How Black Women Helped Shape History and Today’s Democratic Party

by on February 10, 2017 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, History, Politics, Women's Rights

Victoria Jackson Gray Adams, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Annie Bell Robinson Devine in Washington DC in 1965 for the Mississippi Congressional Challenge

By Denise Oliver Velez / Daily Kos

If you are not aware that in recent decades black women have been the most reliable and solid voting bloc for Democrats, you should be. We proved it, once again, in the recent presidential election. That stance and practice has a history, rooted in the time when many black Americans had been Republicans and the Democratic Party was the home of racist, anti-black Dixiecrats who took extraordinary measures to restrict black voting rights.

Of course the political party that currently represents and practices racism with a capital ‘R’ calls itself ‘Republican’—and is now occupying the White House. The popular vote loser and liar-in-chief (aka Birther Trump) has placed slimy white supremacist Steve Bannon in a key position to aid, abet and undermine the Constitution. The R’s in the House and Senate are doing nothing to stop the turning back of the clock to pre-civil rights days, and are participating in the deconstruction of our rights while embracing an openly racist, sexist, xenophobic agenda—which they advanced for the eight years they blocked President Obama.

This is our first Black History Month under the new, illegitimate regime, and since voting rights are on the table and more voter suppression and gerrymandering loom large in the near future, I’d like to honor some of the women of our recent past who we should adopt as shining examples to emulate and inspire us as we fight for our future.

These black women can and should be role models for people of all colors and genders.

They were not ensconced in the ivory tower of academia. They were not politicians. They were women from poor and working-class backgrounds who against the odds—and at risk of death— decided to step up, speak out, organize, and challenge the status quo and the government.

They are too often glossed over or passed over completely when history is being taught.

If you have never seen the documentary Standing on My Sister’s Shoulders, it is a good starting point.


From Women Make Movies:

In 1965, when three women walked into the US House of Representatives in Washington D.C., they had come a very long way. Neither lawyers nor politicians, they were ordinary women from Mississippi,and descendants of African slaves. They had come to their country’s capital seeking civil rights, the first black women to be allowed in the senate chambers in nearly 100 years. A missing chapter in our nation’s record of the Civil Rights movement, this powerful documentary reveals the movement in Mississippi in the 1950’s and 60’s from the point of view of the courageous women who lived it – and emerged as its grassroots leaders. Their living testimony offers a window into a unique moment when the founders’ promise of freedom and justice passed from rhetoric to reality for all Americans. Through moving interviews and powerful archival footage, STANDING ON MY SISTERS’ SHOULDERS weaves a story of commitment, passion and perseverance and tells the story of the women fought for change in Mississippi and altered the course of American history forever.


From the Zinn Education Project:

One of the best films on the Civil Rights Movement, this award-winning documentary reveals the movement in Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s from the point of view of the courageous women who lived it — and emerged as its grassroots leaders.

Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders is full of riveting historical footage and original interviews with Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Unita Blackwell, Mae Bertha Carter, Victoria Gray Adams, Dorie Ladner, and more. Voter registration, the fight for equal education, desegregation, and of course the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge at the Democratic Convention are featured.

“If you can show just one film on the Civil Rights Movement, this should be the one. An exquisite tool for high school and college teachers of history, women’s studies, African American studies, and related subjects. Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Unita Blackwell, and countless others at last get the recognition they deserve.” —Pricilla Murolo, Professor of History and Director of the Women’s History program, Sarah Lawrence

The film’s website has brief descriptions of many of the black women and their white allies who were key civil rights organizers and fighters. Accompanying and supplementing the film is the book Pieces From the Past: Voices of Heroic Women in Civil Rights.

Bookcover for "Pieces From the Past"

Pieces from the Past is unique in that it presents little known incidents, personal anecdotes and heroic behavior of several women of the Civil Rights Movement who helped change the political, social and racial landscape of the South in the 1960s.The stories are written by the women who are able to write them or by friends and/or relatives who knew them intimately. Some are written by well-known authors and writers, and others by family members.

These women were dedicated to the cause of freedom and distinguished themselves through commitment and bravery. Their stories must be told and they must be remembered as leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

The authors in this volume include Joanne Prichard Morris, Betty Pearson, Stanley Dearman, Constance Slaughter Harvey, Joan Mulholland, John C. Brittain, Lawrence Guyot Rose Freeman Massey, Charles McLaurin, Regena Lynn Thomas, Barbara Devine Russell, Monica Land, Constance Curry, Gloria Dickerson, Kempton Horton, and Bill Minor.


The photo at the top of this story is of the three women who initiated the Congressional Challenge: Victoria Jackson Gray Adams, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Annie Bell Robinson Devine.

