During the summer of 1964, I was one of about 1,000 volunteers who came to Mississippi to assist SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) in the struggle for civil rights. During that summer, we operated Freedom Schools, organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, tried to register Black people to vote, and worked with Black farmers to put a Black farmer on the U.S.D.A. local board of the ASCS (Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service). But one of my activities was to assist Richard Beymer in making his film, “A Regular Bouquet” (available on Vimeo.com). Richard was the star of “West Side Story” (Tony) opposite Natalie Wood (Maria).
Richard and I traveled across Mississippi, filming and documenting Freedom Schools, voter registration projects, mass meetings, and a host of activities that were at the heart of the Mississippi Freedom Summer. One of our stops was in Sunflower County, including Ruleville, Mississippi, at the home of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer.
We first stopped in Indianola, Mississippi, county seat of Sunflower County, for a mass meeting. This meeting is part of “A Regular Bouquet”, and several Black speakers illustrate the significance of such meetings which were banned during Reconstruction and into the present day. One speaker states that “Black people have been killed for attending meetings such as this”. Although there were no laws on the books in the State of Mississippi outlawing such meetings, local officials and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council threatened the organizers and participants of these gatherings, essentially shutting them down.
After filming the mass meeting and interviewing some of the participants, we traveled to Ruleville and met Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. She was very welcoming and gracious, and invited us to stay at her home, which we did. The following day, we interviewed Mrs. Hamer in her living room as the three of us sat on her couch. Richard began the interview by informing Mrs. Hamer that he was involved in films and filmmaking, and her reply was, “I know who you are.” He was well known nationally and internationally, which included Ruleville, Mississippi, as Mrs. Hamer quietly informed him.
Mrs. Hamer’s interview is a key part of the soundtrack of “A Regular Bouquet”, which begins with a scene of civil rights workers driving in a car through rural Mississippi. The homes we pass are unpainted, built on piers, and all have a front porch. They had one wall, the exterior, and the interior was covered with newspapers glued to the walls to keep out the drafts. These were usually one or two bedroom homes with no running water and no electricity. All had outhouses and a hand pump for water. Often, there was a bucket of water on a table with a long handled cup next to it for drinking. Everyone used the same cup.
Mrs. Hamer is heard on the film, “I began by volunteerin” and detailed her work as a civil rights activist. She proceeded to explain to Richard and me what it was like for her and others like her, living in Mississippi and trying to register to vote. She said that she and others went on a bus to the courthouse in Indianola, the county seat of Sunflower County, to try and register to vote. They all filled out the necessary forms, which had the question, “By whom are you employed?”, that Mrs. Hamer filled out. When she returned to the plantation where she had resided for nearly 20 years, Mr. Marlow, the plantation owner, told her that he heard she had tried to register to vote. Clearly, the Registrar of Voters of Sunflower County had called him. He told her to return to Indianola and remove her name from the list of prospective voters, or leave the plantation. She left that night. The house where she was staying was sprayed with bullets that night as she slept.
We sat together on that couch for a few hours while Mrs. Hamer chronicled her life as a sharecropper and then as a civil rights activist. She told us she was to appear on national television to recount her attempt to register to vote in front of the Credentials Committee of the National Democratic Party at their nominating convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. That day, she invited Richard and me to stay at her house during her absence and watch her testimony in her living room. Mrs. Hamer had love and compassion for everyone and we were privileged to accept her kindness. We watched her testimony, along with several other civil rights workers.
Mrs. Hamer’s testimony in front of the Credentials Committee was part of the Democratic National Convention’s process for admitting delegations to the floor of the convention. The delegates would participate in the nomination and election of the Democratic Party’s 1964 nominee for President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson. The main argument for the Mississippi Freedom Democrats was that they represented the entire State of Mississippi, whereas the regular (all white) Mississippi Democratic Party represented only half of the citizens of Mississippi. At the time, Mississippi was about half Black and half white. This argument ultimately failed, and the Credentials Committee offered the Freedom Democrats two at large seats. This offer was summarily rejected and the entire Freedom Democrat delegation returned to Mississippi.
Mrs. Hamer captured the entire country with her illustration of life in Mississippi as a Black woman. She began her testimony in the afternoon that was covered live on national television. But there was a sudden interruption, as President Johnson called a news conference at the White House. The networks immediately ended their coverage of Mrs. Hamer’s testimony and went to the White House. When the news conference began, President Johnson was asked what was the purpose of his emergency news conference. President Johnson replied that this day was the nine month anniversary of President Kennedy’s death in Dallas, Texas. The real reason for this hastily called news conference was to end the live coverage of Mrs. Hamer’s testimony in front of the Democratic Party’s Credentials Committee, which President Johnson and his aids thought was putting the Democratic Party in a bad light.
This ill conceived strategy backfired, as the three television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) covered Mrs. Hamer’s testimony in full and in prime time that evening. The audience was huge that saw and heard Ms. Hamer’s accounts of being forced off the plantation where she worked just because she had attempted to register to vote. Fannie Lou Hamer was in the moment and mesmerizing. She never faltered in her riveting account of life in Mississippi as a Black woman. The entire country finally got a taste of what it was like to be Black in America, and to try to engage in our democratic process by merely trying to register to vote. Reaction was swift and universal: Mrs. Hamer was an instant media star. Our democratic system of government was systematically eliminating Black citizens from engaging in choosing our local and state leaders under a broken system that disenfranchised a major portion of the American electorate.
The following year, 1965, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which did away with literacy tests and poll taxes as barriers to the voting process. Finally, Mrs. Hamer was able to register and vote. And our efforts at organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party bore fruit, as Mississippi became the state with the most Black elected public officials