Fannie Lou Hamer

How I wish that it didn’t have to do with Republicans in South Carolina, but of course it does. In South Carolina, where the local rabble just showed off their boorishness during the latest Republican debate. In South Carolina, even though it’s 2012, seven score and more years from the events in question.

To me, it all seems connected. That same ghost, race, haunts all our national conversations and monuments, not just on Dr. Martin Luther King’s holiday.

Monday, I agreed to host a community conversation for MLK Day, on civil rights and what it means today. When my turn came, I quoted from the biography of Fannie Lou Hamer (Kay Mills’ This Little Light of Mine) – because it was on the backs of fearless, poorly educated small-town voter registration activists like Hamer upon which silver-tongued MLK leaped into history, to be forever remembered for his triumphs and travails.

There’s a picture of them together in the center of the book, taking a break during the Meredith march. MLK Jr. has his arms crossed over his chest, he’s looking away out of frame, somewhat petulantly, while Hamer leans back and belts out a song.

I identify with Hamer, for her age, her gender, her big body, her stubborn unwillingness to be moved from her own conception of justice, her patient anger, her big-voiced yearning for something better, bigger than herself. When I feel dispirited by things nowadays, I try to think about people like Mrs. Hamer, who literally risked death for the right of others to vote.

The book chronicles how she survived, but not unmarked, a brutal physical beating in prison.

The quote I chose to read at the MLK Day gathering was about how women keep things going, from a fellow Mississippi leader, Unita Blackwell: “We didn’t know we was leaders. You knew you did things, but you never saw it as a high political leadership role.”

A quote I didn’t read, but which makes an impression even now:

A Mississippi highway patrolman asked Mrs. Hamer where she had been and why she had been in Charleston, South Carolina, according to an FBI report on the incident. “She told him she had gone to a citizenship training school, and he contradicted her, saying, ‘You went to march’ and ‘You went to see Martin Luther King’ and ‘We are not going to have it.’ ”

One of the officers called her “Fatso,” and they took her to the bullpen. The highway patrolman gave one of the inmates a blackjack, and Mrs. Hamer remembered that he said, ” ‘I want you to make that bitch wish she was dead.’ ” He also threatened the black inmates that if they didn’t use the blackjack on her, “You know what I’ll use on you.”

The inmate told her to lie down on the bed. “You mean you would do this to your own race?” she asked him.

“You heard what I said,” the highway patrolman ordered.

After the fact, the FBI photographed her hands, but not her back and buttocks, where photographs taken later by a doctor revealed most of the bruising and welts. One of the inmates confessed, testified about what he’d done. Nevertheless the defendants at trial were found not guilty.

Fannie Lou Hamer went on to organize in her community to feed people, educate children, fight for economic justice, then to run for office, and challenge an all-white Congressional delegation from her home state. She sat on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for one day only , it is true, but it was a historic symbolic step in the success of the Voting Rights Act.

While Martin Luther King made the ultimate sacrifice, I believe he would likely today not have his sculpted image in the capitol rotunda, nor on the Washington Mall, if it weren’t for the dogged persistence of women like that Delta sharecropper. She didn’t have a Dream. She just stood up and got back to work whenever she was knocked down.

Then, I open my three-ring notebook to look at the more distant past – in the light of the current arguments over voting rights and over Citizens United, a ruling based on a reading of the Fourteenth Amendment giving corporations some of the free-speech rights of persons. The first page I open to begins …

“one election. What has become of the constitutional right of the State of Mississippi?”

It’s not about Hamer’s quixotic quest to be seated in the House of Representatives in the mid-1960s, but the subtext is one and the same, where mostly white male power brokers in Congress police a Southern vote in a tone of righteous indignation.

The date is 1871, the last half of March, and the document in question is the Appendix to the Congressional Globe. Senators have convened to talk about the restored Union and the role of the South. The Mississippi Constitution is described as being “framed by a convention of adventurers, negroes, and renegade partisans, elected by a foul wrong upon the rights of the people.”

The Congress is terribly divided on the issues of the day, which include whether the president can suspend civil law and try people by overseas military commissions. Does the president have the ability to suspend habeus corpus? Can the states decide their own fate, or will the general government need to interfere to save threatened lives? The Congress assembled disagrees most strongly on how far or even whether they should extend the franchise and other civic rights to recently freed African-Americans and other new citizens. Six years after the cessation of the Civil War, there is still an argument over whether the people are equal before the laws.

The gentleman from Ohio has recently addressed his colleagues on how

“organized bands of desperate and lawless men, mainly composed of soldiers of the late rebel armies, armed, disciplined, and disguised, and bound by oaths and secret obligations, have, by force, terror, and violence, subverted all civil authority in large parts of the late insurrectionary States, thus utterly overthrowing the safety of persons and property, overthrowing all those rights which are the primary basis and objects of the Government, which are expressly guaranteed to us by the Constitution of the United States as amended.”

Actually, this quote – being made fun of on the floor of the Senate by the Hon. T.F. Bayard of Delaware on March 20, 1871 – is a direct quotation from a letter addressed to the two houses of Congress by some colored citizens of Frankfort, the state capital of Kentucky. They are spokespeople from a local committee of grievances, appointed at a meeting of all colored citizens of Frankfort and vicinity: Henry Marrs, Teacher of the Colored School; Henry Lynn, Livery Stable Keeper; H.H. Trumbo, Grocer; Samuel Demsey; B. Smith; and B.J. Crampton, Barber.

Although the white “gentleman from Kentucky,” who survived an 1867 challenge to his legitimacy as a U.S. Representative – a bit like the one Fannie Lou Hamer took part in nearly a century later – has argued forcefully against believing that this so-called Ku Klux Klan even exists or presents much of a threat, the teacher, the grocer, the livery stable keeper and the barber have appended a list of events that argue strongly to the contrary. (See Serial Set Vol. No. 1467, Session Vol. No. 1, 42nd Congress, 1st Session, S.Misc.Doc. 49: Memorial of a committee appointed at a meeting of colored citizens of Frankfort, Ky., and vicinity, praying the enactment of laws for the better protection of life. April 11, 1871.)

I will have more to say on this issue of the Fourteenth Amendment and its beginnings in a bit.