The 1965 Mississippi Congressional Challenge:

On January 4, 1965, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenged the seating of representatives from Mississippi at the convening of the 89th Congress. Back in June 1964, MFDP candidates ran in the Mississippi Democratic Primary election, but with few Blacks able to vote they were easily defeated. (In August, they also fought, unsuccessfully, for the right to be seated at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.) They then tried to get on the November ballot as Independents, but the state Board of Elections blocked them. On December 4th, 1964, the MFDP filed an official notice with the House of Representatives that they were challenging the election in the three Mississippi Congressional districts where Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray ran on the Freedom Ballot. Under the rules, the challenged candidates had 30 days to respond, bringing the matter to January 4th, 1965, the opening day of the 89th Congress.


Half of the state’s population were denied the right to vote, and those few Blacks who did manage to register were prevented from freely participating in the electoral process, which in turn made the election fraudulent. Therefore, the House would be asked to set aside the results, refuse to seat the state’s white Congressmen, and instead call for new and fair elections in which every citizen could vote regardless of race. Legally, the House has the power to refuse to seat, or to unseat, any member for any reason it chooses — the question is whether it has the political will to do so in defense of Black voting rights.The members of the MFDP believed that this was a good way to continue the momentum from Freedom Summer and bring the inequality of Mississippi politics to the national stage again. It would also serve as a way to gain support from Congress.

In order to unseat the Representatives, a defeated candidate had to challenge an election in the House. Hamer, Devine, and Gray ran for Congress in three of the state’s five Congressional districts, therefore, they were the perfect individuals to challenge the election of the white Mississippi delegates.

Victoria Jackson Gray Adams

Victoria Gray (Adams) said in 1964 that she learned that there were two kinds of people in grassroots politics, “those who are in the Movement and those who have the Movement in them. The Movement is in me…and I know it always will be.”

She acted as a bridge between her community and SNCC organizers. When SNCC’s Curtis Hayes and Hollis Watkins, arrived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in March of 1962, Victoria “Vicki” Gray was one of the first people to attend the meeting. After trying to register to vote herself, she used her roots in the community to garner support for SNCC’s voter registration efforts. “And I guess it was because of the fact that it was so hard to get people to understand why it was important to go down,” she explained, “that I felt the need to give more and more time, talking to people and trying to get them to understand the importance.”

Ms. Gray’s connections helped her become an effective community organizer. She went to local churches and explained what Watkins and Hayes were doing. She organized a phone tree so that the “SNCC youngsters,” as she affectionately called them, would have at least one hot meal a day. She convinced her minister at St. John’s Methodist Episcopal to open the church up to citizenship education classes. After attending an SCLC training in 1963, Gray began teaching these classes herself, and before long, she became a SNCC field secretary.

Adams died in 2006, at the age of 79. From her New York Times obit:

Forty-two years ago, Mrs. Gray Adams, a teacher, door-to-door saleswoman of Beauty Queen cosmetics and leader of voter education classes from the hamlet of Palmers Crossing, on the edge of Hattiesburg, Miss., decided to take on Senator John C. Stennis, the Mississippi Democrat who at the time had been in the Senate for 16 years. In July 1964, she announced that she and others from the tiny Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would challenge the power of the segregationist politicians, like Mr. Stennis, who represented her state. The time had come, she said, to pay attention “to the Negro in Mississippi, who had not even had the leavings from the American political table.”

That decision became a turning point for the civil rights movement and for the Democratic Party, which for most of its history had been profoundly influenced by all-white delegations from the South. From Hattiesburg, the waves of the civil rights movement “swept quietly through the church world into politics,” the author Taylor Branch wrote in “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65” (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

Mrs. Gray Adams was defeated by a ratio of 30 to 1 in the Democratic primary, in part because Mississippi had effectively disenfranchised black voters. But the party she started and led went on to challenge the right of the all-white Mississippi delegation to represent her state at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

“We had women, men, African-Americans, whites,” Mrs. Gray Adams said of the party in a 2004 interview for the Virginia Organizing Project, a grass-roots political group she helped found. “We were going in the face of the Mississippi Democratic Party, which included some of the most powerful members of the U.S. Congress, to demand that we be recognized to have representation at the Democratic National Convention. It was wild.”

Annie Devine was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1912, but was raised by an aunt in Canton, Mississippi. She died at the age of 88 on Aug. 22, 2008.

She attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City along with Victoria Gray-Adams and Fannie Lou Hamer. Their objective was to unseat their state’s all-white delegation and be recognized as delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, of which Mrs. Devine was a founder.

After that failed, the three sought to run for the House of Representatives, but were shunned by the white party establishment and blocked from running as independents. When the new Congress was sworn in January 1965, the three women, backed by hundreds of protesters, demanded that the House deny membership to Mississippi’s representatives-elect because blacks had consistently been prevented from registering and voting in the state. Their effort, called the Mississippi Challenge, failed in the short run, but led to a nationwide lobbying drive by the Mississippi Freedom Democrats and calls for Congressional investigations into voting in Mississippi. Thus, the three women’s resolve fed into the groundswell that produced the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s SNCC Digital Gateway describes how she got involved in the movement.

