Fannie Lou Hamer’s “Is This America?” Question, 44 Years Later

The Democratic National

Convention in Denver has been soaring, stressful, emotional. The Clintons have
rocked the house and taken great steps in uniting the Party. Joe Biden (and his
mom) has reminded us that little boys in working class Catholic neighborhoods
can be whatever they want to be in America. The faithful of the Democratic
Party have converged and discussed organizing in new and grander ways. The
faith isn’t new its just that the faithful are more active.

 

The opening worship
service was interesting and special to me. I know many can claim that the usual
has taken place – meetings where people carry the party line, discuss winning
and don’t really speak truth to power. I don’t think these people attended the
worship service. I don’t think they saw a major Party allow clergy speak their minds;
their callings be it abortion or the death penalty. That service was
non-scripted and ordained by the Democratic Party. It should be applauded.

 

Does ‘justice rain down
like mighty waters’ at a contemporary political party convention? Or do sound
bites and message simply clop the networks and cable news channels like a
corporation meeting to promote and market a product?

 

Through all of the
flair, glare and bright lights the historic implications of what is happening this
week is very real and being felt here in Denver and, I think, across the
nation. I’m a Mississippian, a white Mississippian and a Democrat. I grew up in
a town once segregated – once polarized and depressed with the darkest
attributes of racial strife and indignation. My faith has helped me find the
better angels in my life and, hopefully, seek to share and showcase those
better angels to others.

 

This history of my state
and its impact on the whole nation is bearing heavily on me this morning.
Today, my mind, my soul is thinking about two Democratic conventions: the one
today in Denver and one that took place 44 years ago in Atlantic City. And, I
am asking a question asked in 1964 by a woman, an African American sharecropper
who asked the Democratic structure “Is this America?”

 

In 1964 the Mississippi
Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) arrived at the Democratic National Convention
in Atlantic City with the goal of unseating the “regular Democrats”
and representing their fellow Democrats from Mississippi.

 

The Freedom Democrats
were civil rights pioneers attempting to engage the political process and give
African Americans equal participation in our nation’s democratic system. They
wanted to vote. They wanted to participate. They wanted their voice to be
heard.

 

The regular Democrats
were the establishment. They were all white and were seeking to maintain the
status quo, which was maintaining their control of the political process in
Mississippi.

 

The Freedom Democrats
stood for an America where everyone had a place at the table. The regular
Democrats stood for an America where the > white establishment had a place
at the table while African Americans stood to the side taking what scraps were
tossed to them.

 

Fannie Lou Hamer led the
Mississippi Freedom Democrats. She was impoverished; a sharecropper with hands
calloused from the back breaking work of hand picking cotton. She couldn’t
read. And she had lived a life with no say about her own choices. Speaking
before the DNC credentials committee Ms. Hamer proclaimed “Is this
America?”

 

Ms. Hamer is also famous
for telling America “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
The Freedom Democrats were denied official recognition but the MFDP kept up
their agitation within the Convention. The MFDP delegates borrowed passes from
sympathetic northern delegates and took the seats vacated by the
“regular” Mississippi delegates (most had left), only to be removed
by the national Party. When they returned the next day to find that convention
organizers had removed the empty seats that had been there yesterday, the MFDP
stayed to sing freedom songs.

 

This week, 2008, 44
years later the Democratic Party at their national convention in Denver, CO has
nominated Senator Barack Obama as their candidate for President of the United
States.

 

The diverse Mississippi
delegation of black and white, the heirs of the Freedom Democrats of 1964, many
with direct connections with many who were their in 1964, cast their votes for
this historic candidate.

 

Let’s not forget the
true nature of this historic week. Let’s not forget the African Americans back
in Mississippi who once couldn’t vote, who lived under Jim Crow and on Thursday
night will watch a black man accept the nomination of the Democratic Party to
lead this oldest active political party on the planet, to be their candidate
for President of the United States. What will go through their minds?

 

Fannie Lou Hamer was
right to ask in 1964 “Is this America?”

 

As I sit in my hotel
room here in Denver, in 2008, I would love to be able to tell Ms Hamer Yes
ma’am it is. Yes ma’am this is America, it’s your America. Yes ma’am, because
of your determination 44 years ago in just a few hours a black man will stand
on one of the globe’s largest stages and demonstrate to us that this is indeed
the America we hope for.

 

 

This piece was originally posted on Beliefnet at http://blog.beliefnet.com/progressiverevival/2008/08/fannie-lou-hamers-is-this-amer.html.


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