederate and his slave. The white man in the photo is a citizen of his state, and by extension, a Confederate citizen. He has duties and obligations to his state and nation, which he fulfills in part by his military service. The slave is NOT a “Confederate.” That is, the slave is not a Confederate citizen. He is not an “slave Confederate” or a “Black Confederate.” The slave is owned by a Confederate, but is not himself a “Confederate.” The black man is appropriately called a “Confederate slave,” which indicates that he is the possession of a Confederate. Calling the slave a “Black Confederate” implies that he had the same status, rights, and obligations as a actual (white) Confederate, which is not true.
What do I call John Parker? Simply put, he was an enslaved person, or if you prefer, a Confederate slave. There is no ambiguity in that, no chance for false impressions. And that describes exactly what he was. Why is it so hard to call him exactly what he was?
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.