Just how far we have come is measured by the 40 black and white Americans killed in the South between 1950 and 1968 by state-sanctioned terrorists defending white supremacy.
In June 1964, I was briefly a guest of Perry and Fannie Lou Hamer in their home in Ruleville, Miss. Hamer was a leader of the Mississippi Civil Rights movement who later that summer would testify before the Democratic National Convention and touch the hearts of millions of Americans with her description of a beating by police the previous year in retaliation for her voter registration work.
As a volunteer with the Mississippi Summer Project, I was to teach at a Freedom School in the adjoining county as part of a high-profile campaign to bring about an end to the officially-sanctioned violence perpetrated against civil rights workers in the state. After about a week at the Hamers, I left to set up the Freedom School in neighboring Boliver County.
The other part of the summer campaign was to register as many African Americans as possible to vote. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which organized the Summer Project, created an alternative state Democratic party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and attempted to have it seated at the party's Presidential Nominating Convention that August in place of the state's regular (all-white) delegation on the grounds that it was a violation of party rules to seat segregationist delegations.
At the convention, Fannie Lou Hamer told the Credentials Committee how a police chief, a county sheriff, a Mississippi Highway Patrolmen, and a former Highway Patrolman had held her down and beat her. The testimony was electrifying, Hamer instantly became a national hero, and millions of white Americans got their first glimmer of the extent to which the power of the state was used to deny black Americans the right to vote.
But Hamer's testimony that day wasn't the whole truth. A recent biography of Hamer, "For Freedom's Sake," by University of Georgia professor Chana Kai Lee, reveals that she omitted a key fact: She had also been sexually abused by the law enforcement officers.
Lee implies that Hamer did not tell the Credentials Committee that she was sexually abused because she was a "modest and dignified" woman, but I think it also must have been in her mind that if she testified on national television that the Mississippi police had also sexually abused her that day, she probably would have been murdered when she returned from the convention.
Murder had been the de facto state policy in Mississippi and the rest of the Deep South since Reconstruction for dealing with blacks seeking political power. Bob Moses, the director of the Summer Project, testified last year before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the 50th anniversary of the 1957 Civil Rights Act and described an attack on him and two other SNCC workers in February, 1963: "Jimmy Travis slipped behind the wheel and Randolph Blackwell crowded me beside him in a Snick Chevy in front of the Voter Registration Office in Greenwood, Mississippi... Jimmy zigzagged out of town to escape an unmarked car, but as we headed west 8, it trailed us and swept past, firing automatic weapons pitting the Chevy with bullets. Jimmy cried out and slumped; I reached over to grab the wheel and fumbled for the brakes as we glided off into the ditch, our windows blown out, a bullet caught in Jimmy's neck."
I was in Mississippi in 1964 because the SNCC staff felt the only way to stop the killings of black Americans in the South who were registering voters was to recruit a large number of white volunteers because they would attract the attention of the national media.
Moses told the Senate committee last year that sanctioned murder to intimidate black voters in the Deep South got its start with the weak federal response to the Colfax (Louisiana) Massacre on Easter Sunday in 1873 when at least 70 and perhaps as many as 280 blacks were killed by a white mob in the wake of a disputed election. Most members of the white mob fled to Texas, but nine were tried and three found guilty of violations of the U.S. Enforcement Act of 1870 which had been designed to provide federal protection for the civil rights of blacks.
At the end of the ensuing appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Cruikshank (1875), that the Enforcement Act, which was based on the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment, applied only to actions committed by the states and did not apply to actions committed by individuals or private conspiracies. This is the ruling that prevented the federal government for the next 90 years from prosecuting crimes committed by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups.
In 1875 the example of the Colfax Massacre spread across the Mississippi River to Vicksburg, Miss., where violence erupted during the municipal elections that summer.
Conflict finally erupted into the riots on Dec. 7, in which about 300 blacks and three whites were killed. The federal government's response was half-hearted. The following year the Democrats recaptured control of the Mississippi legislature and the governor's office.
In 1907, Sen. Benjamin "Pitchfork" Tillman of South Carolina memorialized the execution of Mississippi's plan to maintain white control of state politics on the floor of the U.S. Senate: "It was then that 'we shot them'; it was then that 'we killed them'; it was then that 'we stuffed ballot boxes'; it was a fight between barbarism and civilization, between the African and the Caucasian, for mastery."
Jim Crow wasn't just a quaint name for a set of mildly repressive segregation laws meant to keep black Americans from eating at lunch counters with whites or to corral black children into separate public schools. Jim Crow was the rubric for a comprehensive strategy to maintain white supremacy by any and every means necessary, including state-sanctioned murder.
That rubric started to fall apart in 1960. As historian C. Vann Woodward wrote, "1960 was the year of the massive awakening for the Negroes of the South - indeed Negro Americans generally ... On 1 February of that year four Negro college boys, freshmen at the Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, asked politely for coffee at Woolworth's lunch counter and continued to sit in silent protest when refused. The 'sit-in' nemesis of Jim Crow was born."
The tactic spread across the South, and in the spring, the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee was formed.
After two years of organizing sit-ins and Freedom Rides, SNCC moved into local communities like Albany, Ga., where they protested segregation of all public accommodations and began voter registration drives. Up until that point, white violence had been mostly confined to beatings, but the voter registration work was a direct attack on the power structure of the South. Then the beatings got worse and the murders started again.
The second or third night of my stay at the Hamers' home, several women of the community fixed a sumptuous fried chicken dinner for some of us volunteers from the North. Mr. Hamer was not home yet, and Mrs. Hamer excused herself, saying she had to go to a meeting. After we finished the meal, the other volunteers went back to the homes where they were staying, and I started washing the dishes, figuring it was the least I could do to show my gratitude.
A little while later, Mr. Hamer came home. When he stopped in the kitchen doorway and saw me, he scowled and said, "What you doin' women's work for?" I was bewildered and started to explain, but he turned and left.
When Mrs. Hamer came home later, I told her what had happened and apologized. She hesitated and then she said, "No matter, but please understand, Pap doesn't have many ways left of bein' a man anymore."
I was stunned. All the abstractions about race, prejudice, segregation and bigotry that I had read about in my cloistered, all-white suburban high school and in my Ivy League college classes were instantly made real by a flash of gut-level understanding of how lives like these were damaged and destroyed by racism. There was murder of the body and murder of the spirit.
The Hamers are gone now. Mrs. Hamer died in 1977 after a run for Congress and years of building community organizations in the state, and Mr. Hamer passed on a few years ago after a second career as a bus driver for the Sunflower County Head Start Center. I still think of them and how they changed my life, these two brave grandchildren of slaves who died trying to lift the terrible legacy of institutionalized racism off their own backs. I know they would have rejoiced with me in the election of Barack Obama.
Wallace Roberts is a community organizer and free lance journalist. He lives in Williamstown.
Copyright © 2008, Wally Roberts