When a group of African-American delegates from Mississippi demanded to be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, the moving testimony by Fannie Lou Hamer made this former sharecropper a national spokeswoman for civil rights overnight.
Fannie Lou Hamer's Testimony Before the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic Convention
ANNOUNCER: NBC News continues with its special coverage of the activities leading to the opening of the Democratic National Convention. Here again is NBC News correspondent Edwin Newman.
EDWIN NEWMAN: The Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention has now begun to deal with the case of the Mississippi rival delegations, each of which is seeking to be seated as the delegation from Mississippi at the convention. The first delegation to be heard is the Mississippi Freedom Party delegation. That is the largely negro group which insists that it should be seated because the regular Mississippi Democrats are not in fact Democrats at all and would not support the ticket in November.
Joseph Rauh, who is a Washington, D.C. attorney, is presenting the case for the Freedom Democratic Party, and he is calling a succession of witnesses, among whom are Aaron Henry, a druggist in Clarksdale, Mississippi, chairman of the Freedom Party, and also president of the NAACP in Mississippi, and he is speaking now. He is to be followed by perhaps four or five other witnesses, among them perhaps Martin Luther King.
JOSEPH RAUH, Attorney for Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: Your honor, I must respectfully disagree. It is the very terror that these people are living through that is the reason that negroes aren’t voting, that they’re kept out of the Democratic Party by the terror of the regular party. And what I want the Credential Committee to hear is the terror which the regular party uses on the people of Mississippi, which is what Reverend King was explaining, which is what Aaron Henry was explaining, and which is what the next witness will explain, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer.
FANNIE LOU HAMER: 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 eighteen 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 that the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down to try to register.
After they told me, my husband came, and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. 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." He 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 are 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, sixteen 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. …
EDWIN NEWMAN: You’re hearing the testimony by Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, who was a candidate for congresswoman from the second district of Mississippi in the Democratic primary. She lost. She’s here to testify for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Also on their list of witnesses is a Mrs. Rita Schwerner, widow of one of the three civil rights workers killed in Philadelphia last June. We’ll be resuming our coverage of the Credentials Committee hearing, and also going to the White House, in just a moment, after a station break.
The news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, hit 17-year-old Freeman Hrabowski like a death in the family.