The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero. His leadership, intellect, courage, and ambassadorship to white America and the world at large make him deserving of all the recognitions and honors that he’s received.
Yet, I am filled with ambivalence every time we come to another MLK Jr Day. Yes, Dr. King was a great man. But he was not an army of one.
The Civil Rights Movement had numerous heroes and martyrs. All of them deserve recognition. Rather than a day to celebrate the memory of King, I would have preferred a Nation Civil Rights Movement Day to celebrate all of those who were a part of the Movement.
For example, my other “favorite” super-hero from the Movement is Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer. She started
working in the fields when she was six, and was only educated through the sixth grade. She married in 1942, and adopted two children. She went to work on the plantation where her husband drove a tractor, first as a field worker and then as the plantation’s timekeeper. She also attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, where speakers addressed self-help, civil rights, and voting rights.
In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) registering black voters in the South. She and the rest of her family lost their jobs for her involvement, and SNCC hired her as a field secretary. She was able to register to vote for the first time in her life in 1963, and then taught others what they’d need to know to pass the then-required literacy test. In her organizing work, she often led the activists in singing Christian hymns about freedom: “This Little Light of Mine” and others.
She helped organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a campaign sponsored by SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP.
In 1963, after being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to go along with a restaurant’s “whites only” policy, Hamer was beaten so badly in jail, and refused medical treatment, that she was permanently disabled.
Hamer is most famous for her work as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, sometimes called the “Freedom Democrats,” in 1964. The Freedom Democrats challenged the seating of Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. The Freedom Democrats brought national attention to the plight of black people in the state, and led to reforms in the way persons are seated at the Democratic Convention.
In 1972 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her national and state activism, by a vote of 116 to 0. This was an extraordinary recognition, given the state’s resistance to integration. Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977.
To me, no understanding of the Movement can be complete without knowing her story. But as I talk to people about Civil Rights history, especially young people, I am saddened that they have little or no idea of who she was or what she accomplished.
Segregation in the Jim Crow South was about two things: political and economic power, and sex.
The entire system was designed to keep blacks from power in government and business, and black men from intimacy with white women.
This had obvious negative effects on the South’s black population. African Americans were subjected to harsh, even brutal treatment for doing such simple things as trying to vote. But there were negative impacts on white Southerners as well.
White Southerners also had to adhere to the South’s code of behavior, or suffer consequences. This is illustrated in a true story from the book Devil’s Sanctuary: An Eyewitness History of Mississippi Hate Crimes. The book is co-authored by Alex A. Alston, Jr., former president of the Mississippi State Bar Association, and journalist James L. Dickerson.
The book details instances of the horrific oppression of Mississippi blacks by white Mississippians and all aspects of the state’s governmental and social institutions.
One of those governmental institutions was the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a quasi-independent spy agency created in 1956 to Mississippi against integration efforts by the federal government. The Sovereignty Commission was basically Mississippi’s Big Brother, and had its eyes out for anything that might imperil white supremacy.
This is a poignant and somewhat scary excerpt from the book:
Early in 1956, Mississippi Governor J. P. Coleman sent a bill to the Mississippi legislature to create a super-secret spy agency designed to protect the state from the encroaching power of the federal government. Under the provisions of the bill, the commission was empowered to “perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary to protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment.”
The commission was given the authority to examine the records and documents of any citizen and it was provided with broad-ranging subpoena power that included the authority to enforce obedience “by fine or imprisonment” at the discretion of the commission. It was designed to operate independantly of state govenment, when necessary, and permitted to solicit and use private funds to carry out covert operations.
…while taking the oath of office, Coleman had brought attention to the commission by saying, “I have not the slightest fear that four years hence when my successor assumes his official oath that the seperation of races in Mississippi will be left intact.”
When the Sovereignty Commission received word in 1964 that a white woman in Grenada, Mississippi had given birth to a baby of suspicious racial origins, investigator Tom Scarbrough was sent to the small town to conduct an investigation. After touching base with his initial source. who informed him that the 38 year old woman had been having an affair with a 31 year old motel employee who was black, Scarbrough met with the local sheriff, who expressed relief at seeing the investigator in town, since he wasn’t sure what to do about the situation. In his report Scarbrough wrote that the sheriff had told him that the people in Grenada were disturbed about the rumors, all the more since the (woman) and her husband and were from respectable families.
There’s a lot of buzz on the ‘net about a story in The New York Times Magazine titled A Prom Divided. The article is about the continuing practice in the South of having separate high school proms for blacks students and white students.
The article is accompanied by a compelling photo/audio slide show.
It’s definitely worth a read.
The Times article also talks about the documentary, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” which will be shown on HBO in July. The documentary is about actor Morgan Freeman’s offer to pay for a first-of-its-kind integrated prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi, which is his home state. This is an excerpt from the documentary: