We stand or fall on the histories we’ve constructed.
Our sense of where we are in the national narrative is framed by where we believe we have been. For my adult life, there’s been this cultural programming that our nation has been divinely blessed by a continuum of social progress which somehow made our nation redeemable, despite our past sins of Native American genocide and slavery.
But since the election of Donald Trump, a violent insurrection at our Capitol in January and a botched response to the ongoing pandemic that’s even now defined by systemic race-based inequality, that’s very much an open question.
This ongoing conflict over race and grievance has been roiling and defining our politics since the Civil War, like an underground lava flow. As the pressure builds, it periodically explodes into the atmosphere violently up ending the landscape that only moments earlier appeared tranquil.
When we think of the tableaus of the American civil rights struggle the images that come to mind are set in places like Selma, Birmingham or Washington DC, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his iconic “I have a dream” speech.
By keeping it contained regionally to the south, we re-enforce that America’s white supremacist’s fault line extends along the Mason-Dixon Line and not through the entire nation including New Jersey.
As I have written previously in this space, New Jersey had its own lingering embrace with slavery and even now is one of the most segregated states in the nation. And as we saw with the recent broad day light police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, the incidence of racist policing knows no geographical boundary.
As it turns out, decades after the Civil War, it was our very own Woodrow Wilson, the president of Princeton University, Governor of New Jersey, and the 28th president of the United States, who propagated the view that North’s Reconstruction was a great injustice that victimized whites, that Wilson believed were inherently superior.
“The first practical result of reconstruction under the acts of 1867 was the disfranchisement, for several weary years, of the better whites, and the consequent giving over of the southern governments into the hands of the negroes,” wrote Woodrow Wilson wrote in the Atlantic.
The man, whose name is memorialized in stone at the Wilson Center, the prestigious international think tank located in Princeton, wrote former slaves were “a vast laboring, landless, homeless class…..unpracticed in liberty, unschooled in self-control; never sobered by the discipline of self-support, never established in any habit of prudence; excited by a freedom they did not understand, exalted by false hopes; bewildered and without leaders, and yet insolent and aggressive; sick of work, covetous of pleasure, — a host of dusky children untimely put out of school.”
SETTING AIRBRUSHED HISTORY IN STONE
In 1968, according to the Wilson Center website Congress chartered it “as the official memorial to President Woodrow Wilson” that would as the “nation’s key non-partisan policy forum. Tackling global issues through independent research and open dialogue, the Center informs actionable ideas for Congress, the Administration, and the international policy community.”
This great national honor was bestowed on Wilson memory, and endures to this day despite the fact that one of Wilson’s earliest acts as president was to sign off on racially segregating the federal civil service.
“By the end of 1913, Black employees in several federal departments had been relegated to separate or screened-off work areas and segregated lavatories and lunchrooms,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative. “In addition to physical separation from white workers, Black employees were appointed to menial positions or reassigned to divisions slated for elimination. The government also began requiring photographs on civil service applications, to better enable racial screening.”
Wilson’s early 20th century racist beliefs found 21st century arms and legs with Donald Trump’s race-based grievance of whites as victims which fueled the racist mob that stormed Congress, with the Confederate Stars and Bars Battle flag leading the charge.
Four years before Congress honored Wilson, at the August 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, the very same political party that had elevated Wilson to the Oval Office decades earlier, would side with white segregationists from the Mississippi’s Democratic Party, rejecting the bid by Black voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to represent their state at the confab.
That summer, not a full year after the murder of President Kennedy was a hot one in terms of civil unrest. Riots broke out in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Pennsylvania “sparked by confrontations between Black residents and their predominately white police forces,” according to NPR.
THE SUMMER OF 64
Right around the time of the mid- July Republican National Convention in San Francisco that nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the police shooting of fifteen-year-old James Powell in New York City set off what the presidential historian Theodore H. White described as “a series of riots that were to convulse New York for five successive nights and then sweep like a crown fire across the Eastern ghettos.”
In White’s “The Making of the President 1964” described the cycle of violence as “anarchy, a revolt led by wild youth against authority, against discipline, against the orderly government of a society that had taken too long to pay them heed.”
White continued. “In almost every case the riots began in the same manner: a police episode (the killing of Powell was the only fatal initiatory step) or a police arrest and then a boiling over of a mob against the police, then against its own leaders, then against any symbol of authority.”
Between the GOP convention and the Democrats Atlantic City convention, rioting had broken out in Jersey City, Paterson and Elizabeth.
In the south, Hamer and other civil rights activists were braving all manner of state sanctioned police violence to register voters in a state where just five percent of the 450,000 Black residents were registered to vote, according to Keisha N. Blain, writing on Bill Moyers.com.
On August 4, just a few weeks before the Atlantic City Convention, the bodies of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, who had been murdered, were found on land owned by a member of the KKK.
