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The Help’s Viola Davis Says She Based Her Character ‘Very Loosely’ on Fannie Lou Hamer; Not!

Hollywood movies try to turn real events during the civil rights movment into ‘feel-good’ films.

In The Help, a much publicized film that focuses on the modern civil rights movement, Viola Davis, a Juilliard-trained actor best known for her Oscar-nominated role opposite Meryl Streep in “Doubt” (and for her stage work, for which she has won two Tony Awards), plays Aibileen, a maid in early-’60s Jacksonville, Miss.

Fannie Lou Hamer, revered civil rights activist from Mississippi. (Image may be subject to copyright.)

The maid quietly endures her employer’s racist remarks and casual cruelty — only to go home and write down her thoughts in a journal.

Davis, who apparently knows little about modern civil rights history, is saying she based the character, “very, very loosely,” on civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. “She was born the same year as Aibileen, in Mississippi.”

Slow down, Hollywood. This statement is simply insulting.

Being born in the same year is all that Davis has going for her, when making this comparison to one of the world’s most admired civil rights heroes and social activists Mississippi ever produced.

Fannie Lou Hamer was no one’s quiet maid who spent the evening writing down her thoughts in a journal. She had thoughts, all right, and shared them with anyone she chose, including the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson.

To understand and appreciate Hamer, one has to know from whence she came –

Born October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, she was the granddaughter of a slave and the youngest of 20 children. Her parents were sharecroppers in this region of the Mississippi Delta, participants in a system of farming that allowed workers to live on a plantation in return for working the land. When the crop is harvested, they split the profits in half with the plantation owner, giving the system another name — halving. Sometimes the owner paid for the seed and fertilizer, but usually the sharecropper paid those expenses out of his half. It is a hard way to make a living and sharecroppers generally were born poor, lived and died poor.

In my book, Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited, I wrote this about Hamer:

A wise civil rights leader, singer and storyteller, Hamer often told how her family stayed alive during the hardest years.

In winter months, Hamer and her siblings followed their mother from plantation to plantation asking landowners for leftover cotton, the “scrappin’ cotton. When the family gathered enough cotton for a bale, these bits of scrap were sold to buy food. On those treks “[Mother] always tied our feet up with rags because the ground would be froze real hard,” Hamer in 1967 wrote in her short autobiography, To Praise Our Bridges.

Music was tied to survival during these treks and Hamer became well known years later for comforting others with her gospel singing – especially during some of the most difficult moments in the Movement when people were beaten and jailed.

When young civil rights workers later moved into Sunflower County many quickly discovered that Hamer had a “unique ability to define the problems that affected African Americans in the Delta in their own vernacular,” wrote J. Moye in Let the People Decide.

Hamer was “a leader waiting for a movement [who] believed deeply in the promise of the Bible and in the promise of the United States of America.”

In the early 1960s, as the modern civil rights movement progressed, there were predictions of wholesale starvation in the Delta as government commodities were being withheld from sharecroppers during winter or non-working months. Mothers about to give birth were particularly concerned about the consequences.

It was Hamer who pointed out the labor and sweat of blacks that had “made them white folks creamy rich,” concluding, “There’s so much hate. Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

On June 11, 1963, a message came into the Greenwood Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) office that a group of eight freedom workers – Hamer, along with June Johnson, Annelle Ponder, Euvester Simpson, Rosemary Freeman, Lawrence Guyot, James Wes, and Ruth Day – had been arrested and beaten by Winona jailers in Montgomery County for integrating the white waiting room of the bus station in Winona upon returning from a training session in South Carolina on June 9, 1963.

SNCC leader Bob Moses led a group of volunteers that night to Winona. Though she could hardly talk, Annelle Ponder whispered, “Freedom,” when she saw her friends, wrote Cat Holland who observed that June Johnson’s face was “so smashed and bloody I didn’t recognize her.”

Then Holland recognized Hamer, who “took her hand and ran it over her lumpy, bruised flesh,” while telling her what happened. Holland wrote of her conversation with a police officer:

“Why y’all beat ’em like this?” I asked the policeman, who stood by leering.
“We kin give you some of the same thing,” he said.
“Don’t say nothing, Ida,” Miss Hamer said. “You go back an’ tell the others.”

Hamer, Others Protest in Chicago

Mississippi’s conservative “blue dog Democrats” in 1964 threatened to support Republican Barry Goldwater. The state party’s leaders predictably kept out all black participation in primaries or conventions.

So the black-led Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) decided to become active in the state’s official Democratic Party and to steer the party to support Johnson for President.

While the regular Democrats were sending a “hand-picked delegation to Chicago with only two token Negro delegates, although Negroes constituted 40 percent of 240,000 of the registered voters in Mississippi,” MFDP members decided they, alone, should represent the state at the upcoming party convention, and Hamer was part of this group.

Aaron Henry, a Delta leader from Clarksdale and friend of Hamer’s, appealed for $30,000 to support the Loyal Democrats of Mississippi, a bi-racial coalition made up of the MFDP, NAACP of Mississippi, the state Teacher’s Association, the Mississippi AFL-CIO and the Young Democrats.

The coalition’s purpose would be to appear before the Credential Committee of the Democratic National convention on August 26 to prove discrimination by the regular Democratic Party of Mississippi.

The secretary of state, however, refused permission to register MFDP because “there was already a Democratic political party in the state,” even though Mississippi Democrats failed to support the national party’s presidential candidate in the previous 1960 elections.

Whites did not take the MFDP very seriously and it was sometimes the target of editorial “humor.” The state’s spy agency, the Sovereignty Commission, meanwhile, had collected nearly 1000 files on the political organization including newsletters, membership lists, meeting announcements and notes, as well as commentaries from the Commission’s investigators.

