Two Giants of the Civil Rights Movement

Saturday was the Women’s March and today is MLK Day, making me reflect on the Civil Rights movement and social change in general. MLK represents many different things to so many people and I think everything we project on him can sometimes obscure the man and the many people around him, who fought just as hard and sacrificed just as much. And I think that was MLK’s greatest gift and legacy-empowering, not only a nation, but each and every individual who came in contact with him to fight for justice and for what’s right. Today, I want to write about two such people, two women who I deeply admire and can’t help but be inspired by: Dorothy Height and Fannie Lou Hamer. Hopefully, this way I can pay my respects to the Women’s March and MLK’s and the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy.

Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height, once described by civil rights leader, James Farmer, as one of the “Big Six” of the civil rights movement, was a women’s and civil rights activist who dedicated herself to African-American issues such as unemployment, illiteracy, and voter awareness. She was a well-recognized figure of the civil rights era, presiding over the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997, founding the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, and forming the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom.

Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1912 and attending high school in Rankin, Pennsylvania, Dorothy became politically involved by attending anti-lynching demonstrations. After applying and being rejected from Barnard College because they had a policy of only accepting two minorities a year, she applied and was accepted at New York University for undergraduate and continued her post-graduate education at Columbia University.

Height worked as a case worker for six decades, starting in the Great Depression. Shortly

File:DrDorothyHeight.jpg
Dorothy Height 2008                   Image Source: Adrian Hood [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
after arriving in Harlem, New York to start her job, she became involved with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) facilities for African-American women. Dorothy advocated for improved conditions for domestic workers and was elected to the national office within the YWCA. In 1957, she became the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), a position she would hold until 1997.

 

Her position as president put her in the center of the Civil Rights Movement, during which she organized the following:

  • Wednesdays in Mississippi, an event that brought together African-American women and white women to spark a dialogue
  • voter registration in the South
  • campaigns demanding the reorganization of the justice system and the end of lynching
  • the creation of grants to provide vocational training and assist women in opening and running businesses.

She also engaged with national leaders such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, encouraging them to desegregate schools and appoint African-Americans to positions in the government. In 1963, she helped organized the March on Washington and fought to have a woman speaker added to the program (originally all the speakers were male)

A video of Dorothy Height talking about her contribution to the Civil Right’s Movement: https://youtu.be/W5lJ2VzaOR8

In 1990, Height and fifteen other African-Americans formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom. She also served as chairperson of the Executive Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights towards the end of her life.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. She died in Washington DC on April 20, 2010 at the age of 98.

Sources: Dorothy Height Wikipedia Page

Dorothy Height Britannica Encyclopedia page

Dorothy Height National Women’s Historical Museum

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Hamer was a civil rights activist, focusing on voting rights and women’s rights. Co-founder of organizations such as the Freedom Democratic Party and the National Women’s Political Caucus and organizer of the Mississippi’s Freedom Summer and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Fannie was a stalwart defender of liberty. She fought for years before her health deteriorated and during that time she was extorted, threatened, assaulted, and shot at by white nationalists and policemen. She unsuccessfully ran for Mississippi State Senate in 1971 and sued the government of Sunflower County Mississippi in 1970 for illegal segregation.

File:Fannie Lou Hamer 1964-08-22.jpg
Fannie Hamer at the National Democratic Convention Image Source: Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine; Restored by Adam Cuerden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Born in 1917 in Mississippi, the last of 20 children. She spent most of her childhood picking cotton as a sharecropper, attending the plantation’s school between picking seasons. In 1944, the plantation owner realized she was literate and made her time and record keeper. She met her husband on the plantation and had two children, one of the girls dying because she was denied at the hospital because of Fannie’s activism.

In 1961, Fannie went to the doctors for a surgery to remove a tumor. The doctor sterilized her. This was a common practice in Mississippi and left Fannie mentally scarred and some say, contributed to the poor health that always plagued her.

 

Fannie’s first real step into activism was when she tried to register to vote in 1962. She was rejected because of Mississippi’s voter suppression laws and she was fired from the plantation for even trying. Fannie moved from house to house as her husband continued to work on the plantation. While staying with her friend, she was shot at sixteen times by white supremacists. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and Fannie wasn’t deterred. She went to the courthouse again to try and register again and, again, she was turned away.

All of this is on account we want 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 the hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?

— Fannie Lou Hamer

In 1963, she finally managed to successfully register, but found that she still couldn’t vote because she didn’t have the required poll tax receipt. She became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee after that and attended many Southern Christian Leadership Conferences. She went across the state gathering signatures for petitions to secure federal grants for impoverished African-American families. She also became a field secretary for voter registration and welfare programs for the SNCC.

In 1963, Fannie decided to attend a pro-citizenship conference in South Carolina. On the way there, her bus stopped in Winona, MS for lunch. They were refused service and the police were called. Everyone was arrested, including Fannie, and they were taken to jail where they were beaten and assaulted. Fannie was beaten by a blackjack. She was finally released in July and although she never fully recovered from her injuries, she continued to fight for voter rights. It was during this time that she helped organize the voter registration drives including Freedom Ballot Campaign and Freedom Summer initiative.

In 1964, Fannie co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party in an attempt to prevent the current white Democratic party from silencing African-American voices. Fannie and others went to the 1964 Democratic Convention where Fannie gave a televised speech that was interrupted by a pre-scheduled speech given by Lyndon Johnson.

Listen to Fannie Hamer’s speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention: https://youtu.be/_TchoKJrvFQ

At first the Democrats tried to compromise, but Fannie and her party refused. Eventually the white Democrats walked out. Fannie’s party would not be seated until 1968, when the Democrats adopted a clause that demanded equality of representation. Fannie was elected a national party delegate.

Fannie tried to run for Senate in 1964, and lost. She worked on Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People Campaign and with King’s help, published her autobiography. She was also involved with the Pig Project which bought protein for those who couldn’t afford to. Fannie believed that the African-American’s power laid in the agricultural economy and pioneered the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969 to redistribute economic power amongst people. The Freedom Farm has three goals: establish an agricultural organization to help nourish the disenfranchised, provide acceptable housing development, and encourage entrepreneurship. Eventually, the farm had to disband for lack of funding.

In 1971, Fannie co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, emphasizing that women could hold power if they voted as majority despite religious creed, race, or ethnicity.

Fannie died of breast cancer in 1977 at the age of 59

Sources: Fannie Lou Hamer Wikipedia page

Fannie Lou Hamer Biography Page

Civil rights crusader Fannie Lou Hamer defied men — and presidents — who tried to silence her

Fannie Lou Hamer at 100: The Speeches That Made Her a Civil-Rights Icon

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