Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) registered to vote in Indianola, Mississippi in August 1962, after attending a public meeting held by the civil rights activist group the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee; she promptly lost her job, her home, and became the target of violent white supremacists, who followed her to a friend’s house and shot several rounds through the front windows. Infuriated rather than frightened, Hamer immediately began to work for the SNCC, traveling around the South speaking on civil rights issues and helping African Americans register to vote.
Hamer’s rhetorical skills were deeply rooted in her faith, and when speaking on political subjects, she tended to adopt the tone of an exhorter or a Jeremiah, calling for courage, perseverance, repentance, and reform. She gained national attention after an abbreviated version of the speech below was televised as part of the 1964 Democratic National Convention; she willingly used the additional publicity to draw attention to the ways African Americans had been persistently demeaned and oppressed and to urge Americans of all backgrounds to work to end racial injustice. Like many in the Civil Rights Movement, Hamer—a Baptist—believed that her faith required her not only to seek justice for the oppressed, but to love the oppressors. Thus, although her speech unflinchingly condemns both whites and blacks for participating in the institutionalized racial violence endemic to Southern life in the period, it also offers elements of grace and hope for a future in which men and women of all colors will be able to share in the blessings of both spiritual and temporal freedom.
Source: Fannie Lou Hamer, “We’re On Our Way,” Speech before a mass meeting held at the Negro Baptist School in Indianola, Mississippi (September 1964) in Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck, ed., The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), 47–56.
Thank you very much. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am very glad to be here for the first time in Indianola, Mississippi, to speak in a mass meeting. . . . [I]t’s good to see people waking up to the fact—something that you should’ve been awaken years ago.
. . . [E]very church door in the state of Mississippi should be open for these meetings; but preachers have preached for years what he didn’t believe himself. And if he’s willing to trust God, if he’s willing to trust God, he won’t mind opening the church door. Because the first words of Jesus’s public ministry was: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim and bring relief to the captive.” And you know we are living in a captivated society today. And we know the things we doing is right. The thirty-seventh of Psalms said, “Fret not thouselves because of evildoers, neither be thy envious against the workers of iniquity for they shall be cut down like the green grass and wither away as the green herb. Delight thouselves in the Lord and verily thou shalt be filled.” And we are determined to be filled in Mississippi today.
Some of the white people will tell us, “Well, I just don’t believe in integration.” But he been integrating at night a long time! If he hadn’t been, it wouldn’t be as many light-skinned Negroes as it is in here. The seventeenth chapter of Acts and the twenty-sixth verse said: “Has made of one blood all nations.” So whether you black as a skillet or white as a sheet, we are made from the same blood and we are on our way! . . .
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” Sin is beginning to reproach America today and we want what is rightfully ours. And it’s no need of running and no need of saying, “Honey, I’m not going to get in the mess,” because if you were born in America with a black face, you were born in the mess.
Do you think, do you think anybody that would stand out in the dark to shoot me and to shoot other people, would you call that a brave person? It’s a shame before God that people will let hate not only destroy us, but it will destroy them. Because a house divided against itself cannot stand and today America is divided against itself because they don’t want us to have even the ballot here in Mississippi. If we had been treated right all these years, they wouldn’t be afraid for us to get the ballot. . . .
And I can tell you now how this happened. After I had been working for eight or ten months, I attended a voter educational workshop in Charleston, South Carolina. On the ninth of June in 1963, we was returning from the workshop. We arrived in Winona, Mississippi, about eleven o’clock. Four of the people got off of the bus to use the restaurant; two of the people got off of the bus to use the washroom. At this time, I was still on the bus. And I saw the four people rush out and I got off of the bus. And I said, “What’s wrong?”
And Miss Ponder, Southwide supervisor for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said, “It was the chief of police and a state highway patrolman ordered us to come out.” And I said, “This is Mississippi for you.”
She said, “Well, I think I’ll get the tag number and we can file it in our report.” And I got back in the bus. One of the girls that had used the washroom got back on the bus and that left five on our outside. When I looked through the window, they was getting those people in the car. And I stepped off of the bus again. And somebody screamed from that car and said, “Get that one there,” and a man said, “You are under arrest.” When he opened the door, and as I started to get in, he kicked me and I was carried to the county jail.
