CONTENT WARNING: A listener note. This episode contains depictions of violence that may not be suitable for all audiences
It’s August 22nd, 1964 at the White House.
Inside the Oval Office, President Lyndon B. Johnson turns on his television and flips to the news.
On-screen, Johnson watches a picket line gathered outside the Democratic National Convention. In the protestors' hands are signs about voting rights for Black Americans.
Then, Johnson watches as the footage shifts to the inside of the convention hall where 68 Black Mississippians plan to testify on voter suppression and the fight for seats on the state’s delegation.
Johnson lets out an exasperated sigh. He walks to the window of his office and stares out on the lawn. The turmoil over voting rights in the South has been a source of complicated emotions for the president. Though he agrees the region’s Black population deserves greater representation in government, he also needs the support of white Southern Democrats to win reelection this year. Johnson glances back at the television as an activist named Fannie Lou Hamer prepares to give her testimony on the convention floor.
Johnson knows her and leans forward in his chair as he examines the woman that has become one of the faces of Mississippi’s civil rights movement. Johnson worries that she’ll cause just the kind of turbulence that he has sought to avoid.
"FANNIE: Mr. Chairman, and to the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer…"
As Johnson listens to Fannie begin an impassioned speech on state-sanctioned violence and voter suppression, he realizes that he needs to get the cameras off the convention floor. So Johnson leaps into action.
He picks up the phone and orders his people to put together an impromptu press conference that will shift newscasts away from the Democratic National Convention and onto the White House.
Moments later, Johnson opens the door to a room already set up with a stage, cameras, and an audience of reporters.
As Johnson walks up to the stage’s lectern, he breathes a sigh of relief. With all eyes on him, he’s sure no one outside the convention hall will hear what he feels are the inflammatory words of Fannie Lou Hamer.
President Johnson’s impromptu press conference succeeds in pulling focus away from Fannie Lou Hamer, at least momentarily. Across America, TV networks shift from Fannie’s testimony at the convention to the White House where Johnson will commemorate the nine-month anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death and ramble on about his presidential campaign. But the president’s conspicuous obstruction of her speech will not silence Fannie; in fact, it will draw even more attention to her and her cause. That evening, Fannie’s testimony will be replayed by nearly every newscast, inspiring millions of viewers to pay attention to the fight for voting rights in the South. And in the end, Fannie’s address will go down as one of the most important speeches in civil rights history, its impact lasting long after she first delivered it on August 22nd, 1964.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is August 22nd, 1964:Fannie Lou Hamer Testifies at the Democratic National Convention.
Act One: The Struggle to Register
It’s August 31st, 1962 in Indianola, Mississippi.
Outside the Sunflower County Courthouse, forty-four-year-old Fannie Lou Hamer and 17 of the county's other Black residents get off a bus and head toward the building’s steps. Today, Fannie and her neighbors are here to register to vote - a prospect that until very recently has felt completely out of reach.
For decades, voting rights for Black Americans have been a complicated issue. Constitutional amendments passed during the Reconstruction Era already granted Black men and women the right to vote. But in practice, many Black Americans remain disenfranchised. In the South, discriminatory legislation known as Jim Crow laws have limited Black Americans’ access to the polls, subjecting them to literacy tests and poll taxes.
And until recently, Fannie didn’t even know that Black people could register to vote. But, over the summer, Fannie attended a local meeting for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. There, committee leaders described the nation’s deliberate suppression of Black voters and urged Fannie and others to try to register. So Fannie and other Black Mississippians traveled here to Indianola to exercise her newfound right.
But as Fannie walks up to the county courthouse, her excitement wanes. Outside, she sees more policemen with more guns than she’s ever seen in her life. As Fannie approaches the courthouse doors, she also feels the eyes of white passersby; some curious, others visibly angry at the appearance of 18 Black residents on the steps of their courthouse.
But Fannie tries to ignore the harsh glares as she pushes open the building’s front door. With her group, Fannie walks to the clerk’s office and explains that they want to register to vote. But the clerk simply denies the request. Fannie furrows her brow as the clerk tells them he’ll only allow two of them to register; the rest need to get out. After some discussion, Fannie and one other are given the opportunity to fill out a registration application and take a literacy test.
