The Hutchinson Report
Remember Fannie Lou Hamer for Obama’s triumph
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is not the only person President Barack Obama owes a profound debt of gratitude to. He also owes a debt to Fannie Lou Hamer. King put the moral and political face to the modern civil rights movement. Hamer put the moral and political face to the voting rights and equality movement. The movement transformed the Democratic Party and American politics. It made Obama’s presidential triumph possible.
King is celebrated with a national holiday and immortalized in history for his towering accomplishment. Hamer is largely forgotten for the colossal role she played in reshaping American politics. This was tragically apparent in the scant news mention of the burning of her Ruleville, Mississippi home on New Years day.
This writer, Hamer’s granddaughter, Lenora Hamer Flakes, and the Reverend Al Sharpton are determined to help restore Hamer’s home. But that’s not all. We have launched the Hamer Voting Rights Commemorative Monument Drive to place a commemorative monument at her restored home. The monument will tell the story of Hamer’s contribution to the fight for voting rights and political democracy. It’s a living testament to how she and a gritty band of black and white civil rights workers forever transformed the Democratic Party and ultimately American politics on that fateful day in August 1964 in Atlantic City.
That day the throng jammed the packed hearing room at the Democratic National Convention and the millions more who watched on TV saw Hamer slowly limp from her polio damaged left hip to her seat at the witness table. The hearing was before the convention’s credentials committee. Hamer was the vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was there to tell why the lily white Mississippi delegation should not be seated at the convention. She spoke slowly and movingly of the sorry tale of beatings (Hamer was beaten senseless in a Mississippi jail), shootings, sharecropper ousters and firings, and massive intimidation by white employers, sheriffs, and nightrider’s of civil rights and voting rights workers and blacks who sought to register to vote in the state. Hamer did not wag the moral finger at white Mississippi Democrats alone. She also lambasted President Lyndon Johnson and national Democrats for aiding and abetting the maintenance of a white supremacist Democratic Party in Mississippi and the rest of the South.
She wiped tears from her streaked face and quietly told the riveted committee and audience, “All of this on account we want to register, to become first class citizens and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now I question America.” Her simple, impassioned plea for voting rights and political equality was a magnetic turning point in American politics. Within hours hundreds of telegrams poured in to Western Union and thousands more sent letters and made calls to the credentials committee demanding that the Democratic Party seat Hamer and her integrated Mississippi delegation.
An observer later called Hamer the “knockout” witness. King looking back on that moment said that Hamer educated a nation and brought the political powers to their knees. Hamer and the Democratic Party challengers did not totally turn the tide. Johnson and the convention approved a weak compromise in which a token number from Hamer’s group was seated. The regulars kept their party and convention spots. But the era of the lily white racially exclusive Democratic Party was dead.
At the time of Hamer’s challenge there were little more than three hundred black elected officeholders nationally. By 2004, the number had soared to more than 9,000. The Democratic Party would be permanently tagged by conservatives as the party that stood for civil rights and minorities. Black voters became the permanent anchor of the party. In the 2008 election, Hamer’s contribution paid the biggest dividend of all. The record setting black vote in the must win states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and in the two former staunch GOP bastions in Virginia and North Carolina helped seal Obama’s victory.
In March 2007, Obama trekked to Selma, Alabama the scene of the 1965 bloody attack on voting rights marchers. He paid homage to the pivotal role that Hamer and the other voting rights activists played in making his candidacy and later presidential triumph possible. Forty five years after that transformative moment in American politics, Hamer’s family, civil rights leaders and elected officials are calling for contributions to help restore her home with the possible addition of a monument to commemorate the battle Hamer fought for voting rights and political empowerment.
The Hamer Voting Rights Commemorative Monument would join the list of other nationally recognized civil rights commemorative sites in the South. They are the historical markers of the fight for civil rights and voting rights in America. Hamer’s home and monument will be a lasting tribute to the woman who did so much to politically empower millions. One of whom is America’s 44th President.
- Earl Ofari Hutchinson will sign and discuss his new book How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009) at Park Hills Community Church, 5247 Overdale Dr., L.A. 90043 (one block east of Overhill and two blocks North of Slauson Ave.) on Sunday, Jan. 25 at 1 p.m. Information: 323-296-6331.
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