“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.

In These Times Staff

Fannie Lou Hamer addressing the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964. (United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division)

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.

"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?"

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?

Thank you.

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