Friday, December 16, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Moral courage is defined as "the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences." In other words, moral courage is the courage that is required to do what one knows or believes is right when that choice involves personal risk, or when it will result in personal vilification or actual danger.

Moral courage is often exhibited by the most ordinary people, and examples are all around us.

Fannie Lou Hamer was the daughter of a black sharecropper from rural Mississippi who helped black American citizens exercise their rights to vote in the 1960's.  For that simple act, Fannie Lou Hamer was threatened, thrown into jail, beaten so badly she suffered permanent kidney damage, and shot at.  For helping other Americans vote.  For standing up to those who would deny those people their rights as American citizens.  For that, she should've been awarded a medal.

In 1962, already 45 years old, Fanny Lou Hamer made a decision to attend a public meeting held by young civil rights workers who'd come to the Deep South to register black voters.  After that meeting, she and 17 other hopeful black voters rented a bus and traveled to the county courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi, about 25 miles South of Ruleville, intending to register themselves to vote.  That very day, when she returned to the plantation where she worked picking cotton by hand, she was fired by the plantation owner who had warned her about registering to vote.  She was forced to leave the plantation where she'd worked since she was six years old.

Fannie Lou, rather than give up the struggle for black rights, began traveling with the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizing freedom schools and black voter registration drives.  She said, later, "They kicked me off the plantation; they set me free."

In 1963, while returning to Ruleville, MS from a literacy workshop in Charleston South Carolina, was arrested in Winona, Mississippi and jailed on a false charge.  While in jail, she was held down in a cell while two other inmates were ordered by the police to beat her with a blackjack.  The beating was nearly fatal, and had lasting physical effects; but it didn't stop Ms. Hamer.  She returned to her work, organizing voter registration drives in Mississippi.

Fannie Lou Hamer came to the attention of the entire nation in 1964, during the US Presidential election that year, when she traveled to Washington, DC with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (or "Freedom Democrats").  The Freedom Democrats were there to challenge the Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Nominating Convention which was all-white, and anti-civil rights.  The population of Mississippi in 1964 was 45% black [source]. That meant nearly half of the people of Mississippi were not represented politically at the convention.

PBS's American Experience told the story of Fannie Lou Hamer's powerful speech to the 1964 Democratic National Committee and President Lyndon Johnson's ridiculous response to it:   (3m40s)

I gave up a good job, a 20-acre farm and the house we built in Alabama, to get out of America's Deep South.  All I had to do to keep those things was to do what Fannie Lou Hamer would not  – what I was taught growing up in America's Bible Belt: a little "Yassuh, Massah, Suh!" never kilt no n*r."

I'm glad I had an example like that of Fannie Lou Hamer to emulate. Someone for whom Liberty is more than just a word or an empty promise.

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