On Saturday, 22 August 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party appeared before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to challenge the seating of the all-white delegation elected by the state’s Democratic Party. Fannie Lou Hamer’s delivered dramatic testimony before the committee, provoking President Lyndon Johnson to take to the airwaves in an attempt to prevent the nation’s citizens from seeing and hearing her. Hamer utilized the power of personal narrative, offering an emotional recollection of her struggle to vote that galvanized listeners in the convention hall.
Hamer detailed her attempts to register to vote and the harassment and violent intimidation she and other activists received at the hands of law enforcement officials. She also told the committee of her family’s eviction from their longtime home because of her refusal to withdraw her registration. Her narrative reached its climax when she described her arrest and beating after attending a voter registration conference:
<ext> 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 [as they beat another woman].
They beat her, I don’t know how long. And after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.
And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell. . . .
I was carried . . . into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack. . . . And I laid on my face, the first Negro began to beat me. . . .
After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.
The second Negro began to beat. . . . I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.
Hamer closed with a powerful appeal: “All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. 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 hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Evening news programs aired Hamer’s testimony, prompting a deluge of telegrams and phone calls in which citizens urged White House officials to seat the Freedom Democrats. The Democratic Party establishment resisted those calls, but Hamer’s testimony left a powerful mark on the American consciousness, and four years later, party officials seated an integrated Mississippi delegation.
- American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank website, www.americanrhetoric.com
- Nick Kotz, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America (2005)
- Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1993)
- PBS, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (DVD 1986)