When I got to the county jail, with the two white fellows that drove me to jail, they was calling me all kinds of names. And they was asking me questions and as I would try to answer they would cut me off. And as we got to the county jail there, when we walked into the booking room, one of the policemans [sic] walked over to one of the young men and jumped up with all of his weight on one of the Negro’s feet. And then they began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with Miss Euvester Simpson from Itta Bena, Mississippi. And during that time they left some in the booking room. And I began to hear screams. And I began to hear howls. And I began to hear somebody say, “Can’t you say ‘yes, sir,’ nigger?”
And I could hear Miss Ponder’s voice said, “Yes, I can say ‘yes, sir.’” “So, well, say it.”
She said, “I don’t know you well enough.” And I would hear when she would hit the floor again. And during the time they was beating Miss Ponder, I heard her when she began to pray. And she asked God to have mercy on those people because they didn’t know what they was doing. I don’t know how long this lasted. But after a while, Miss Ponder passed my cell. She didn’t recognize me when she passed my cell. One of her eyes looked like blood, and her mouth was swollen, and she was holding up by propping against the back of the brick cell.
And then three men came to my cell: a state highway patrolman, and a police, and a plain-dressed man. The state highway patrolman said, “Where you from?”
I said, “Ruleville, Mississippi.”
He said, “I’m going to check.” And it wasn’t too long before he was back.
And he used a curse word and he said, “You are from Ruleville, all right.” He said, “We is going to make you wish you was dead.”
I was led out of that cell and to another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. Three white men in that room and two Negroes. The state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack; it was a long leather blackjack and it was loaded with something heavy. And they ordered me to lay down on my face on a bunk bed. And the first Negro beat me. He had to beat me until the state highway patrolman give him orders to quit. Because he had already told him, said, “If you don’t beat her,” said, “you know what I’ll do to you.” And he beat me I don’t know how long. And after a while, he was exhausted and I was too. And it was a horrible experience.
And the state highway patrolman told the second Negro to take the blackjack. And I asked at this time, I said, “How can you treat a human being like this?”
The second prisoner said: “Move your hand, lady. I don’t want to hit you in your hand.” But I was holding my hand behind on the left side to shield some of the licks, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old and this kind of beating, I know I couldn’t take it. So I held my hands behind me, and after the second Negro began to beat me, the state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro that had beat me to set on my feet to keep me from working my feet. And I was screaming, and I couldn’t help but scream, and one of the white men began to beat me in my head and told me to “stop screaming.” And the only way that I could stop screaming was to take my hand and hug it around the tip to muffle out the sound. My dress worked up from this hard blackjack and I pulled my dress down, taking my hands behind and pulled my dress down. And one of the city policemens walked over and pulled my dress as high as he could.
Five mens in this room while I was one Negro woman, being beaten, and at no time did I attempt to do anything but scream and call on God. I don’t know how long this lasted, but after a while I must have passed out. And when I did raise my head up, the state highway patrolman said, “Get up from there, fatso.” But I couldn’t get up. I don’t know how long, but I kept trying, and you know God is always able. And after a while I did get up, and I went back to my cell.
That Tuesday when they had our trial, the same policemen that had participated in the beatings was on the jury seat, people. And I was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. And I want to say tonight, we can no longer ignore the fact, America is not the land of the free and the home of the brave. When just because people want to register and vote and be treated like human beings, Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman is dead today. A house divided against itself cannot stand; America is divided against itself and without their considering us human beings, one day America will crumble. Because God is not pleased. God is not pleased at all the murdering, and all of the brutality, and all the killings for no reason at all. God is not pleased at the Negro children in the state of Mississippi suffering from malnutrition. God is not pleased because we have to go raggedy each day. God is not pleased because we have to go to the field and work from ten to eleven hours for three lousy dollars. . . .
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” The beatitude[s] of the Bible, the fifth chapter of Matthew said: “Blessed are they that moan, for they shall be comforted.” We have moaned a long time in Mississippi. And he [Jesus] said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” And there’s no race in America that’s no meeker than the Negro. We’re the only race in America that has had babies sold from our breast, which was slavery time. And had mothers sold from their babes. And we’re the only race in America that had one man had to march through a mob crew just to go to school, which was James H. Meredith. We don’t have anything to be ashamed of. All we have to do is trust God and launch out into the deep. You can pray until you faint, but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.
It’s very plain today, some of the things that you have read in the Bible. When this man looked out and saw the number and said, “These are they from every nation.” Can’t you see these things coming to pass today? When you see all of these students coming here to help America to be a real democracy and make democracy a reality in the state of Mississippi. Can’t you see the fulfilling of God’s word?
