One of my besties is from Jackson, Mississippi. I met her in college; and despite our immediate bond, when she invited me to her home in the “Deep South”, I was entirely horrified. Me, with my New York City entree into the world and my still Northern, Pittsburgh upbringing, having viewed the film, “Mississippi Burning” in the not-so-distant past? Let’s just say the invitation gave me pause.
However, I love to travel so, instead of saying “No, Thanks” to her Thanksgiving invitation, I just sunk lower and lower in the backseat of the car as we sped our way into the state that would forever change my life. I expected that we would be pulled over and slaughtered on the roadside, just like so many of the persons I had read about, not just Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney but that which the nameless, faceless of history, had experienced. I didn’t verbalize these fears, as I thought it might be rude, not that my honesty would be met with any level of compassion. Indeed, the tighter I held onto my pillow and peeked over the dashboard onto the highway, the more uproariously my car mates (and so called friends) would point at me and laugh.
It’s the state we all come to learn how to spell. It’s also the state Nina Simone damned to hell.
But I’ve come to love Mississippi because, over time, I have learned more about its history and how African Americans organized and inspired more Americans to fight for human rights and, subsequently, changed the world. The WORLD. Now, although we have won some battles, the war is not over. Today, Mississippi has the most African Americans in elected office; but it’s the poorest state in America.
We have only just begun to thoroughly (and critically) engage and understand the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in America. It’s amazing to think that, as recently as 1960, African Americans were still sharecropping and living in stunning poverty in the South—the worst of which was in Mississippi.
So, imagine, a woman such as Fannie Lou Hamer, a resident of Ruleville, MS, being approached by a young organizer from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and asked to come to a meeting on Voter Registration, whereupon she was so overwhelmed with and enamored by the possibility of being free from oppression that she was willing to sacrifice everything (including her home, employment and family as a sharecropper on the plantation) to do so?
|“We didn’t fight this hard for you to stay home and not vote in November!”|
|Lawd knows my feet hurt but I ain’t no ways tired…gotta represent for the people!|
These days, many of us take voting, Black political representation and, certainly, Black women’s roles in political power, for granted. But if it weren’t for supreme organizer, Ella Baker encouraging young people to create their own organization (since they didn’t want to be the youth wing of the SCLC, ahem) and the young people creating the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for themselves; and their decision to focus on voter registration (and obtaining the power to exert control over their lives); and Fannie Lou Hamer going to that meeting and not only joining SNCC but becoming one of its most passionate figureheads and organizers; and SNCC helping to form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to further influence the Democratic Party at the National Convention in 1964 (just like the Tea Party is doing within the Republican Party in 2010, ahem); and the racist, Dixiecrats so determined to maintain the system of white supremacy that they left the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party, thereby focusing on a “Southern Strategy” to get disaffected, angry white men to join in on the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement (and subsequent Women’s Rights Movement), championed by the likes of Ronald Reagan (whose harsh policies helped give birth to Hip Hop) and George Bush, Sr. and George Bush, Jr. (who practically destroyed the country), causing a tidal wave of young, disenfranchised Americans fed up with racism, classism and sexism and birthed on Hip Hop to the point where they wanted to get out and vote—there would be no President Barack Obama.
|President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama|
And that was a stream-of-consciousness, historical rant. Oh yes, President Barack Obama owes much to a poor, Black woman in Mississippi named Fannie Lou Hamer. There’s a bit of irony here, since he also owes much to a woman who grew up as a poor, Black girl in Mississippi, named Oprah Winfrey. But, for now, let’s give it up for the OGs, Pap and Fannie!
SNCC offered the centrality of grassroots activism on behalf of regular citizens and stressed “letting the people decide”…this is the foundation upon which Barack Obama worked as a community organizer and the philosophical tenets of his campaign.
Brilliant, Dr. Morris, especially when I think about the manner in which these central tenets were combined with top-notch technology and social media to tilt the world on its axis. The election of Barack Obama was not the change, in and of itself, but (as he has said many, many times), “the opportunity to make a change.” I believe that because my consistent mantra has been that Barack Obama is the Activist’s President. You bring him the pain to his door and his administration will open it. Make him do what you want like Fannie Lou Hamer, SNCC, the MFDP and those young activists made LBJ sign the Civil Rights Act and change American and World History, forever.
When Fannie Lou Hamer spoke truth to power in Atlantic City at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, she told harsh truths about being Black in America that were a far cry from a young Senator from Illinois being invited to take center stage in 2004. But one could not and does not exist without the other.
You see how this picture shows her all heroic and fierce and telling her oppressors off as she gives her testimony?
|Testifying before the Credentials Committee and televised before the world.|
We do love that… but look closer now… do you see those tears in her eyes?:
|(an “emergency broadcast” interrupted Mrs. Hamer’s speech on television) Emergency, indeed…|
THAT was Fannie Lou, too.
I do not know her kind of pain—and I am so thankful. But since she fought for me, I figure I can fight for her, you know? Listen to her give her narrative and read the transcript and a bio here.
