Standing Athwart History, Cont.

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I think rather than using this Haley Barbour's flap as a prop for political McNalysis, it might more useful to attempt to understand why Barbour's ignorance of the history of his constituents rankles so. That's obviously a big question. Let's break off a piece of it.


I briefly alluded to Fannie Lou Hamer yesterday. Hamer was born in Mississippi in 1917, and spent much of her life as a sharecropper. In 1964, in the face of constant threats and violence, Hamer and other activists organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The thing to understand here is that in 1964, 42 percent of Mississippi's population was black, and virtually all of them had been prevented from voting since 1890. Even blacks, like Hamer, who could pass the literacy tests were kept from voting by a statewide campaign of intimidation. 

To be clear on this, this is the same Mississippi where Medgar Evers was killed in 1963, the same Mississippi where James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed in the same year. The same Mississippi where, so many years earlier, in 1876, white supremacists and unrepentant Confederates essentially staged an armed coup against Aldebert Ames. The federal government declined to help. (Not Grant's finest hour.) That was Fannie Lou Hamer's Mississippi, and for decades it had sent delegations to the national presidential conventions whose legitimacy was rooted in keeping nearly half the state from voting. 

In 1964, Hamer and the Freedom Democrats came to the national convention and demanded to have their own delegation--based on open and free voting seated. Forgive all the back-story. Here is Hamer's testimony speaking before the Democratic credentials committee. Listen to it. It is chilling.

EDIT: Forgive me for missing this, but here's a little more on Hamer. In 1961, during a regular medical procedure,Hamer was given a "Mississippi Appendectomy." In other words, she was given a complete hystorectomy without her consent. This was not unusual for black women in Mississippi. It's what they did.

I don't want to derail this conversation of Hamer, but this is the sort of thing people should think about when they listen to Malcolm X railing angrily. In a broader sense, Fannie Lou Hamer is the kind of person people should consider while wondering about the cast of Mississippi burning, or the latest retelling of some ex-Confederate whose wife was done wrong. Finally, she's the sort of person worth thinking about when considering those who believe accusations of racism are as bad as racism itself.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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