Jefferson Davis, Mississippi, votes for Barack Obama

Jeff Davis County Obama election 2012 copy
Election Results, 2012 Presidential Election, Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi
Image Source: Mississippi Presidential election results, 2012 Elections, NBC News.com; retrieved May 1, 2016

I rise… for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that… the State of Mississippi… has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course my functions are terminated here. It has seemed to me proper, however, that I should appear in the Senate to announce that fact to my associates, and I will say but very little more.

…I concur in the action of the people of Mississippi, believing it to be necessary and proper… (it is) a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.

…the great principles… (of the Declaration of Independence have) no reference to the slave… When our Constitution was formed… we find provision made for that very class of persons (of the black race) as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men–not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three fifths.

– Jefferson Davis, Farewell Address to the US Senate, January 21, 1861

The forefathers of these (negroes)… were gathered from the torrid plains and malarial swamps of inhospitable Africa…. Generally they were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and, sold by heathen masters, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity.

There, put to servitude, they were trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization; they increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due. A strong mutual affection was the natural result of this life-long relation, a feeling best if not only understood by those who have grown from childhood under its influence.

Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other.

The tempter came, like the serpent in Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word of “freedom.”

– Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Chapter XXVI, published 1881, p 192

Jefferson Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. Prior to becoming the CSA’s president, he was a US Senator from the state of Mississippi. He resigned that position to join in Mississippi’s unilateral secession from the United States. Davis presided over the Confederacy’s unsuccessful Civil War with the United States, a war that eventually led to freedom for just under 4 million enslaved people. Over 436,000 of those enslaved people lived in his home state when the war began. Mississippi had the distinction of having the highest percentage of enslaved residents of any state; indeed, enslaved Africans were in the majority – 55% of the state’s population were enslaved people of African descent, while 45% of the population were free whites.

Davis did not take kindly to the United States’ emancipation policy. As noted in his post-war book The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, published in 1881, he believed that slavery represented a “happy dependence of labor and capital.” He especially condemned the Union policy of black military enlistment, which “put arms in (negro) hands, and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors…” As far as Davis was concerned, the destruction of the “strong local and personal attachment” between master and slave was one of the worst outcomes of the war.

In honor of one of its favorite sons, Mississippi named a new county, formed in 1906,  after the CSA president. I don’t know if any black residents in the county or state had a say in that name, but my guess is, they had none. Jefferson Davis County is located in the south-central part of the state, about 40 miles from Hattiesburg, MS.   The county is not populous at all. It has a population of under 12,000, 60% of whom are African American.

Jeffereson Davis MS Vote for Obama

Election Results, 2012 Presidential Election, Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi
Image Source: Mississippi Presidential election results, 2012 Elections, NBC News.com; retrieved May 1, 2016

In the 2012 presidential election, Jefferson Davis county voters were feeling blue: Barack Obama won the county in a landslide, beating Republican candidate Mitt Romney by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. But Romney prevailed statewide. He won the state of Mississippi by getting 54% of the vote, versus 44% for Obama.

One wonders: what would Jeff Davis think of the county which bears his name, in his home state, voting to elect a negro – a person of a race that was not “upon (the) footing of equality with white men” – to the office of president? In his grave, he might be thankful that he never lived to see the day.

And as an aside, I wonder how the people of the county feel about their county being named after a person who would have excoriated them for their choice of president.

Mississippi Governor Charles Clark on Confederate enlistment of slaves: Use them, but don’t free them – “Freedom would be a curse to them and the country”

[IMG]
Some of the “black warriors” for the Union, as Lincoln called them: At least 18,000 African Americans from Mississippi, such as those in this image, served in the Union army. By 1865, Confederates pondered the use of slaves as soldiers in their army.
Image: “The War in Mississippi—The 1st Mississippi Negro Cavalry (USA) Bringing into Vicksburg Rebel Prisoners Captured at Haines Bluff. –From a Sketch by our Special Artist, Fred B. Schell”
Image Source: From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, December 19, 1863; see here and here

[This is part of a series that looks at the Confederacy’s decision, in March 1865, to allow slaves to join the Confederate army.]

By February 1865, the Confederate States of America was on the brink of military collapse. Indeed, on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee would surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, an event which triggered the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.

But before defeat came desperation. All options were being put on the table. 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.

Robert E. Lee had weighed-in on the issue in January, 1865. He recommended that slaves be “employ(ed) without delay” in the Confederate army, and be given freedom immediately upon enlistment. He recommended a  plan of “gradual and general emancipation” that would eventually free all the Confederacy’s slaves. These steps, he reasoned, would ensure the “efficiency and fidelity” of the slaves in their new roles as soldiers.

