“After I was placed in the cell, I began to hear sounds of licks…and screams. I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams, and I heard somebody say, ‘Can you say yes sir, nigger? Can you say yes sir?’ and they would say other horrible names. She would say ‘Well, yes, I can say yes sir.’ ‘Well then say it,’ and she said ‘I don’t know you well enough.’ They beat her, I don’t know how long, and after a while she began to pray, and ask God to have mercy on those people…
“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep, with our telephones off of the hook, because our lives be threatened daily. Because we want to live, as decent human beings, in America. Thank you.”
— From Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech to the Democratic National Convention, 1964, on her experience in the Montgomery County, Mississippi jail after she and others were arrested trying to register to vote
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was founded on April 26, 1964 as part of a voter registration project for African Americans in the state. For over half a century, Mississippi Blacks had attempted to attend regular Democratic Party meetings and conventions but were continually denied entry. They formed the MFDP, which welcomed both Whites and Blacks, to run several candidates for congressional elections on June 2, 1964.
Attempting to get members to join the MFDP angered most White Mississippians, who often responded with violence. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, three men who were associated with the MFDP — Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney — disappeared and were later found dead with fatal gunshot wounds. The one African American man was beaten so badly for attempting to register to vote that his bones had been crushed.
This defiance by Mississippi’s White majority propelled the MFDP to get its delegates into the upcoming 1964 National Democratic Convention to replace the “regular” Democrats. These regular Democrats wanted to seat an all-White delegation at the convention, which met in Atlantic City. The MFDP protested. Supporters of the MFDP came from all over the United States to support their protest.
Eventually a compromise proposal orchestrated by Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey offered the MFDP two non-voting seats next to the regular Mississippi delegates. However, the MFDP refused the offer because it denied them any chance of voting on the floor of the convention. MFDP leader Fannie Lou Hamer spoke before the convention rules committee explaining the position of the party and why the compromise offered was unacceptable.
While the MFDP failed in its goal of gaining seats at the Democratic National Convention, it was ultimately successful as its story in Atlantic City reminded the country of the ongoing battle Southern Blacks faced in gaining full citizenship rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed two months before the convention, did not address the right to vote.
African Americans in Mississippi and across the nation vowed to continue pressing for full voting rights. The MFDP’s role in that struggle helped pave the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The story of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party exposes the truth that African Americans have not always been Democrats, something today’s Democrats don’t necessarily want us to know. Before Fannie Lou Hamer and her movement, the Democratic Party of the United States was literally a private club open to White men only.
I ask you this: Do we keep “waiting on Roosevelt” (as in the Langston Hughes poem quoted in my previous column) until we are more than homeless and hungry?
If the Democrats have essentially been in power for the last 39 years, what did we get for our loyalty? Here in Minnesota, we have abominable outcomes in health disparities, education, out-of-home placement, child protection and employment… in some cases, the worst outcomes in the nation.
Frederick Douglass was a Republican — did you know that? After eight years of Reagan and 12 years of the Bushes, compounded by eight years of Tim Pawlenty here in Minnesota, I ask you this: From the Republicans, what did we get? We got the furtherance of the abominable outcomes for Blacks in health disparities, education, out-of-home placement, child protection and employment…in some cases, the worst in the nation.
Can you see yet? Still calling yourself Democrat or Republican? We better wise up. We better get conscious — what we need is a Black Independence Movement!
Either that, or ”Can you say yes sir, nigger?”
For further information, read Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), or go to www.ibiblio.org/sncc/mfdp.html; www.watson.org/~lisa/blackhistory/civilrights-55-65/missippi.html; or www.jofreeman.com/photos/mfdp64.html.
Lissa Jones welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.