Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Unsung Heroes: Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement

Fannie Lou Hammer of Mississippi,
grassroots organizer for voting rights, and
symbol of the ordinary men and women who
made the March on Washington possible.
"If I had any sense I'd be a little scared but what's the point? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I can remember."    Fannie Lou Hammer, Mississippi sharecropper, voting rights organizer, founding member of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party.

We're celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 50th anniversary of the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. It's moving, these tributes and memories. I'm also thinking about unnamed pioneers, grassroots organizers, martyrs, the courageous souls who plowed the soil of discontent and injustice to make it happen. "I am here," President Obama said, "because someone marched." 

Yes, someone marched, and organized, refused to be battered down, refused to be intimidated at the ballot box, on buses, at segregated food counters and 'whites only' water fountains. 

They were ordinary men and women in small towns and cities, on farms and in rural communities across the South.  That's where the Civil Rights movement was born, fueled by everyday folks who were fed up. Other efforts arose in the North, along with the NAACP and social justice movements. They grew in tandem and overlapped with the long-simmering grassroots activism of black people in the South. Just so we remember the roots: the spirit of freedom in the souls of black folks, as W.E.B. DuBOis put it. That's where it all began.  

The "movement" of course began long before 1963, actually during the Civil War when slaves fought for their freedom, and then through the unmitigated injustices of Reconstruction and the unhindered rise of racist terrorism, Black Codes, and lynching. That's when four million former slaves had to find ways to survive under the most extreme forms of deprivation this country has ever known. Freedom to former slaves meant being your own boss, owning a plot of land and relying on no one but yourself. 40 acres and a mule.  A Jeffersonian view of freedom at a time when Capitalism took off and triumphed. 

Instead of  getting land and tools, however, the former slaves were forced into working on old plantations or sharecropping, picking cotton, working for new masters, the only jobs open to them. On top of that, black people had no rights that any white was bound to respect.  Black Codes arose to limit the kinds of work they could do, their economic opportunities, their efforts to reunite and maintain families, to control their movements, their every attempt at self-sufficiency and survival. 

Laws against hunting, fishing and foraging, outrageous and vindictive, made daily life almost impossible.  If a black man was caught fishing or foraging, the basic means of survival for generations, he was made a criminal and thrown in jail. Such laws created the enforced "criminalization" of thousands of innocent black people, a new form of slavery, those who "worked on the chain gangs" until they died, usually from overwork.  White terrorism, KKK murder, daily violence, brutal lynchings, all done with impunity, mostly with the complicity of local sheriffs and police, heightened fear and anxiety. This continued into the 20th century.  It is a wonder how black people survived, but they did.  They created schools and churches, communities and entrepreneurial opportunities, celebrations and vibrant cultural traditions--gospel, jazz and blues among them--to survive against incredible odds. 

The gathering of millions of ordinary
 Americans who created a movement.
They were ready for Dr. King's
message: "I Have a Dream."
Public domain image, Yahoo.
A friend who grew up and prospered in Florida remembered how as a young boy he found out who the head of the Klan was in his little town of Leesburg.  "It was the Sheriff," he said.  "His boots, which showed under his hooded white robe, gave him away." Blacks and whites led "parallel lives" that seldom crossed, he said, and if they did, black people ended up wounded or dead.  

 It's hard to believe that 20th century America was such an abomination, such a horror story, so far removed from its founding principles and democratic values. And that, at the same time, the very same time, we were flexing our military muscle around the world promoting "democracy."  It boggles the mind.  

Out of the cauldron of terror, injustice and despair, rose the modern grassroots civil rights movement of the 20th century; like a Phoenix it rose, out of the still-smouldering ashes of slavery and the sheer determination of the children of slave ancestors to be part of the American dream.  

The backbone of the movement, historian David Garrow reminds us, "was a cadre of crucial grassroots blacks, ordinary people, who nurtured and sustained the movement." (

For doing so, hundreds were murdered, bombed, terrorized and lynched, the vicious mechanisms of social control in the hands of white racists full of hate. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a venerable civil justice organization, maintains a Memorial inscribed with the names of martyrs killed between 1954 and 1968 due to their grassroots civil rights work.  These names include Rev. George Lee and Lamar Smith of Mississippi; Emmet Till of Chicago, killed in Florida, and Harry T. Moore, an NAACP organizer there.  The four black children killed by a bomb planted at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the young civil rights workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner, killed by Klansmen.  Herbert Lee of Louisiana who worked with Bob Moses to register black voters. Jimmy Lee Jackson, killed trying to protect his parents from a trooper attack on marchers in Selma, which led to the much-larger Selma-Montgomery march and eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act. (see

The list goes on, of people killed simply for trying to obtain the right to vote in a democracy.  Think of it. 1954 to 1968. That was the time many of us were in high school and going to college, living in an all-white world of privilege, unaware of the brutality imposed on African-Americans, their daily struggle, unaware of the scope and profound impact of American apartheid, as bad here as anywhere in the world. We got it eventually, we the children of the World War II generation and the Boomers, but so much had happened in the meantime.

I think of the hundreds of voting rights organizers like Fannie Lou Hammer in Mississippi, who could tell us all about it.  Hammer, dirt poor, from a sharecropping family on old cotton plantations, went from door to door, house to house, spreading the message, trying to register voters, way before Martin Luther King arose to lead a national movement.  She was threatened at every turn.  It was a dangerous mission, asserting your right as an American citizen to vote.  In spite of it, thousands of ordinary folks like Hammer, foot soldiers, devoted their lives to the cause. Some paid with their lives.

Hammer went on to become a founding member of the Mississippi  Democratic Freedom Party, carried her dogged determination into America's Democratic party, and helped put freedom on the national political agenda.  I like to remember as well, as my brother Loren never ceased to remind us, that Hammer found a willing ear in Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, a civil rights pioneer ahead of his time. Progressives everywhere soon jumped on the bandwagon; it takes a nation to achieve the American dream.   

But first, it takes years of discontent and fomenting from the bottom up to create change from the top down. By the time national leaders emerge to lead a movement, the ground for change has been tilled, with blood, sweat and tears.

It's the story of every reform movement in America.  Our leaders stand on the shoulders of thousands of unsung heroes who laid the foundations, helped change public opinion, moved people's minds and hearts, and slowly created the conditions required for real change. We remember them, too.  


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