Soon, Fannie sits down at a desk in front of the courthouse’s registrar. He places a copy of the Mississippi constitution and a blank piece of paper in front of her. Then he instructs her to copy a section of the constitution onto the paper.
At this, Fannie feels nerves set in. Unlike a portion of Black Americans, Fannie is literate. But her writing skills are limited since she was forced to leave school at 12 to work full-time in the fields. But Fannie is determined and won't fumble this opportunity.
Slowly and carefully, Fannie copies the constitution before her, making sure every comma and every period is in the correct place. Satisfied with her work, Fannie gestures for the registrar to come look at her paper. But instead of examining her work, the registrar gives her another instruction: to write a clear interpretation of the section she just copied.
Fannie’s heart sinks. Though she can read and write, the esoteric language of the state’s constitution is difficult to comprehend. She tries her best to derive meaning from the section. But quickly, she realizes it’s no use; she can’t pass the test. Defeated, Fannie puts down her pencil, stands up, and walks out of the courthouse.
Outside, Fannie rejoins the rest of her group. And there, she learns that the other person who was allowed to take the literacy test failed too.
As the group boards the bus back to their hometown of Ruleville, Fannie’s mind races over the embarrassment of the literacy test. But as she slouches in her seat and stares out the window, something distracts her from her thoughts. She notices a group of police officers outside the courthouse watching the bus leave. Their stares make her feel uneasy.
And soon enough, after the bus drives away from the courthouse, she hears the sound of police sirens. The bus comes to a stop. And then, Fannie watches as officers approach the bus driver and charge him a $100 fine on the trumped-up charge that the bus is “too yellow.”
Fannie shakes in indignation. This bus has been able to service Black residents like her for years without issue. She knows this is happening today only because she dared to try to register to vote. Eventually, the driver agrees to pay the fine, the officers leave, and the bus resumes its journey to Ruleville.
But the consequences of the group’s trip to Indianola continue. Back home in Ruleville, the owner of the plantation where she's lived and worked for eighteen years kicks Fannie and her family off his land after hearing about her trip to the courthouse. A week later, Fannie’s shot at sixteen times by other residents angered by her attempt to register.
But Fannie remains determined to exercise her right to vote. In December, she returns to the county courthouse to take the literacy test again. But even after failing a second time, Fannie tells the registrar that he’ll see her every 30 days until she passes.
Fannie will stay true to her word. One month later, she will take the test a third time. And this time she’ll pass, finally becoming a registered voter. But Fannie’s fight for voting rights is not over. Instead, Fannie will involve herself even more deeply in the battle against voter suppression.
Act Two: Inside Winona Jail
It’s around 11 in the morning on June 9th, 1963 in Winona, Mississippi; one year before Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony at the Democratic National Convention.
Fannie sits on a bus with ten other Black civil rights activists from Mississippi; they’re currently on their way home from South Carolina.
After Fannie lost her job on the plantation last year, the same civil rights group who first informed her she could vote last summer gave her a new position. Fannie is now a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee where she has been working to register Black voters and assist welfare programs. Today, Fannie is returning from a voter education workshop held by another civil rights group in Charleston.
They have been traveling all day, all night, and are almost back to Ruleville. But the group needs to make one last stop. Fannie feels the bus slow down as it pulls into the town’s bus depot. Once stopped, several of the activists get off the bus and head toward the rest stop’s cafe to get some food and use the bathroom. But Fannie doesn’t go with them. She decides to use this moment of quiet to get some rest. Fannie leans against the window and closes her eyes. But soon, a commotion outside startles her back to alertness.
Fannie’s eyes widen as she watches her fellow activists rush out of the cafe, two police officers on their heels. Confused, Fannie hurries off the bus to meet them on the sidewalk. They tell her that Winona’s police chief and a highway patrolman ordered them out of the restaurant; they say it’s a “whites only” area.
Fannie watches in horror as the police arrest her fellow activists and shove them into patrol cars. Then, one officer turns toward Fannie and tells her she is under arrest too. Fannie tries to protest. She knows the Supreme Court already ruled segregated rest stops in interstate travel unconstitutional. But her words have no effect. Fannie winces as the officer kicks her, drags her to his patrol car, shoves her in the backseat, and takes her to the county jail.
