In Church With Fannie Lou Hamer: August 24-27, 1964, Atlantic City

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In Church With Fannie Lou Hamer: August 24-27, 1964, Atlantic City

by
Joan Lester

Our rag-tag group slept on the pews in our sleeping bags, jammed together, giddy, singing freedom songs half the night. "We shall overcome, some day." My sleeping bag, borrowed from a friend, was damp with sweat while I lay in the hot, muggy church, fervent with hope.

Atlantic City, August 24, 1964. Who knew it would be historic? We were just mad. For years the Democratic Party in Mississippi had methodically excluded Negroes from voting. Whites used every terror tactic, from publishing the names and addresses of those who tried to register to bombing homes. Now they were on a rampage, barring blacks at gunpoint from state precinct meetings, with the Governor, Paul Johnson, leader of the state Democratic Party, publicly mocking the NAACP acronym as "Niggers, alligators, apes, coons and possums."

In response, Fannie Lou Hamer and others had formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), open to all. Despite harassment, it registered over 50,000 voters in its parallel process, held precinct meetings, conducted county and state conventions, and elected fifty-eight delegates to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, arguing that this delegation represented the legitimate party, the only one run in accordance with the Constitution and the national Party.

I was there when the MFDP rode into town, waiting on the boardwalk with a handful of demonstrators singing "Ain't goinna let no beatings turn us around...marching up to Freedom land." I'd arrived with a busload from New York City, coming to cheer the MFDP on, ensuring the credentials committee would honor their legitimacy. "Hold your eyes on the prize, hold on!" we chanted, marching in a circle, certain that exposing such inequity would guarantee delegate status for the MFDP.

That first evening after the delegates arrived we went back to the church, chomping on our apples and sandwich crusts, to discover that Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer herself was with us, come to talk to our mostly-white group of supporters. We'd heard of her: a legendary sharecropper from Sunflower County, evicted from the land she and her husband had lived on for eighteen years because she insisted on going to town, trying to register to vote. Later, she said, "I guess if I had any sense, I'd have been scared--but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it seemed they'd been trying to do that a little at a time since I could remember."

Ms. Hamer stood above us on the stage that night, placed herself in front of the lectern, and lifted up her skirt. Her legs were large, covered with dark bruises. The inside of her thighs were almost one continuous blotch. "This is what those Mississippi sheriffs did to me," she said, tears rolling in transparent streams down her dark cheeks. "This is how they beat me." She paused, then began to sing, still crying, "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine..." She clapped to the beat and we all joined in.

I watched, transfixed. Never had I seen evidence of such brutality-or bravery. Her courage was like a tent flapping around her, one that extended to embrace us all. That night, when I lay on the hard pew in my sleeping bag, I vowed that I'd do whatever it took. "No more beatings," I sang softly to myself, as tears trickled into my ears, "No more beatings, anymore."

The next day as we picketed on the boardwalk again, Martin Luther King and Mrs. King swept by: beautiful, wrapped in glory, radiating royal status. Then a friend slipped me a pass to slide inside the Convention for an hour, while Ms. Hamer testified live on TV before the credentials committee. She recounted her beating in the Winona jail, where a State Highway Patrolman had ordered two Negro trustees to beat her with a blackjack for hours, until she was near death. Choking back tears, she asked, "Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings--in America?"

On the convention floor, I heard President Johnson call a hasty press conference midway through Ms. Hamer's speech, cutting her off the air. Later, sitting in a bar sipping beer, we saw the networks run her speech on the evening news anyway, riveting the nation. Still, since Johnson didn't want to alienate the South, with its powerful committee chairs, the MFDP wasn't seated.

Crushed, I returned that night to my sodden sleeping bag, crawled in, and awoke downhearted to a general mood of disappointment. When I returned home stinky and bitter, smelling of three days of sweat, I told my Negro husband that I was fully "in the struggle," as we said then, "by any means necessary." Lying with him in our bed, I swore again: Whatever it took.

