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Today’s Winona, Mississippi Blacks Could Draw Strength and Courage From the Late Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist, was known for her singing, especially during some of the most frightening times in the civil rights movement.

Winona, Mississippi is the small town at the edge of the Delta where the trial of Curtis Flowers is taking place this week. This is day two of the historic murder trial of a black man and what makes this event so unique, is that it is the sixth time the state has tried to convict Flowers of the multiple murders of a prominent Winona family. There is no good evidence that Flowers committed this crime, but in Mississippi killing black people or convicting them of crimes they haven’t committed is a blood sport. Today during voir dire, forensic historian Alan Bean describes how Winona’s black community would-be jurors are running a scam because they are running scared. The only way Flowers will be found innocent is if a black person sits on the jury. Everyone knows this, but no black person will take a chance at being seated on this panel.

It is 2010. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is so far away. Why would a black person today be so afraid to sit on a jury and save the life of a black man? You have to know the history of Winona — and all of Mississippi — to answer this question. Those who do know their black history will remember that Winona is where civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten and raped because she used a white rest room at the town’s bus stop. Hamer was coming home from a civil rights training camp in North Carolina when the incident occurred. She later spoke at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1964, telling of her experience while at the same time trying to get a black Mississippi delegation seated. Hamer’s speech was eloquent and should go down in history. I wrote about Hamer in “Where Rebels Roost,” back when I lived in the Delta. I just wish the people of today’s Mississippi knew their own history. If they knew about the courage of Hamer and others who were the strength behind the modern civil rights movement, maybe someone would be brave enough today to stand up and do their job.

FANNIE LOU HAMER, a wise civil rights leader, singer, and storyteller, grew up North of Greenville in Sunflower County, and 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 said in an oral history. Undoubtedly music was tied to survival during these treks since Hamer became well known years later for comforting others with soul-filed gospel singing – especially during some of the most difficult moments in the Movement.

When young college-age civil rights workers later moved into Sunflower County they discovered that Hamer had a “unique ability to define the problems that affected African Americans in the Delta in their own vernacular.” The young men and women trusted Hamer instinctively, seeing her as “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,” wrote J. Moye in “Let the People Decide.”

Mississippi’s leadership did not question the brutal mistreatment of blacks. And today’s leadership looks the other way as events such as the Flowers trial unfolds. The survival of laborers like Hamer as individuals, let alone their comfort, has never mattered to those in control as long as enough people were available during cotton harvest months to labor and keep the money coming in. This attitude of careless regard had carried through generations of planters who have controlled the state since it left territorial status. “Part and parcel of this control is that the Delta returns the same old evil men again and again to the legislature and therefore gets seniority and influence out of the proportion to the rest of the state,” George McLean of the Tupelo Daily Journal once asserted editorially.

McLean’s editorial was hard to counter, since rarely were any fairness or true kindness shown to black tenants and sharecroppers. Instead, white planters, who reasoned that blacks would only squander money given to them, more often cheated them of earnings. If a black cropper did not come to work, performed poorly or violated Jim Crow, he or she might be forced to work at gunpoint, beaten or even lynched – even years after the modern Civil Rights Movement formally ended. All the while, as McLean observed, the “same old evil men” kept making the laws that kept Mississippi at a distance from its needed social change.

Dr. L. C. Dorsey’s parents, like many others who worked the Delta’s cotton, typically fell asleep soon after leaving the fields: “I remember asking questions … and not understanding [it was] just chronic fatigue… . I’m sure some of them were also depressed,” she once told me.

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I really didn’t know much about myself and my core values until I lived in Mississippi on the grounds of a prison in the Delta. My husband’s job as chief psychologist bought me that opportunity. But once there, and given the opportunity to learn the history of the people who had lived and died there in a quest for freedom and social justice, I can honestly say that I learned more about myself and values than I had ever learned from living anywhere else in my life. Until then, the people who mattered to me came from my family, my klan. And then Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Cleve McDowell, Birdia Keglar, Medgar Evers, Adlena Hamlett, Amzie Moore and so many others came into my life through the history I gathered. They had all died by then and I often wish that I could have met at least one of these heroes. Still, I had an opportunity to learn about them, meet and speak with family members and other who knew them, and to spend time on the same soil where they had stood. If only their history was better taught to people who could use some of their stories of courage and greatness today. Of course, these hopes only represent my values and in fact may not be shared by others. But I do know that I still cry, especially when I think of Aaron Henry and Fannie Lou Hamer. They brought dignity, honor and hope at a time when it was surely needed.