Lee was a popular figure in the Confederacy, but that did not make his views on slave enlistment and emancipation universally popular. A dissenting view came from Charles Clark, the governor of Mississippi.

Clark knew full well how former slaves soldiers helped the Union war effort. At least 18,000 African American from his state enlisted in the Union army by the end of the war. Black soldiers were among the Union forces that occupied the city of Jackson, the state capital. The state government was forced to flee the city to other places inside and outside the state. In his book Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front, Timothy B. Smith writes

The blue-clad cavalry arrived at Jackson, Mississippi, that July 1864, causing the inhabitants to fully realize what had happened to their state, their Confederacy, and, most important, their lives. These were not typical Union cavalrymen, which the citizens of Jackson and had seen before. These were African American Yankees, the Third Regiment Cavalry U.S. colored troops, raised and organized out of Mississippi slaves in 1863. Firmly in control of the city and all functions that took place in it, the cavalrymen openly displayed a new manner in Mississippi; old cultures and society were obviously changing.

A white officer in a black regiment noted the change: “the slaves are the masters and the masters, or rather, the mistresses, for there are a few masters at home, are the slaves, through fear.” One former slave put it more succinctly when he spoke of the “bottom rail on top.” That day had come in Mississippi.

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Petition to Mississippi’s Governor: Proclaim May 2016 as Union Army Heritage Month


Civil War veterans, Natchez, Mississippi, late 1800s: Photograph of a Grand Army of the Republic (G. A. R.) camp in Natchez. The G. A. R. was an organization for Union Civil War veterans. Just under 18,000 Mississippi African Americans served in the Union army during the Civil War.
Image Source: from Photobucket/Jeff Giambrone’s (chamchampionhilz’s) Bucket; the original photo is in the collections of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History

The Mississippi NAACP has started a campaign to have May 2016 designated as Union Army Heritage Month by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant. Union Army Heritage Month would recognize the service and sacrifice of Mississippi’s Union soldiers and sailors during the American Civil War.

The following is a portion of the petition that will be sent to Mississippi governor Phil Bryant:

Gov. Bryant, We Need a Union Army Heritage Month

Only a few weeks ago during National Black History Month, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant issued a proclamation officially decreeing April 2016 as Confederate Heritage Month. This proclamation was issued very quietly as it had been done under Governor Barbour, Governor Musgrove, Governor Fordice, and so on.

However, if it is heritage that should be honored by proclamation then the history of soldiers from Mississippi who served in the Union Army deserve their recognition as well.

These Mississippians were patriots who fought for the preservation of this great nation and we must preserve their history and legacy so that future generations can understand the sacrifice of our ancestors. To do otherwise would encourage a revisionist history that dishonors the memory of our families, friends, and neighbors who fought, bled, and died for freedom and for the nation.

And although we live proudly as citizens of these United States, the heritage that paved the way for that life has not been celebrated. Why? Continue reading

Mississippi Blue Flood Blues

The Colored Volunteer Marching Into Dixie
The Colored Soldier, Marching into Dixie; 1863; hand-colored lithograph; from New York: Published by Currier & Ives, New York; Originally part of a McAllister, Hart, Phillips Civil War scrapbook
Description: Portrait of an earnest African American Union soldier dressed in his blue uniform, a “U.S.” belt buckle, and a cap. He holds his rifle over his shoulder and carries a sleeping mat on his back.
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, African Americana Collection – African American Graphics Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

The Mississippi Blue Flood Blues
By Alan Skerrett

There’s a blue flood in Mississippi
That’s where my baby be
There’s a blue flood in Mississippi
That’s where my baby be
They’re wearin’ eagles on their buttons [1]
Tellin’ us it’s Jubilee [2]

There’s a dark cloud over Vicksburg [3]
I hope my baby found a cave
There’s a dark cloud over Vicksburg
Sure hope my baby’s in a cave
But that blue flood is surely coming’
And I know my baby will be saved

There’s thunder and lighting in Natchez
Where there used to be crying on the block [4]
There’s thunder and lighting in Natchez
Where my baby was crying on the block
But when that blue flood comes to Natchez
We’ll take the keys and break the locks

There’s a horn blown’ in Jackson [5]
Blowing just like Jericho
Lord, there’s a horn blowin’ in Jackson
Strong and loud like Jericho
When you hear that horn a wailing,
Pack your bags, child, time to go!
—————

[1] African Americans soldiers were a vital part of the Union forces in the Mississippi Valley. Almost 18,000 black men from Mississippi enlisted in the Union army; only Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee provided more African descent troops to the Union cause. During the war, Frederick Douglass famously said “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Earnest McBride, in his essay “Black Mississippi troops in the Civil War,” writes that “the most noteworthy battles fought by Mississippi black troops to liberate themselves, their families and the entire nation are the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863, as part of the Vicksburg Campaign; two battles in or near Yazoo City, February and March, 1864; Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864; Brownsville, MS, April, 1864; Brice’s Crossroads, June 1-13, 1864; Tupelo, July 5-1864.”
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Remembering Willis Howcott: a Civil War monument to a Mississippi slave