The trio, all in their 20s, had been probing the circumstances of the burning of a Black church outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
ANOTHER KIND OF SIT-IN
At the Atlantic City Convention, Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party did have behind the scenes support here from pro-civil rights New Jersey Democrats. Former Gov. Jim Florio remembers getting a call from Camden County Democratic Party power brokers with some curious instructions.
Florio, who was finishing up his law degree at Rutgers Camden, was chair of the Camden County Young Democrats at the time. (He wouldn’t get elected to the State Assembly until 1970.)
“I got a call from the political people to see if I could round up some Democrats to sit in the chairs down in Atlantic City so the [Mississippi] racists delegation couldn’t take their seats,” he recalled during a phone interview. “It got a lot of media play, not my name or anything, just the fact that we were strange people sitting in the delegation so the segregationists couldn’t take their place” while the Credential Committee sorted out the competing claims.
Hamer’s televised first-hand account before the Credentials Committee describing how Mississippi local and state police savagely beat her for trying to register to vote riveted the nation.
Hamer was born in 1917 and was one of 20 children in a family of Mississippi sharecroppers that worked corn and cotton. At 44, having had just had a grade school education, she started attending meetings of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was organizing voter registration drives.
Two years before the Atlantic City Convention she had taken a bus with 17 other activists to try and register to vote in Indianola, the county seat of Sunflower County, their home county. The following day she was thrown off the plantation where she had both lived and worked for almost twenty years.
LIFE ON THE LINE FOR LIBERTY
“Hamer immediately went to work as a field organizer for SNCC,” according to the American Public Media’s “Say it Plain” series. “Returning home from a training workshop in June 1963, Hamer’s bus was intercepted by policemen. She and two others were taken to jail in Winona, Mississippi, and mercilessly beaten. Hamer suffered permanent damage to her kidneys.”
The APM account continues. “On August 22, 1964, Hamer appeared before the convention’s credentials committee and told her story about trying to register to vote in Mississippi. Threatened by the MFDP’s presence at the convention, President Lyndon Johnson quickly preempted Hamer’s televised testimony with an impromptu press conference. But later that night, Hamer’s story was broadcast on all the major networks.”
“Mr. Chairman, and to the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland, and Senator Stennis,” Hamer testified. “It was the 31st of August in 1962 that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens.”
She continued. “We was met in Indianola by policemen, Highway Patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the City Police and the State Highway Patrolmen and carried back to Indianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.”
“After we paid the fine among us, we continued on to Ruleville, and Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for eighteen years. I was met there by my children, who told me that the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down to try to register.”
Hamer recounted how the plantation owner ordered her to withdraw her registration, or face eviction but she refused. “And I addressed him and told him and said, ‘I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself, ‘” Hamer recalled.
She had to leave that same night.
“On the 10th of September 1962, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me,” Hamer testified. “That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also Mr. Joe McDonald’s house was shot in.
In June of 1963, after attending a voter registration workshop while traveling Mississippi’s Montgomery County, she and several other activists were intercepted by both state and local police.
“I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room,” Hamer said. “They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell, I began to hear sounds of licks and screams, I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, ‘Can you say, ‘yes, sir,’ nigger? Can you say ‘yes, sir?’ ’’
Hamer continued. “And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman and he asked me where I was from. I told him Ruleville and he said, “We are going to check this.”
The civil rights activist described how the police ordered two Black prisoners to take turns beating her with a blackjack.
“I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.”
“After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack,” she said. “The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit on my feet – to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.”
“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens,” she said. “And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Hamer and the Freedom Party did not come away entirely empty handed according to White’s account on his “Making of the Presidency 1964.”
“The compromise read that no Mississippi regular delegate could sit unless he pledged allegiance to the ticket; that two of Freedom Party leaders would sit as delegates at large with full right to vote; and that at the Convention of 1968, and thereafter, no delegations would be seated from states where the Party process deprived citizens of the right to vote by reason of their race or color,” White wrote.
Yet, long term in Atlantic City, Hamer forever altered the American conversation about race in way that continues to resonate to this very day.
For Larry Hamm, the veteran Newark based civil rights activist and founder of the People’s Organization for Progress, Hamer’s sharecropper roots and lack of formal education inspired him decades ago when in 1971 Newark Mayor Ken Gibson appointed his to the Newark Board of Education, making him the youngest school board member in the nation.
“Fanny Lou Hamer’s story was not just down south—it was also here in New Jersey,” Hamm recalled during a phone interview on the 50th anniversary of his appointment to the Newark School Board. “One of the most pivotal moments in civil rights happened here in New Jersey.”
Hamm, who graduate from Princeton University in 1978, says he owes his early exposure to Hamer to his mentor Newark poet and activist Amiri Baraka, the father of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “It set me on fire—it put me there with Hamer, a working-class hero who made you think you could be a civil rights leader too,” he said.