There, Fannie and her co-activists, one as young as 15, are taken to the booking room and beaten by the police. Then, each is taken into a separate cell where they endure even more cruelty.
As the officers separate the activists, a state trooper grabs Fannie and takes her to a cell already with two Black inmates inside. The officer orders Fannie to lay face down on one of the cell’s bunks. Then, he instructs the two inmates to beat Fannie with a lead-filled club.
With each blow, Fannie screams. And then, she feels someone pulling her dress up. She tries to pull it back down but is unable. And instead, Fannie lays there with her bare body revealed as the beating continues. All the while, Fannie listens to the painful beatings and screams of her fellow inmates. Fannie will later describe the experience as the most horrifying moment of her life.
The next day, an activist from SNCC comes to help get Fannie and the others out, but he too is arrested and beaten. Instead, it takes four days until a civil rights group is able to post bail for Fannie and her peers.
After her release, Fannie spends over a month recuperating from her beatings. And she will never fully recover. For the rest of her life, Fannie will have a blood clot in her left eye, lasting kidney damage, and a permanent limp.
In December 1963, the Justice Department brings the Winona police chief and county sheriff to federal court for depriving the activists of their civil rights. But Fannie does not find justice. The all-white, local jury finds the sheriff and police chief not guilty on all counts.
So instead, Fannie fights on through activism. Her experience in jail only intensifies her drive to enfranchise Black Americans. In Mississippi, Fannie continues to organize voter registration drives, becoming a lead organizer for the state’s civil rights movement.
The year after her arrest, Fannie co-founds the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and runs for Congress as the party's nominee. She knows she is unlikely to win, but she hopes her candidacy will help combat the all-white Democratic party’s attempts to suppress Black voices in Mississippi.
And though she will lose the primary by a wide margin to Mississippi’s Democratic incumbent, Fannie’s effort will allow the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to build its presence and eventually challenge the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention where Fannie will bring her cause national attention.
Act Three: The Democratic National Convention
It’s August 22nd, 1964 at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Inside an arena, the Democratic Credentials Committee prepares to hear testimonies from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party or MFDP. Fannie and 67 other members of the MFDP delegation take their seats. Together, the activists await their long-anticipated chance to testify on voter suppression in Mississippi.
For weeks, the MFDP has been preparing for this moment, building up its numbers and selecting a delegation to send to the convention. Here, they hope they can take the next step toward finding true representation within the government. And today, Fannie and her fellow delegates are determined to challenge the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegates, arguing that the state’s Black population has been systematically excluded from voting in the primaries.
In the arena, Fannie listens as the day’s testimonies begin. When it's her turn to speak, she clears her throat before leaning into a microphone. For a moment, Fannie looks out at the white faces and TV cameras all around her. Then, she begins her testimony.
"FANNIE: It was the 31st of August in 1962 that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens."
To a captive audience, Fannie describes her struggle to register to vote. Then, she recounts her experience in Winona, narrating the brutal beatings she and other Black activists endured, and describing the “horrible screams” that echoed through the city’s jail that day.
"FANNIE: All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America? Thank you. (crowd claps)"
Despite her bravery and resolve to speaking truth to power, in the end, the convention will not go the way Fannie and her party members hoped. No one outside the convention hall in Atlantic City will hear Fannie’s speech in real-time. Unbeknownst to them, Fannie’s testimony will be cut off by an impromptu press conference called by President Johnson who feared a white Southern backlash if the MFDP was seated. After, Johnson will negotiate an agreement to seat Mississippi’s all-white delegation, giving only two non-voting seats to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
But Fannie’s speech at the convention will not go overlooked. Across the country, Fannie’s words will be replayed by media outlets and move millions of Americans. The following year, President Johnson will sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act, outlawing discriminatory voting practices and enfranchising millions of Black Americans. And four decades later, President George W. Bush will reaffirm the 1965 law with legislation bearing Fannie’s name; a testament to the enduring legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer and the impactful speech that cemented her place in history on August 22nd, 1964.
Next on History Daily. August 23rd, 1305. Scottish rebel leader William Wallace is executed in London.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.