The Common Good

Fannie Lou Hamer's America, 44 Years Later (by Burns Strider)

I am overwhelmed at the historic nature of what's happening this week, and it's important that we all think about this. It's important for me as a Mississippian. For me, I can't stop thinking of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats and Fannie Lou Hamer. I wish Hamer could be here.

In 1964 the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) arrived at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City with the goal of unseating the "regular Democrats" and representing their fellow Democrats from Mississippi.

The Freedom Democrats were civil rights pioneers attempting to engage the political process and give African Americans equal participation in our nation's democratic system. They wanted to vote. They wanted to participate. They wanted their voice to be heard.

The regular Democrats were the establishment. They were all white and were seeking to maintain the status quo, which was maintaining their control of the political process in Mississippi.

The Freedom Democrats stood for an America where everyone had a place at the table. The regular Democrats stood for an America where the white establishment had a place at the table while African Americans stood to the side taking what scraps were tossed to them.

Fannie Lou Hamer led the Mississippi Freedom Democrats. She was impoverished, a sharecropper with hands calloused from the back-breaking work of hand-picking cotton. She couldn't read. And she had lived a life with no say about her own choices. Speaking before the DNC credentials committee, Hamer proclaimed "Is this America?"

Hamer is also famous for telling America, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."

The Freedom Democrats were denied official recognition, but the MFDP kept up their agitation within the convention. The MFDP delegates borrowed passes from sympathetic northern delegates and took the seats vacated by the "regular" Mississippi delegates (most had left), only to be removed by the national party. When they returned the next day to find that convention organizers had removed the empty seats that had been there yesterday, the MFDP stayed to sing freedom songs.

This week, 44 years later, the Democratic Party at their national convention in Denver, Colorado, has nominated Sen. Barack Obama as their candidate for president of the United States.

The diverse Mississippi delegation of black and white, the heirs of the Freedom Democrats of 1964, many with direct connections with those who were there in 1964, cast their votes for this historic candidate.

Let's not forget the true nature of this historic week. Let's not forget the African Americans back in Mississippi who once couldn't vote, who lived under Jim Crow, and on Thursday night will watch a black man accept the nomination of the Democratic Party to lead this oldest active political party on the planet, to be their candidate for president of the United States. What will go through their minds?

Fannie Lou Hamer was right to ask in 1964, "Is this America?"

As I sit in my hotel room here in Denver, in 2008, I would love to be able to tell Hamer, "Yes ma'am it is. Yes, ma'am, this is America; it's your America. Yes, ma'am, because of your determination 44 years ago, in just a few hours a black man will stand on one of the globe's largest stages and demonstrate to us that this is indeed the America we hope for."

Burns Strider is former senior advisor and director of faith outreach for U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, former advisor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and currently a founder and partner of The Eleison Group.

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