He said, “A city that’s set on a hill cannot be hid. Let your light so shine that men would see your good works and glorify the father, which is in Heaven.” He said, “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and shall persecute you and shall set almighty evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in Heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets which were before you.” That’s why I tell you tonight that you have a responsibility and if you plan to walk in Christ’s footstep and keep his commandments you are willing to launch out into the deep and go to the courthouse—not come here tonight to see what I look like, but to do something about the system here.
We are not fighting against these people because we hate them, but we are fighting these people because we love them and we’re the only thing can save them now. We are fighting to save these people from their hate and from all the things that would be so bad against them. We want them to see the right way. Every night of my life that I lay down before I go to sleep, I pray for these people that despitefully use me. And Christ said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” And He said before one-tenth—one jot—of his word would fail, heaven and earth would pass away. But His word would stand forever. And I believe tonight, that one day in Mississippi—if I have to die for this—we shall overcome. . . .
We want people, we want people over us that’s concerned about the people because we are human beings. Regardless of how they have abused us for all these years, we always cared what was going on. We have prayed and we have hoped for God to bring about a change. And now the time have come for people to stand up. And there’s something real, real peculiar but still it’s great: there used to be a time when you would hit a Negro—a white man would hit a Negro—the others would go and hide. But there’s a new day now, when you hit a Negro, you likely to see a thousand there. Because God care. God care and we care. And we can no longer ignore the fact that we can’t sit down and wait for things to change because as long as they can keep their feet on our neck, they will always do it. But it’s time for us to stand up and be women and men. Because actually, I’m tired of being called “Aunty.” I wondered in life what actually time would they allow for me to be a woman? Because until I was thirty-six I was a girl: “Girl this.” And now I’m forty-six and it’s “Aunty.” But I want you to know tonight: I don’t have one white niece or nephew. And if you don’t want to call me Mrs. Hamer, just call me plain “Fannie” because I’m not your aunt. . . .
We want ours and we want ours now. I question sometime, actually, has any of these people that hate so—which is the white—read anything about the Constitution? Eighteen hundred and seventy, the Fifteenth Amendment was added on to the Constitution of the United States that gave every man a chance to vote for what he think to be the right way. And now this is ’64 and they still trying to keep us away from the ballot. But we are determined today, we are determined that one day we’ll have the power of the ballot. And the sooner you go to the courthouse, the sooner we’ll have it. It’s one thing, it’s one thing I don’t want you to say tonight after I finish—and it won’t be long—I don’t want to hear you say, “Honey, I’m behind you.” Well, move, I don’t want you back there. Because you could be two hundred miles behind. I want you to say, “I’m with you.” And we’ll go up this freedom road together.
Before I leave you, I would like to quote from an old hymn my mother used to sing: “Should earth against my soul engage, and fiery darts be hurled, when I can smile at Satan’s rage and face this frowning world.” Thank you.
- When Hamer says to her audience that they are “on the way” to somewhere, what does she have in mind and how does religion figure into either the destination or the journey?
- Compare the martyrdom of Hamer with that of Mary Dyer (Letter to the General Court and Testimony).
- Luke 4:18
- Proverbs 14:34
- Matthew 12:25. Abraham Lincoln used the image of a house divided against itself in 1858, in a speech following his nomination as the Republican candidate for Senator from Illinois.
- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were working in Mississippi in June 1964 to register Blacks as voters when they were abducted and murdered.
- Matthew 12:25. Abraham Lincoln used this Biblical image in his “House Divided” speech, June 16, 1858, after his nomination as the Republican candidate for Senator from Illinois. The speech became the keynote of Lincoln’s campaign against Stephen A. Douglas.
- Proverbs 14: 34
- Matthew 5:4
- Matthew 5:5
- James Howard Meredith (1933–) became the first African American student admitted to the (formerly) segregated University of Mississippi in 1962, after a lengthy legal battle.
- a paraphrase of Revelation 7:9
- Hamer refers to college students who in the summer of 1964 came to the South to register blacks as voters.
- Matthew 5:14-16
- Matthew 5:11-12
- Matthew 5:5
- Matthew 24:35; Luke 21:33
- “We Shall Overcome” was a spiritual associated with the Civil Rights Movement. The phrase “we shall overcome” was widely used by those in the civil rights movement.
- The line comes from the Isaac Watts’ hymn commonly known as “When I Can Read My Title Clear,” (1707). Watts originally published the lyrics of the hymn without a title, but under the header “The Hopes of Heaven our Support under Trials on Earth.”