Then on August 12, an injunction was issued ordering all MFDP officials not to leave the state and go to Atlantic City for the convention. Also prohibited was engagement by the leader in any further MFDP activity. MFDP filed suit in federal court asking that more than a dozen of Mississippi’s segregation laws be invalidated, taking advantage of the new Civil Rights Act legislation and causing a cloud of last-minute confusion as the group made haste for New Jersey.

Once they arrived, national Democratic Party leaders fell through in support of this unique group from Mississippi and were not prepared to greet MFDP’s 64 delegates with open arms.

President Lyndon Johnson did not want bitter debates initiated, even if the regular Mississippi Democrats were supporting Goldwater instead of him.

Johnson and party liberals had campaigned on the basis of their civil rights “successes” and even though the Southern state party structures completely excluded African Americans, Democrats did not want this practice disrupted, fearing they would lose the support of Southern states.

But Fannie Lou Hamer added heat to the convention when she spoke before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention, telling the horrifying story of her attempts to register to vote in Sunflower County, including the beating she received in Winona.

Lyndon Johnson, concerned over the attention paid to MFDP and the fight for credentials, gave notice that he wanted to deliver a special televised speech on an unrelated topic, as Hamer was speaking.

News networks recognized the public’s interest in Hamer and played her entire speech on the evening news, giving even more airtime than she would have received:
Hamer’s unforgettable August 22, 1964 testimony would go down in civil rights history:

“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 Trailways bus. When we got to Winona … 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 was carried to the county jail, and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss [Euvester] Simpson. After I was placed in the cell I began to hear the sounds of kicks and screams. I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, yes, sir, nigger? Can you say yes, sir?”

” … 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. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman and he … said, “You are from Ruleville all right,” and he used a curse word, and he said, “We are going to make you wish you was dead.”

” … 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 … 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 set on my feet to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush … I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.”

Historians would later write that Johnson told Hubert Humphrey to “crush the rebellion” and get the MFDP off the front pages, or Humphrey could give up on the idea of ever becoming vice-president. Humphrey instructed fellow Minnesotan and future Vice President Walter Mondale to “suppress the MFDP by any means necessary” and this was accomplished through secret meetings, and false statements, and by using information on the MFDP’s strategy gathered from FBI informants.

Johnson, Humphrey, and Mondale finally offered MFDP to seat two at-large delegates to be selected by Johnson (to ensure Humphrey that Hamer would not be selected). MFDP delegates refused the compromise. Humphrey reportedly pleaded with Hamer (whom he reportedly found “distasteful” because she was poor and uneducated) to accept the compromise so he could become vice president and push civil rights.

Mississippian Rev. Ed King, also a delegate, years later told how Hamer expressed no sympathy for Humphrey’s dilemma:

“Senator Humphrey. I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs for trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County. Now if you lose this job of vice president because you do what is right, because you help the MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take it this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk about.”

In December 1964, MFDP tried to halt seating of Mississippi’s white Congressmen who gained their seats in racially rigged elections by filing a notice of contest. MFDP claimed that Annie Devine, Victoria Gray and Fannie Lou Hamer, three MFDP Congressional candidates who ran in the freedom vote after being kept off the official ballot, were entitled to seats in their respective districts.

Congress would not budge. Civil rights groups including SNCC, CORE, SCLC and Americans for Democratic Action endorsed the challenge but ADA would not support the seating of the three women.

The national media also rejected seating of the three candidates; hence the Freedom Democratic Party backed down from supporting the three, but continued the seating challenge.

In January, 600 black Mississippians attending the opening ceremony of the 1965 session to lobby against seating of the Mississippi delegation, and more than one third of House members agreed, voting to bar the official Mississippian delegation.
Hamer had helped make their case.

Hamer Made Impact, Julian Bond Said

Long after the conflicts faded from national news coverage, Fannie Lou Hamer was acting on her dream of an ideal community and in 1970, formed the Freedom Farm Cooperative to help displaced farm workers become self-reliant.

At its zenith, the cooperative owned 680 acres of land devoted to cotton production, 200 units of low-income housing, day care center, and a small manufacturing plant.
When Hamer died in 1977, penniless, and ill from the beatings she had received, Georgia state legislator and SNCC representative Julian Bond spoke at her funeral, noting that Fannie Lou Hamer was “the articulator for the Southern movement to continue to fight long after SNCC’s summer soldiers abandoned Ruleville and the rural South, shell shocked by too much of what was daily life for her.”

Hamer’s impact upon African Americans, the labor and women’s movements, was impressive, Bond said.

“She and her co-workers taught a powerful lesson to those now facing the rapid dismantling of the formal structure of African American progress, the rise of widespread racist terrorism, and the intensification of economic exploitation.”

Fannie Lou Hamer was not a person to journal her thoughts.

And Davis’s character isn’t close to this incredible woman from Mississippi.

Not close at all.
* * * * *

For many people, this is the only film they will ever see that has anything to do with the modern civil rights movement in Mississippi. They will leave with no idea of the utter violence and heroism that defines this period. I am concerned, for instance, when I hear the name of Fannie Lou Hamer being bantied about, as a model for the maid character. It is a shame, that when African Americans are offered an opportunity to work, it is for a film that doesn’t represent the true pain and nobility of this movement that was so critical to our country.

We need some real history taught by films and books before moving into feel good movies about Mississippi’s ghosts. Especially when in today’s papers, we still read about white teens in Jackson killing an innocent black man — for fun.