Editor’s Note: Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and president of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is the author of the multi-prize-winning book “Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom” and “Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Vision of America,” which will be published by Beacon Press in 2021. Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
By the time civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer delivered a speech at the 1971 founding meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus, she was a nationally recognized leader in the movement for Black voting rights. In the tradition of Black feminist thought, as reflected in the earlier abolition movement, Hamer fused a desire to eradicate both racism and sexism in American society.
Hamer, also one of the organization’s founders, delivered a powerful speech before the more than 300 American women gathered in Washington, DC to celebrate the group’s official launch.
She cautioned those in the audience to be mindful that the fight for an inclusive democracy was far from over. It’s a message that reverberates today—and one that Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, reiterated when she evoked Hamer’s name at the DNC.
“As I stand here today my mind goes back to the problems that we have had in the past,” Hamer explained in 1971. “And I think about the Constitution of the United States that says, ‘With the people, for the people, and by the people.’
“And every time I hear it now, I just double over laughing because it’s not true; it hasn’t been true … But we are going to make it true,” she assured attendees.
Hamer’s presence at the founding event, and her foundational work with the Caucus during its early years, underscore her commitment to advancing voting rights and women’s rights.
Established amidst a surge of political movements that swept the nation, including the Black Power movement and the women’s liberation movement, the National Women’s Political Caucus set out to increase women’s participation in “all areas of political and public life.”
The organization provided a significant platform to recruit and train women for public office—a personal goal Hamer never achieved. However, her work with the Caucus and her three political campaigns, while unsuccessful, provided a source of inspiration and motivation for many others.
Today the National Women’s Political Caucus remains at the forefront of national efforts to expand political opportunities for all women.
During the 1970s, the organization provided a vehicle for Hamer to amplify her work around women’s issues. In November 1971, she joined forces with US Representative Bella Abzug, journalist Liz Carpenter, and labor activist Mildred Jeffrey to insist that women represent at least half of the delegates at the 1972 presidential nominating conventions.
In a letter to Lawrence F. O’Brien, the Democratic chairman, Hamer and her collaborators argued that “failure to insure [sic] reasonable representation [of women] will undoubtedly result in serious credentials challenges by women’s groups.”
For Hamer, women’s rights and Black voting rights were integral parts of realizing the ideals of American democracy. “Now, we’ve got to make some changes in this country,” she told the 1971 gathering of the National Women’s Political Caucus. “The changes we have to have in this country are going to be for the liberation of all people—because nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” she continued.
As the US marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, Hamer’s words are as pertinent today as they were almost 50 years ago. Although some African American women exercised the vote in states such as Illinois, New York, and California during the early 20th century, most Black women and other women of color were completely shut out of the ballot box until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This was true for Hamer whose own personal experiences underscore the limitations of the 19th amendment—and the ongoing constraints on too many Americans’ voting rights.
The granddaughter of enslaved Black people, Hamer had spent much of her life working as a sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta. She joined the civil rights movement at age 44, when she became aware for the first time of the political rights guaranteed to Black Americans by the US Constitution.
In 1962, Hamer became a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—an interracial civil rights organization—and later served as a field secretary. During the 1960s and 1970s, she traveled extensively across the country to help African Americans register to vote.
Her first attempt to register to vote in 1962 led to her eviction from the plantation on which she worked. In the weeks and months to follow, she endured violence and intimidation in Mississippi on account of her desire to exercise her constitutional rights.
The 19th amendment therefore meant little to Hamer and other Black women in the US South who faced a myriad of roadblocks, most often violent, when they dared to register to vote—let alone attempt to cast a ballot. Hamer pointed out this reality in her well-known speech before the Democratic National Convention in 1964.
In August of that year, she had traveled from Mississippi to the DNC in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)—an organization that was established to challenge the segregated, all-white Mississippi delegation to the Convention.
In a televised speech, which reached millions of viewers, Hamer boldly decried voter suppression and racial violence. “Is this America,” she asked, “the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Her speech electrified the nation—laying bare American hypocrisy on the matters of freedom and democracy.
Hamer returned to this theme in 1971 at the National Women’s Political Caucus’ gathering when she scoffed at White politicians who were quick to pat themselves on the back for supporting the Voting Rights Act.
As she carefully explained, “We wouldn’t have to have a Voting Rights Act in 1965 because we were guaranteed that right almost a hundred years ago.”
Hamer understood the power and significance of the Voting Rights Act—it was after all, the culmination of her own political work. But her critique hit to the core of the issue: the work of democracy was incomplete.
The passage of civil rights legislation like the Voting Rights Act was only necessary because of the failures of American democracy.
Hamer knew there was still much work to be done to build an inclusive democracy that would live up to the ideals and promises of the US Constitution—in Hamer’s words, “With the people, for the people, and by the people.”
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As we reflect on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and look ahead to one of the most significant presidential elections in our nation’s recent history, Fannie Lou Hamer’s words offer much needed guidance.
The work of democracy remains unfinished, and the upsurge of voter suppression across the country as well as the gradual erosion of the Voting Rights Act are just a few of the cautionary signs that the narrative of “progress” hardly holds true.
The nation has yet to live up the Constitutional ideals on which it was founded. Yet as Hamer assured women activists in 1971, all is not lost. We still have the power to make these ideals a reality.