This is also why I support Melissa Harris-Lacewell (now Perry), in this interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, as she insists that President Obama acknowledge and address the role of Black women’s political activism—the legacy upon which he stands:
Today, in Ruleville, Mississippi (where Fannie Lou Hamer broke the rules of oppression), sits a beautiful Memorial Garden created on the “Freedom Farm” Mrs. Hamer purchased to further assist poor, Black people in becoming self-sufficient and having a place to grow their food, despite leaving (or getting kicked off) the plantations upon which they were sharecropping—just as she had experienced.
When I first traveled to Ruleville with The Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy at Jackson State University and sat at Fannie Lou Hamer’s grave, I simply had not ever heard of “Freedom Farm” and found myself astonished, ashamed and angry about that which I did not know. Mind you, this was after college and after graduate school—and African American History is one of my specialties. #FAIL
|I’m feeling mighty unworthy and, yet, grateful…|
Thus, when I visited again this year, I learned that the National Fannie Lou Hamer Statue Fund Committee (organized by Patricia Thompson of ROAR) had been collecting money to erect a statue of Ms. Hamer right there at the Memorial Gardens. They needed approximately $125,000 and, as usual, it was a small, committed group of veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and their friends who had done all of the leg work and had launched the campaign. When Patricia Thompson first encountered Fannie Lou Hamer’s grave, the grass was up to her knees and she cried in the middle of the field, vowing to make things right. It reminded me of Alice Walker’s search for Zora Neale Hurston’s grave and what she found. So, Ms. Thompson and others got to work. They chopped down the grass, then they took Freedom Farm from this:
To this, the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden:
|The Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden, Ruleville, MS|
Go ahead and give them a standing ovation right now! In your living room, office, at your desk, give them a hand! Now, somebody please tell me why we cannot meet this goal post-stat?! I mean, it’s sort of embarrassing, isn’t it? There are many more pictures and much more information on the website. Please check it out!
But I am ‘sick and tired’ of us not properly honoring the persons who sacrificed so much for us—as Black people, as Americans, as women, as Democrats, as elected officials, as human beings who stand up for our principles and each other’s rights…. Fannie Lou Hamer was thrown in jail and beaten severely for her activism. Later, she would die (and way too early, she never made it to 60 years old) as a result of heart disease, diabetes, living a hard life on the plantation and, yes, the beatings she suffered in jail.
But she couldn’t do a whole lot of crying in public. She had things to do and young people to continue to inspire, which is why this intergenerational picture means so much to me:
|Yes, that’s Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture in the back and Ella Baker on the far right.|
It is because of her activism that I could write a comedy about going to jail but I also did so because as much as folks love Tyler Perry’s “Madea Goes to Jail”, it is largely without the socio-political commentary that I tend to like in my art, even though “For Colored Girls” may provide it. Nevertheless, I decided to flip the script—literally…
In “Dr. Goddess Goes to Jail: A Spoken Word, Musical Comedy (Unfortunately) Based on a True Story”, I chose to create an intergenerational celebration of the Civil Rights Movement. And, although this came pretty natural for me (after years of unlearning & reconditioning), it is also a Feminist/Womanifesto, which stars “four little girls”. And, in my own brand of satiric irony, the hit song in this production about activism and commitment is “Neutrality”, a song that revels in fence-riding, apathy and immobility, in which I sing:
But what about Rosa? What about Rosa? / What about Rosa, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou?
If I were any one of those women, / What would you say? What would you tell me to do?
What about them, folks? Can we put our hands together and get this Fannie Lou Hamer Statue up?
And if you want to get uber-supportive, write anything that inspired you about Fannie Lou (or just share the link to this blog); and put this picture and this code up on your blog:
Chip In uses PAYPAL and you can PRINT a RECEIPT!
These persons have ALREADY raised $20,000, so chip in!
Anything over the amount goes to the Education Fund & Maintenance of the Memorial Garden.
And I thanks ya kindly in the Hamerly way!
|U.S. Highway 49, Ruleville, Mississippi|
We’d also like to further show the City of Ruleville, MS (a population of approximately 3,000 persons with a median income of $23,036), that the National Fannie Lou Hamer Statue Fund has a lot of supporters who intend to see Fannie Lou Hamer get her propers. So, stay tuned!
|Euvester Simpson is pictured on the cover. Dr. Tiyi Morris is her daughter.|
By the way, the bestie who invited me to her hometown and laughed at me, mercilessly, on the ride there? Well, she did pull over on the way back and allowed me to pick some cotton up off the side of the road. And, as it turns out, her mother, Euvester Simpson, was just a young, woman, Civil Rights worker when she shared a jail cell with Fannie Lou Hamer, the same day she was brutally beaten. I had no idea, when I decided to visit Mississippi during Thanksgiving Break, that my life would never be the same because of the women and men who paved the road for me to arrive.
Special Thanks to: Patricia Thompson, Repaying Our Ancestors Respectfully (ROAR), the National Fannie Lou Hamer Statue Fund Committee and the National Black United Fund (NBUF) for serving as our fiscal sponsor!