On Monday morning we ate and then went to the church where we were to teach. I was to teach geography. We waited for two hours, but only two potential students showed up – and they wanted science, the teacher of which wasn’t there at the time! We wasted Tuesday morning also but no one showed. We learned from this failure, I hope, the importance of including the Negro youth in our planning (The classes were planned by the COFO Workers) and of spreading the word more widely. It was not lost time for me since I took advantage of the opportunity to write in this Journal.
Monday afternoon was very hot but passed swiftly. In the evening we went to a mass meeting in Cleveland at which Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, the FDP candidate for Congress, was to speak. Old St. Phillips was packed that evening with a gay, lively crowd. The usual freedom songs were sung with great enthusiasm & hand clapping. Mrs. Hamer herself led the singing she has a deep, rich voice that carries well to the farthest corner of the building.
The three students who had gone as delegates to the state Student Union Convention at Meridian spoke first. John Black (who is white – the local COFO leader) talked about the man who had recently been murdered by the police in Merigold. He was not in the C-R Movement. “No one knocked on his door … He never signed a Freedom Registration form, probably never saw one. He died because he was a Negro (great clapping here) … He lay on the highway with two bullets in his heart … You can’t be safe by not joining the Movement. You will either be lying on the highway or standing together.”
There was a great deal of cheering & clapping at this, along with the usual interjections throughout the short speech. The crowd was well prepared now to hear Mrs. Hamer. Fannie Lou Hamer is a short, dumpy woman with graying hair. She is an animated speaker using many gestures, when her hands are not resting on the table before her. Her voice carries well, even above the “Amens” & “that’s right” of a worked-up crowd. She begins very simply and yet often bursts into great eloquence, even though it’s an ungrammatical eloquence. Her speech, apparently a standard one used when she visits groups she hasn’t met before, is simply a recital of the events in her life that led her take a stand.
She told us that one night her minister urged his people to register to vote so they could be first class citizens. In Aug. of 1962 she and 17 others traveled in a hired bus to Indianola where they registered. A large group of policemen, uniformed & plain clothes, both city & state, were gathered at the entrance way. “Any man in Miss. who can carry a gun & wear kakhi pants & is white can be a policeman.”
The group left the city but was stopped by city & state policemen. They were ordered off the bus. then back on. The bus went back to Indianola where the driver was arrested & charged with driving a bus of he wrong color! He had been driving it for many years, but now all of a sudden its color was illegal! He was first fined $100, far more than the group had with them. This was reduced to $50, then to $30 which they paid.
The Hamers worked on Mr. Marlowe’s plantation. When he found out that she had registered, he came and commanded her to go back and withdraw her name from the rolls. “Mr. Marlowe, I didn’t go to register for you but for myself,” she answered. She and her husband were fired & ordered to leave. Most of their possessions were stolen and their car damaged. They moved to Ruleville & stayed with Mrs. Tucker for a time, during which 16 bullets were fired into the house. One night two girls were wounded. Mrs. Hamer also reported that when she went to pay her water bill she had been charged with 9000 gal Ions. She told them she had been out of town, that she had not tub or shower & so could not possibly have used so much. “I just want you to know that I know!”
During the next months Mr. Hamer was fired several times. “But if God is for you,” she exclaimed, “who can be against you?!” Loud Amens and clapping.
She attended a voter registration conference in South Carolina. On the way back the bus stopped at, Miss. Five of the Negro women got off the bus to use the bathroom facilities. Mrs. Hamer, sitting on the bus, saw the women come running out of the station. They told her there were highway policemen in the restrooms. The patrolmen came out and started to put the women into their cars. Mrs. Hamer got off the bus to see what was happening. One of the women called, “Get back on the bus, Mrs. Hamer.” One of the men shouted, “Get that one, too.” Mrs. Hamer was also taken into custody then, and the group taken to jail and put into cells.
Mrs. Hamer reported that she could hear the sounds of a woman taking “her licks” and falling down a great deal. A loud voice said, “Can’t you say ‘yes sir,’ nigger?” “Yes I can, but I don’t know you well enough.” Sometime later she passed Mrs. Hamer’s cell. Her clothes had been torn off and she had to lean against the wall for support in order to stand. The men came to her cell next. “Where you from,
fatso?” “Ruleville.” “We’re going to check on that.”
Later the same ones returned. “You’re right. You’ ll wish you were back there!” She was led into another cell where two Negroes forced her to lie face down on a bunk. They were ordered to beat her and warned of what would happen to them if they didn’t. Each one beat her until he was too tired to continue. She tried to place her arms & hands behind her to absorb some of the force of the blows & cover her feet which were becoming stiff. One of the policemen watching the proceedings told one of the Negro prisoners to sit on her feet. As the beating continued she tried to blot out the sound by putting her hands over her ears. She doesn’t know how long the beating lasted; she believes that she lost consciousness. Finally the blows stopped & she was ordered to stand up & go back to her cell. She doesn’t know just how she found the strength, but she was able to make her way back.
They were aroused at night & told to get out of this mess. “I was born into this mess. I have to work myself out of it!” (Cheers) ” We been praying about it for years, going to church, hoping God would change things.” “If you’ve been born in America with a black face, you’re born in America!” (Cheers) “You can’t separate Christ from freedom!” “Now God wants us to stand up.”
She referred very movingly to the 5th Ch. of Matthew. “Christ called his disciples and taught them the same things we’ve been doing for years … ”
“Blessed are those who mourn.”
“Blessed are the meek – There ain’t no one more meek than the Negro!” (Applause)
“If you see a preacher not standing up, there’s something wrong with him, if he isn’t helping his people, There’s something wrong with teachers who don’t teach citizenship and what it means. There’s something wrong about not knowing about the history of Negroes!”
She said that the principal of the school in Ruleville asked her to meet with him alone. She asked if she could bring a couple of the parents along since whatever they would discuss involved them as well. The principal strongly told her to come alone. She took the parents anyway as witnesses, which upset the principal greatly. As she had suspected, 15 minutes after her arrival the police were there to arrest her.
“When a preacher says he doesn’t want politics in his church, he’s telling a lie! The pictures on those bills you pay him with are of presidents- he sure doesn’t keep them out!”
“What we want in Miss. is decent. jobs, a decent education, & to be treated as human beings. (Great cheer)
“Every time you see a Negro who is a policeman you can be assured he’s a Tom!” (Huge cheer)
“Now it (desegregation) is the Law of the land. If God opens doors for us, no man close it for us. Now that it’s open for us, all you have to do is to knock & go in.” (Standing ovation)
There was more singing and praying at the end; as usual the singing of “We Shall Overcome” closed the meeting. This was one of those rare evenings when everything seemed tremendous – the singing, the reaction of the crowd, & most of all, the speaker. There was a great feeling of strength & solidarity. You couldn’t help but know that with such spirit & courageous leadership, they will overcome.