Howcott-memorial copy
Monument in Memory of Colored Servants of Harvey Scouts. Canton Miss. Erected by W. H. Howcott Click here for a larger image.
Per here: Monument erected by William H. Howcott, a veteran of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit. The base reads “To the memory of the good and loyal servants who followed the fortunes of Harvey’s Scouts during the civil War.”
Image Source: Howcott Memorial, from the blog Finding Josephine; photo courtesy Joel Brink.

The blog Confederate Digest – which claims to provide “historically accurate” commentary about the Confederate States – has a blog entry about a rare type of monument in Canton, Mississippi: it was erected in honor of a Confederate slave.

The monument honors Willis Howcott, who was the slave of William Howcott. William Howcott was a member of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit from Mississippi made up of around 128 soldiers. A history of Harvey’s Scouts, written by John Claiborne and published in 1885, is here. While the names of the Scout’s soldiers are listed, neither the names of the slaves who were with the soldiers, nor a count of those slaves, are indicated in Claiborne’s history.

The Confederate Digest blog entry says that “William was 15 years old when he joined Harvey’s Scouts in 1864. Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend. Willis was, tragically, killed in combat sometime in 1865 at the age of 14.” This is based on family memoirs and memories.

This same blog entry makes the claim, which is largely discredited, that an “estimated 65,000 or more African American men, both free and slave, were Confederate soldiers.” Was Willis Howcott one of these black Confederate soldiers?

First, some quick background. During the Civil War, many masters took their slaves with them as they went off to war. These slaves performed a number of tasks: they cooked, foraged for food, washed laundry, cut hair, cared for animals, etc. These slaves were not enlisted in the army; slave enlistment was prohibited by the Confederate government until March 1865. (One month later, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.)

I read through Claiborne’s history of the Scouts, and found no mention of Willis Howcott. Claiborne’s list of the unit’s dead (12 men in all) does not include Willis Howcott’s name. If Willis Howcott did die in battle, it is not recorded in this history, which was developed “out of a considerable amount of material furnished by different persons, and placed at his (Claiborne’s) disposal.”

In fact, Claiborne’s history of Harvey’s Scouts makes no mention of the unit’s slaves at all. Interestingly, Claiborne does document an encounter the Scouts had with a group of US Colored Troops, black men who enlisted in the Union army. Claiborne writes that the “Scouts fell in with a long wagon train from Natchez, guarded by a colored regiment. A desperate fight ensued. The negroes had been taught that we would show them no quarter, and fought like devils.” But there is no mention of the negroes who were with the Scouts. In Claiborne’s history, the slaves are not soldiers, but rather, invisible men.

Regardless of Willis Howcott’s role in his master’s army unit, there is no doubt that his death was heartfelt by William Howcott: in the 1890s, William paid for a 20-foot high granite obelisk monument to the memory of Willis in Canton, MS. While there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers, monuments recognizing slaves who accompanied Confederate military units are quite rare. (Consider the monuments here and here.) The inscription on the monument William Howcott dedicated to Willis Howcott poignantly reads, “A tribute to my faithful servant and friend, Willis Howcott, a colored boy of rare loyalty and faithfulness, whose memory I cherish with deep gratitude.” Of note is that Willis Howcott is identified as a servant who was loyal to his master, not as a soldier who was loyal to his country. And there is no mention of how Willis died. In any event, William Howcott was clearly hurt by the loss.

Did William Howcott ultimately blame himself for the loss of his slave and friend? Should he have?

The monument raises the question: how should we, today, look at the death of Willis Howcott? When soldiers fight and die for a great cause – such as the independence of their country, or liberation from bondage – we thank the soldier and honor his sacrifice. But Willis Howcott died a slave. He died because his master chose to bring him into a war zone, for the master’s convenience. In death, Willis Howcott paid the highest price that could be paid by a slave in his service to his master. Is it honorable or right that a slave master should put his slave in that position? Beyond his master’s respect and gratitude, what did the slave stand to gain by being placed in such hazardous conditions… is what the slave stood to gain “worth” the loss of his life? Is the death of this exploited laborer much more tragic than it was possibly heroic (assuming that the 14 year old Willis did die in battle)?