But our faith was broken. We'd discovered that playing by the rules was not enough. When Fannie Lou Hamer mourned, "We came with nothing, we'll go home with nothing," I felt the same, unsure where to turn. And I was not alone. Immediately, the civil rights movement--once so clear--fractured, with activists flying every which way. Some, their trust in white allies shattered, created the ideological rational for a self-reliant Black Power and soon, Black Panthers, Black Muslims. Others, equally disenchanted, embraced a broader self-sufficiency: Ms. Hamer herself created a pig farm for poor whites and blacks, before returning four years later as a full delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Some few, with the background and the heart for it, stepped directly into the corridors of white power, attempting to broker justice from the inside as Mayors or members of Congress.

Dispirited, I joined those who began to talk idly of "picking up the gun." For what justice, after all, had our by-the-book protests gotten us? The glamour of an armed revolution acquired full-dress attire in that betrayal on the boardwalk. Our idea gained credence when--after Watts burned for five days in LA--President Johnson suddenly called for massive spending in the ghettoes. So that's what it took! Chants of "Burn, Baby, Burn" erupted in city after city. Then Bonnie and Clyde, the hot new movie, showed that violence was indeed the thing, if you wanted to help the poor.

Yet romantic talk of insurrection, a la Che Guevara, was one thing, the cold hard reality of a gun another. With no real weapons around, I merely thrilled to the talk, imagining a home-grown revolutionary moment, and cheered on the emergence, cross-country, of California's Black Panthers. When my fantasy of leading an armed revolution failed, due to my inability to actually lay hands on a gun or locate troops, I fled to my bedroom, nestled into my husband, and began to churn out babies.

Working then as an urban researcher for $3 an hour, running back and forth from the apartment of a neighbor who gave cheap day-care, somehow I kept up my study-group reading of Marx, pouring through the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte to learn how to make radical change. But my bitterness grew as I staggered under pressures of work and motherhood--for my husband had gone South to foment revolution with his guitar; I heard he didn't sleep alone. My resentment swelled until I threw over Marx to help start a new Women's Liberation. Angered at even our civil rights leaders (one of whom declared that the best position for women in the movement was "prone"), a group of us met on lower Broadway to strategize. We decided to form small local clusters, so when neighborhood women filled my kitchen, recounting grievances, asking, "What can we do?" we started a group. My friend Ann Mari came down from East Harlem to join us, and soon women from all over the city piled into my living room every week to tell their stories.

My rage bloomed while the country burned, fueling my days and nights, in spite of the joy the babies brought. It's fortunate that I didn't have a gun then, because at one point, even pre-Thelma and Louise, I thought shooting the men who didn't respect us was a pretty swift idea. Our group read a pamphlet that appeared, suggesting a plan: On the same evening, when men arrived home from work all over the country, they'd open the door and Bam! "One shot for every diaper you never changed." Bam! "One toe for each infidelity." Bam! "For the broom you've never picked up." Brilliant, I thought, so coordinated, and sure to make an impact. Yet even in an era of burning cities this fantasy too soon faded, joining my earlier one, where I led Black Revolutionary Troops and waved my banner like Joan of Arc.

Instead, once again I borrowed a sleeping bag, this time traveling to Chicago in the cold of November, 1968, for our first national Women's Liberation Conference. We met, two hundred women, out in the woods at some god-forsaken YWCA camp with no heat. Though I'd come to represent our neighborhood group, I was unsure whether I had the faith to hope again, to risk heart-break in another fight for justice. I shivered in my sleeping bag on a bunk bed the first night, feeling alone, discouraged, and embittered. Missing my babies, I questioned, Why am I here? What change can we make?

Yet while I lay there, four years after I'd seen Fannie Lou Hamer on that church stage and cried myself to sleep on the pew, the image of her shining round face, hair pulled back, singing through her tears, came to me. If she could raise her voice to This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine after all she'd been through, so, surely, could I. At that moment, with the picture of Ms. Hamer standing on stage lifting her skirt to show her bruises, I rejoined the caravan of hope. And snuggled deep into my sleeping bag, which suddenly felt like a warm, portable nest to incubate my dreams.

Joan Lester's most recent book Fire in My Soul (Simon and Schuster), a biography of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

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