Web Only / Features » June 19, 2017
“I Question America”: On Juneteenth, Remembering Fannie Lou Hamer’s Testimony About Racist Brutality
Hamer’s speech to the 1964 Democratic National Convention still rings true.
"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?"
This Juneteenth, the unofficial holiday marking the abolition of slavery, people across the country are taking action to reclaim vacant spaces for Black communities. Many are also mobilizing in the streets to express their outrage at the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castile in Minnesota and the police killing of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant, Black mother, at her Seattle apartment on June 18.
We mark this holiday by reprinting the testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, delivered nearly 53 years ago to the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. A co-founder and organizer with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Hamer shared with the committee her direct experience of racist violence and voter suppression.
The former sharecropper’s attempts to persuade the Democratic Party establishment to reject the segregationist Mississippi Democratic Party were not immediately successful. However, her leadership played a pivotal role in building the Black Freedom Movement and drawing nationwide attention to brutal, racist violence.
Hamer’s warnings about the suppression of the Black vote, as well as the rise of vigilante, racist violence and law-enforcement repression, prove prescient for our current moment. As we celebrate the official end of slavery in the United States, Hamer’s fight for true emancipation continues.
Mr. Chairman, and to the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland, and Senator Stennis.
It was the 31st of August in 1962 that 18 of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens. We was met in Indianola by policemen, Highway Patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the City Police and the State Highway Patrolmen and carried back to Indianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.
After we paid the fine among us, we continued on to Ruleville, and Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for eighteen years. I was met there by my children, who told me the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down—tried to register.
After they told me, my husband came, and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. And before he quit talking the plantation owner came and said, “Fannie Lou, do you know—did Pap tell you what I said?”
And I said, “Yes, sir.”
He said, “Well I mean that.”
Said, “If you don't go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.” Said, “Then if you go down and withdraw,” said, “you still might have to go because we're not ready for that in Mississippi.”
And I addressed him and told him and said, “I didn't try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.”
I had to leave that same night.
On the 10th of September 1962, 16 bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also, Mr. Joe McDonald's house was shot in.
And June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop; was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people—to use the restaurant—two of the people wanted to use the washroom.
The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out I got off of the bus to see what had happened. And one of the ladies said, “It was a State Highway Patrolman and a Chief of Police ordered us out.”
I got back on the bus and one of the persons had used the washroom got back on the bus, too.
As soon as I was seated on the bus, I saw when they began to get the five people in a highway patrolman's car. I stepped off of the bus to see what was happening and somebody screamed from the car that the five workers was in and said, “Get that one there.” And when I went to get in the car, when the man told me I was under arrest, he kicked me.
I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. 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 could hear somebody say, “Can you say, 'yes, sir,' nigger? Can you say 'yes, sir'?”
And they would say other horrible names.
She would say, “Yes, I can say 'yes, sir.'”
“So, well, say it.”
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 asked God to have mercy on those people.
And it wasn't too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman and he asked me where I was from. And I told him Ruleville. He said, “We are going to check this.” And they left my cell and it wasn't too long before they came back. He said, “You are from Ruleville all right,” and he used a curse word. And he said, “We're going to make you wish you was dead.”
I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack. The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State Highway Patrolman, for me to lay down on a bunk bed on my face. And I laid on my face, the first Negro began to beat me.
And I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.
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 and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat to sit on my feet – to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.
One white man—my dress had worked up high—he walked over and pulled my dress. I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.
I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.
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?
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