(The Confederate Digest post says “Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend.” Really?… a 13 year old slave boy had the authority to dictate that he would join his young master in a military unit? Willis Howcott’s presence in the unit was surely not his decision to make, and probably not solely William Howcott’s decision; William’s parents or guardians at least would have approved it. The parents/guardians of William no doubt felt better about William’s military service with servant Willis at his side to help out with the rigors of camp life. And it’s not unlikely that young Willis wanted to accompany his master. The idea of going off to war might have been a thrill for both these young teenagers. It is unknown if Willis’s parents approved, or had veto power over, the taking of their son.)

The black man in the above picture is unidentified. He stands almost like a sentinel, as if he was guarding the memory of Willis Howcott itself. Was he a relative of Willis?  African Americans, in Mississippi and elsewhere, typically lacked the resources to erect their own such monuments. So the family’s feelings about Willis’s death were not etched in stone, for us to see. This possible relative might well have been thankful that Willis received due recognition for his sacrifice, no matter what the circumstances of his death. This, as opposed to so many unnamed and unnoticed black men and women, who did the very best they could do under trying times, and yet have nothing in the commemorative landscape to show for the lives they lived. Willis Howcott’s death is worth remembering. As to how that death should be remembered… that is another question.

EDIT: As noted in a response from Francis Howcutt (see comments below), the Willis Howcott monument was moved a few years ago from the site shown in the picture to a burial ground near the Old Jail at Canton, Mississippi.

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 Their High Horses: Black Cavalry Soldiers in Mississippi

image
“The War in Mississippi—The 1st Mississippi Negro Cavalry Bringing into Vicksburg Rebel Prisoners Captured at Haines Bluff. –From a Sketch by our Special Artist, Fred B. Schell”
From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, December 19, 1863; see here and here

When the Civil War began, Mississippi was one of two states in which over half the population was of African descent. Enslaved Mississippians outnumbered free Mississippians by a count of 437,000 to 354,000. Given those numbers, the subjugation and control of slaves was an essential part of the social, legal, and security fabric of the state’s white-only polity and government.

The Union army unraveled white control of the slave population. Although the Union military suffered serious and numerous military setbacks in the East during the first half of the war, especially in Virginia, it was able to gain ground steadily along the Mississippi River and its adjacent states. A key event in the conquest of the River and its environs was the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. With that and previous victories, the Union was able to solidify its control and occupation of Confederate territory in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

From those occupied areas, the Union army garnered its most African American recruits. These four states provided the most black soldiers to the Union army:
o Louisiana 24,052
o Kentucky 23,703
o Tennessee 20,133
o Mississippi 17,869

The above image illustrates the momentous changes in the status of African Americans during the war. This sketch, from the December 19, 1863 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, shows black men transporting Confederate prisoners in the face of a mostly white crowd. A description of the image by the University of Michigan’s Clements Library website notes that “Black soldiers now guard white prisoners and tower over onlookers.”

Also of interest is the way the soldiers are drawn. Many period renderings of African Americans depict them as caricatures, with huge lips and ape-like features. This image depicts black men as, well, men. It is a humane and dignified portrayal, befitting their new status as freemen and soldiers.

The army regiment in the picture was actually named the First Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent). In its discussion of Mississippi’s black Union soldiers, Bernie McBride’s website bjmjr.net points out that

The National Park Services lists 10 black Union regiments organized in Mississippi. These are the First Regiment Cavalry; the First Regiment Mounted Rifles; the First, and Second heavy Artillery; the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Regiment Infantry, all officially designated “African Descent.”

Lest We Forget Website master Bennie McRae expands that list to 16 regiments under the official designation “United States Colored Troops.” The First Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent), for example, became the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment after the change to the USCT system. Ten infantry regiments, rather than the six listed above, were established at Vicksburg and Natchez. Two additional heavy artillery regiments and one of light artillery were established under Grant’s command by January 1864.

A discussion of the African American Monument in Vicksburg National Military Park is here.

Child’s Play is Not Child’s Play on a Civil War Era Plantation

image
“But seriously Topsy… did you have to go there?”
Source: Image of Miss Ophelia and Topsy from Selection from Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Digital Critical Edition: “Topsy”: Houghton, Osgood & Co. “New Edition,” 1879

Sometimes a game is not a game. Susan Snow, a former enslaved woman, learned this the hard way during the Civil War.

Snow was one of many former slaves who was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration. During her interview with a Project writer, she recalled an incident from the War, when she was in her early teens:

I was born in Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1850. W.J. Snow was my old marster. He bought my ma from a man named Jerry Casey. Venus was her name, but dey mos’ly called her ‘Venie.’

“I got more whuppin’s dan any other Nigger on de place, ’cause I was mean like my mammy. Always a-fightin’ an’ scratchin’ wid white an’ black. I was so bad Marster made me go look at de Niggers dey hung to see what dey done to a Nigger dat harm a white man. Continue reading

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