After graduating from Tougaloo College, she began working as an insurance agent; later, she became a schoolteacher. When CORE workers began a voter registration project in Canton, Mrs. Devine quickly joined the effort. She was on her way from work when she heard singing coming from C.O. Chinn’s motel on Franklin Street. Police officers were driving back and forth outside. “I decided to go in the building to see what was going on,” remembered Mrs. Devine. Inside, CORE’s George Raymond and Dave Dennis “were talking about voter registration and civil rights.” At the time–1963–Canton had no registered Black voters, even though 75 percent of its residents were African American.

Mrs. Devine continued to attend mass meetings and workshops in Canton. After being harassed by police officers for attending a meeting, she quit her job to work for the Movement full-time. “The next morning, instead of going on my daily work, I decided to start canvassing for people, finding people to join in workshops and help getting people registered to vote.” Mrs. Devine was bold about her commitment, announcing to her church, “You don’t have to whisper about me, I’m in it. I’m in the Movement.”

By late 1963, Mrs. Devine was running the movement office in Canton. All civil rights projects in Mississippi were organized under the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella organization for all civil rights groups active in the state. On February 28, 1964, she organized Canton’s first Freedom Day to protest the unwillingness of the local registrar to register Black people to vote. “We had tried for months and months to get people registered,” Mrs. Devine remembered, “and had not been successful.” The registrar used the literacy test and the requirement that the Mississippi Constitution be interpreted to the satisfaction of a registrar as a device to bar eligible Black adults from registering to vote.


Last but not least is the woman who inspired me and so many others, to make a commitment to fight: Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. The first commentary I ever wrote here at Daily Kos, for Black Kos Tuesday’s Chile, was about her—and how meeting her changed my life.

Her testimony at the 1964 Democratic Convention (transcript here) will forever stand as a turning point in our history


Howard University has this bio:

Fannie Lou Townsend was born in rural Montgomery County, Mississippi on October 6,1917. Fannie Lou was the youngest of 20 children born to Jim and Ella Townsend, poor sharecroppers, who found it hard to provide proper food and clothing for their children.When she was six years old she joined her family in the fields picking cotton and dropped out of school by the time she was in the third grade. She worked picking cotton for tenant farm owner W. D. Marlow from 1944 until 1962. When she was 16, she caught polio which made it hard for her to work in the fields.When Marlow found out that Fannie Lou could read and write, he made her the time and record keeper for the plantation in addition to cooking and cleaning his house. In 1945, at the age of 27, Fannie Lou married Perry “Pap” Hamer who was a tractor driver on the Marlow farm. She described her husband as “a good man of few words;” “steady as a rock.” They had no children of their own. Fannie Lou went to the hospital to find out why she could not conceive and was told she had a tumor. She was not told that they performed a hysterectomy on her that day but was later told by the doctor that it was done out of kindness. Fannie Lou was outraged. As a result, the Hamer’s adopted 4 children, 2 girls and 2 boys who were all from very poor families.

On one fateful day, while walking by the Ruleville, Mississippi town center, Fannie Lou saw a sign posted by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and decided to investigate. She was 37 years old at the time and was ripe for expressing her outrage over the conditions she and other blacks were subjected to in this rural community. She joined SYNC and worked as a field worker on the voter registration committee. The committee worked on preparing blacks to read and write so they could register to vote. Seventeen people tried to register and were turned back one day. When Marlow was informed of the drive to register, he threatened Fannie Lou and her family with expulsion from the plantation. She left that night and stayed with friends but it wasn’t long before her location was discovered and she and her friends were shot at that night by the KKK.

She strongly believed that blacks could change their conditions , political and economic, if they could vote for the candidates who would best serve them. Fannie Lou studied with the Southern Free School along with other potential voters and passed the voter registration test on her third try. She was said to have told the registrar after failing the test the first time that she would be back every thirty days until she passed the test.

Though the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party did not get seated at the 1964 convention, black women joined the Democratic Party and changed its complexion. We became more than just voters, as black women opted to run for office. Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan led the way, and we see their legacy in politicians like Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, and now freshman California Sen. Kamala Harris.

The SNCC archive quotes Mrs. Hamer (emphasis added) illustrating her commitment:

Whether calming people with her singing or speaking truth to power, Mrs. Hamer’s voice could not be ignored. She inspired many others, as her close friend and fellow SNCC organizer Charles McLaurin remembered. Mrs. Hamer did not shy away from the dangers of challenging segregation and the denial of voting rights in Mississippi. “I’m gonna be standing up, I’m gonna be moving forward, and if they shoot me, I’m not going to fall back, I’m going to fall 5 feet 4 inches forward.”

Let us all embrace and emulate the courage and example of these women. Take action, resist—and move forward—no matter what is thrown at us.

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