Friday, January 22, 2016

The Unsung Heroes: Fannie Hamer and Ella Baker

by Nomad

African American Women
A photo of two African-American women and the story behind the image. 

Recently, I found this photo while scouring the net, totally unaware that these two women were a lot more than just patriotic Americans. 

They are that, but they are much more too. A bit of research led me to uncover who these women were and the fascinating part they played in struggle for full equality.

According to the caption, Fannie Lou Hamer (holding the flag) and Ella Baker are shown in the photo, attending the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964. The organization was formed when blacks and whites from that state came together  to challenge the legitimacy of the regular Mississippi Democratic Party (MDP). 
The MDP had refused to allow the blacks to participate even though African American made up around 40% of Mississippi's population.

Such a purposeful oversight could not be ignored. Their solution was ingenious and elegant.  With Robert Parris Moses, Hamer and Baker set up a new and more inclusive organization and called it MFDP.

A Woman Named Hamer 
For scriptwriters looking for a story, the lives of Baker and Hamer could hardly be richer. In fact, one could hardly find such different women. Yet, both found unity in one goal. The message is no matter what the background, every individual can contribute to the struggle for the equality of all.

Born in Montgomery County, Mississippi in 1917, Ms. Fannie Hamer began working at the age of six, picking cotton on a plantation. She reportedly was able to pick 200-300 pounds of cotton daily.

She attended a one-room school until she dropped out. When the plantation owner discovered she could read and write, she was taken away from the field and put to work book-keeping.

Her political awakening began after she attended several annual conferences of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) in the 1950s. Hamer played a key role in the organizing of Mississippi's Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCN).
By the summer of 1962, Hamer's political education was ready to be put to use in an active way. While attending a protest, she met with civil right activists who were touring Mississippi as part of a voter registration drive. In August, she along with 17 others stood in line at the county courthouse in Indianola to register. Every step of the way, there was opposition from both local and state law enforcement. 

That intimidation would take a more personal tone when she was fired from her plantation job, forced to leave after 20 years. Why? Because she had registered to vote. If anybody thought this would discourage a woman like Hamer, then they didn't know who they were dealing with. The challenge only strengthened her resolve. 
By kicking out of the plantation, she told a reporter from the New York Times they had set her free. 
It's the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people."
As a member of the SNCN, she was committed to the nonviolent expression of the fight for civil rights. Acts of civil disobedience to fight racial segregation and injustice in the South (along with constant pressure) were the proper tools for a civilized people. 
That didn't mean violence wasn't used against her and others. In fact, at the hands of angry white folk, Hamer was "threatened, arrested, beaten, and shot at."
In a jail in Winona Mississippi, Hamer was so severely injured by beating that she reportedly suffered permanent kidney damage.

Ultimately this plantation child beat the odds and was rewarded for her struggle. She sat in on 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
That election saw President Johnson re-elected, and who had in that same year pushed hard for both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Right Act

Ella Baker's Story
Although her background was very different than Hamer's, Ella Baker was also a force to be reckoned with. Unyielding is one word that comes to mind.

Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in December. 1903. As a child, she grew up listening to her grandmother's stories of life as a slave. (whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen as her "mate" by a slave master.)

Ms. Baker was a Shaw University graduate and became class valedictorian in 1927.  In her time, she was an editor, a teacher, a national director and founder of various civil rights and black cultural/historical organizations.
As one biographical source notes:
In 1930, she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League, whose purpose was to develop black economic power through collective planning. She also involved herself with several women's organizations. She was committed to economic justice for all people and once said, "People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job."
Throughout the 1950s, Baker worked hard raising money to fight against Jim Crow Laws in the deep South. She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship, an initiative of the Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She strongly believed in the power of the vote:
“The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence…”
In her time, she worked alongside such notable figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and even Martin Luther King, Jr.
However, Baker was skeptical of leadership generally and believed real change didn't come from "messianic" figures but from the joint effort of all of us.

If today few people remember her, it wouldn't have particularly displeased Ms. Baker. She once said:
You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders.
Amen to that.
Here's my salute to you both.