Registering to Vote - What we went through to do so
It was the 31st of August in 1962 that 18 of us traveled 26 miles to the country courthouse in Indianola to try to register to try to become first-class citizens. We was met in Indianola by Mississippi men, highway patrolmens 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 Rev. Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for 18 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. After they told me, my husband came and said “Fanny Lou, do you know — did Pap tell you what I said?” And I said, “yes, sir.”
He said, “I mean that,” he said, “If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave,” said, “Then if you go down and withdraw,” he said, “You will — you might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi.” And I addressed him and told him and said, “I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.”…I had to leave that same night.
On the 10th of September 1962, 16 bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also Mr. Joe McDonald’s house was shot in. And in June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop, was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is in Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the restaurant and two of the people wanted to use the washroom. The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out I got off of the bus to see what had happened and one of the ladies said, “It was a State highway patrolman and a chief of police ordered us out.” I got back on the bus and one of the persons had used the washroom got back on the bus, too.
As soon as I was seated on the bus, I saw when they began to get the four people in a highway patrolman’s car, I stepped off of the bus to see what was happening and somebody screamed from the car that the four workers was in and said, “Get that one there,” and when I went to get in the car, when the man told me I was under arrest, he kicked me. I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. 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 the sound of kicks and horrible screams and I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, yes, sir, nigger? Can you say yes, sir?” And they would say other horrible names. She would say, “Yes, I can say yes, sir.”
“So say it.” She says, “I don’t know you well enough.” They beat her, I don’t know how long, and after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.
And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell…I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State highway patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack. The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State highway patrolman for me, to lay down on a bunk bed on my face, and I laid on my face. The first Negro began to beat and I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted and 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. 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 upon my feet to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me my head and told me to hush…
All of this is on account of us wanting to register, to become first-class citizens, 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 of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?
Excerpted from testimony by Fannie Lou Hamer, voting rights activist and civil rights leader, at the Democratic National Convention in 1964.
By Fannie Lou Hamer