Fifty years ago brave and noble black Mississippians stood up to a totalitarian government and demanded full citizenship. These everyday people were daughters and sons of sharecroppers, day workers, and maids. Great souls like Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, a Baptist preacher’s daughter and herself a sharecropper, possessed the light of freedom and shined it radiantly into the ever-midnight of Mississippi. They faced terrorism and tyranny from white segregationists committed to the fantasy that the old South, the Confederate South, would rise again.
Hamer, an evangelist for the Gospel and for freedom, received economic reprisal and police brutality simply because she—a poor, black woman from the Delta—exercised her God-given right to vote in the sham of democracy that was the Magnolia State’s political nightmare. A deeply religious woman, her faith in God and love of country stirred in her a courage that refused to be intimidated by the White Citizens’ Council or the Ku Klux Klan, who were both the same sin by different organizational names.
And Hamer, though charismatic and anointed, was not the only local person who stood up to fear. Thousands of ordinary, dispossessed black folks rose up in those days, having rediscovered their dignity and desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Along with Aaron Henry, adopted Mississippians Ella Baker and Bob Moses, and countless others, these noble souls founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a protestant movement that sought to integrate the all-white, segregationist Mississippi Democratic Party that ruled our state at least until the 1980s. Though relatively unsuccessful in their attempt to unseat the Dixiecrats at the 1964 National Democratic Convention, MFDP’s organized labor and love led to major changes in the national and state party as soon as 1968. I humbly assert that the MFDP did more to make the Democratic Party a multiracial coalition than did FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s or any elected official since. Think about it: relatively unlettered, unrefined black folks who did not speak the Queen’s English revolutionized the Democratic Party in the South, and thereby the nation!
So if they did that fifty years ago, I contend that something similar can happen again today, but only in the Mississippi Republican Party.
This sounds sacrilegious given all blacks have done to make the MS Democratic Party more equitable. Now, I’m not saying that all black Mississippians need to leave the party they helped to refashion over the last five decades. It is because of an imperfect party that we have a black US Congressman and so many black elected mayors, legislators, and supervisors throughout the Delta, Central MS, and Southwest MS. I do not foresee anything numerically comparable for blacks in the MS GOP.
But in a two party system where the present (and future?) ruling party is the GOP and in many ways resembles the 1964 Democrats, why is it untenable to imagine ordinary black Mississippians, possessed by the same spirit that led Hamer to be sick and tired and do something about it, can at last call for the GOP to embody in transformative policies their own belief that “all people are created equal and therefore deserve equal opportunity without regard to race, color, gender, creed or age”?
To be sure, I have black Republican friends who have lamented the rabid racism that is tolerated and at times percolated in the Party of Reagan. But they are not just your stereotypical black conservatives parroting the talking points of neo-Confederates. They are young, gifted, and black “transformed nonconformists” who see their work and witness as a quiet revolution in the Grand Ole Party. And the recent controversy regarding black Democrats voting for Thad Cochran (or, should I say, voting against Chris McDaniel?) has at least reawakened the more discerning among us to the collective power of black voters.
If this is just about one US Senate Republican primary election, then it was for naught. Indeed I’m sure many or most blacks will vote for Blue Dog, right-leaning Democrat Travis Childers in November. But what will happen if a remnant of Bible-believing, justice-loving black folks made some demands on the ruling party and decided to engage it from the inside? Historically black people have agreed that America’s injustices and oppression were unbearable, we have disagreed about how to address and dismantle it. Some have taken sides with DuBois or Washington, Garvey or the NAACP, King or the Black Panthers, but all of these persons were sick and tired. I celebrate the fact that we have integrationists, separatists, nationalists, pan-Africanists, conservatives, libertarians, assimilationists, and others among us. I would not be mad at black conservatives, moderates, and liberationists if they did fought for equal opportunity in the MS GOP. I would encourage that effort, pray much for their cause, and do all I could to embrace them publically as part of a two-party strategy and solution for a state in desperate need of revival, reform, and revolution.
May Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s faith and fight inspire us today.
Please listen to Mrs. Hamer’s testimony offered at the 1964 National Democratic Convention before the Credentials Committee: