“To Make Democracy a Reality,”
“To Make Democracy a Reality,”
Speech Delivered at the Vietnam War Moratorium Rally, Berkeley, California, October 15, 1969
Abstract and Keywords
In 1965, Fannie Lou Hamer was among a handful of individuals opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. By 1969, more than half of the country were against the Vietnam War, and antiwar protests began to intensify. On October 15, 1969, the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (New Mobe) organized the first major demonstration to protest the Nixon administration’s handling of the war. Held in Berkeley, California, New Mobe’s Vietnam War Moratorium Rally sparked demonstrations in cities across the country, joined by millions of Americans. Hamer was among the speakers at the Vietnam War Moratorium Rally, tying her opposition to the war to her lived experiences and exposing the link between U.S. foreign policy and domestic civil rights abuses. This chapter reproduces Hamer’s speech, in which she urged the government to redirect its efforts to feed those “suffering from malnutrition” instead of fighting for democracy abroad.
In 1965, when Fannie Lou Hamer first began speaking out about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, hers was among a small chorus of bold voices to challenge the war. By 1969, however, there was a widespread shift in public sentiment— opinion polls indicated over half of the country felt that the United States should have never intervened, and antiwar protests began to grow in both participation and frequency. The first major demonstration to protest the Nixon administration’s handling of the war was organized by the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (New Mobe) and held on October 15, 1969. New Mobe’s Vietnam War Moratorium Rally incited millions of Americans to take the day off from school or work and participate in demonstrations held in cities across the country.
Hamer elected to participate in the nationwide rally by addressing a crowd gathered at Lower Sproul Plaza on the University of California at Berkeley’s campus, a school well known for its free speech and antiwar demonstrations. On that particular October afternoon, Hamer shared the podium with members of Berkeley’s city council, the university’s student body president, and a representative from the group GI’s Against the War in Vietnam. Her speech echoes others delivered that day in its call to “bring the boys home,” but it stands out from the rest as she grounds her opposition to the war in a variety of her lived experi-ences. For instance, Hamer exposes the interconnection between U.S. foreign policy and domestic civil rights abuses, which lead to unrepresentative representatives—Senator James O. Eastland is her case in point—who then fashion policies that run counter to the interests of the constituents they should be serving. Continuing in that vein, Hamer underscores the need for domestic programs to meet the basic entitlements of American citizens, reasoning that instead of fighting for democracy abroad America should redirect its efforts to feed those (p.99) “suffering from malnutrition” as a first step to “make democracy a reality for all of the people of this country.”
As the impassioned applause and shouts of “right on” suggest, Hamer’s speech was well received by the West Coast students and activists she addressed. More than evidence of her continued ability to rouse a crowd, though, this speech also reveals that Hamer never lost her faith in the potential for institutions to effect the type of social change she desired; she reasons here that, unlike scores of former civil rights activists who, by the end of the decade, were saying, “Well, forget about politics,” this was a piece of instruction she found impossible to heed because “baby, what we eat is politic. And I’m not going to forget no politic. Because in 1972, when I go to Washington as Senator Hamer from Mississippi … it’s going to be some changes made.”
Although Hamer never made it to Washington as a senator, she continued to exemplify her faith in the American system of politics by running for Mississippi’s state senate in 1971 and by honoring her commitment as a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
I really feel grateful that what has happened here is something I said in front of Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., in 1965. After I had sent President Johnson a telegram telling him to bring the people home from the Dominican Republic and Vietnam—and I said to President Johnson at that time, “If this society of yours is a Great Society, God knows I would hate to live in a bad one.”
But at that time, at that time, we felt very alone because when we start saying, “The war is wrong in Vietnam,” well, people looked at us like we were something out of space. But when they talked about the other day of the Gallup Poll being 58 percent of the people against the war in Vietnam then we see if you are right, you have to stand on that principle and if it’s necessary to die on the principle because I am sick of the racist war in Vietnam when we don’t have justice in the United States.
I’ve heard, I’ve heard several comments from people that was talking about with the people, for the people, and by the people. Being a black woman from Mississippi, I’ve learned that long ago that’s not true; it’s with the handful, for a handful, by a handful. But we going to change that, baby. We are going to change that because we going to make democracy a reality for all of the people of this country.
(p.100) A couple of Sundays ago, I was in Washington at the cathedral there and I read in the Post magazine that here was Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s son had been classified as 4-F. And he had been classified because he had a tendency of a purine malatibination that would sometimes result in the gout. I said, “What in the world is the gout?” So we got the dictionary and looked this word up and what it was saying, sometimes his joints might swell up and resulted in a painful swelling of the big toe. Now ain’t that ridiculous? Look it up, “the gout,” that’s what the man had. And it didn’t say he would have it, said he may have it.
And you see the strange and the awful thing about it, the people that’s conducting this war in Vietnam don’t have sons to go do it. And we are sick and tired of seeing people lynched, and raped, and shot down all across the country in the name of law and order and not even feeding the hungry across the country.
There’s something, there’s something else funny too. There’s something very funny when a man like Senator James O. Eastland, the biggest welfare recipient in the whole country, there’s something wrong when he can help to set policies for Vietnam and own fifty-eight hundred acres in the state of Mississippi and people on the plantation suffering from malnutrition. There’s something wrong with that.
And we got to go a long way back, people, and talk about real conspiracies because it was something wrong in New York City when Malcolm X was shot down through conspiracy. It was something wrong in America when again— Kennedy hadn’t been a very liberal man, but when he seen there was so much wrong that he had to do something about it—he was shot down. And again, on the fourth of April a couple of years ago, one of the most nonviolent souls of our time—Dr. Martin Luther King—was shot down through conspiracy. I want you to know what’s happening to us today, America is sick and man is on the critical list.
We want a change throughout the country, and the only way we can have a change is to bring those men home from Vietnam. People have been greatly punished—they have been criticized—because we are in a racist war that don’t give a man a chance, that carry him to Vietnam. And I don’t believe, you know, the first escape boat this country got to get away on is communism. Now, I know as much about communism as a horse know about New Year, but nobody and that mean nobody, have to tell me that it’s not something wrong with the system. And no communist have to tell me that I’m without food and clothing and a decent place to live in this country.
(p.101) And I think that charity really begin at home. And we are not dealing, you know, some people don’t like for you to call him a devil, but we are not dealing with men today. The sixth chapter of Ephesians and the eleventh and the twelfth verse say: “Put on the whole armor of God. That he may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” The twelfth verse say: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers, against principality, against the rulers of darkness of this world—spiritual wickedness in high places.” That’s when the ministers would stand behind the podium and make a deal with the power structure. So we are telling the ministers, we are going to start singing some songs for them and some of the songs is going to be “Shall We Gather at the River,” and we going to leave them there!
Because people now no longer believe in a lot of the stuff they been reading. You know, I was really shocked, I got to go into a lot—a little of our history to come back to Vietnam and our policy. The truth hadn’t been told to us no way. Because I was really shocked when I found out that Columbus didn’t discover America, when he got here it was some black brothers said: “Get on off, honey, and tell us where you want to go.”
You kept too many things hidden, not only from my kids, but you kept them from your kids. That’s the reason why your own kids is rebelling against you because of a sick system. But we want the boys—you know I don’t think that we have time to say, “Well, we can get them out after another million is killed.” We want the fellows to come home, now!
And you know I do believe with this kind of audience, and I think it’s this kind of audience in other places, I think a man should be impeached when they are not really dealing with the people.
And I want to say, I want to say to you, white America, you can’t destroy me because I’m black to save your life without destroying yourself.
[Member of the crowd shouts: “We don’t want to destroy you.”]
All right, well, we want to have peace, we want to have peace, and the only way that we can have peace is to bring the boys home from Vietnam, start dealing with the problems in the United States, stop all of this urban renewal and model cities that’s pushing people out of a place to stay and start dealing with facts of life.
It’s a lot of people, it’s a lot of people that said: “Well, forget about politics.” But, baby, what we eat is politics. And I’m not going to forget no politic. Because in 1972, when I go to Washington as Senator Hamer from Mississippi, you going to know it’s going to be some changes made. Because we are going to change Mississippi.
(p.102) Even a storm, a person is mistreated in a storm. When we had Camille in Mississippi, the government sent for the refugees. The black people was put in Jackson State College, the white people was put in Robert E. Lee Hotel. When they started sending the people out, the white people was put in trailers. The black people was put at Camp Shelby. The National Guardsmens was caught looting. The National Guardsmens is what we call the “draft dodgers.” They are not going to do anything at home, but beat the people down that’s trying to bring a change in this country.
And, people, whether you believe it or not, you better remember this today: a house divided against itself cannot stand. A nation that’s divided against itself cannot stand. And it’s two past midnight and we are on our way out. But we have to have a change. And the change is going to first start in bringing the boys home from Vietnam.
And I don’t want you to think that you have to pick out a way for me to exist in this society. You know, black people is caught a lot of hell too. We first been told that we wasn’t fit into—we got the kind of education to fit into this society. But as sick as it is, I wonder do I want the kind of education that’s going to really rob me of having real love and compassion for my fellow man? We got to start, we got to start in every institution in this country because the history that we been getting, baby, had never happened and it never will. And we got to change some curriculum and in making the change, we can have more peace, and real democracy when we bring the boys home and some of the billions of dollars that’s being spent in Vietnam can go into rural areas like Mississippi.
And I want you to know something—don’t kid yourself, baby. You can say up-South and down-South. The only difference in Mississippi and California, Berkeley, is we know what them white folk think about us and some of you don’t know what they think about you here. They will shoot me in the face there and as soon as you turn around they’ll shoot you in the back. So you ain’t doing no big thing here. The problem here is like the problem all over the country and decent people—I’m not talking about I’m going to attack somebody because it look foolish to me to come out of my house and throw a bottle at my brother’s house—I’m not talking about that kind of crap, I’m talking about some real changes that’s going to help people throughout the country and the only way we can do that is stop engaging ourselves—and I have to say “us”—in this racist war.
We watched what happened in Chicago last year when they had this Na-tional Democratic Convention. Tell you, I was a delegate there. And they had a little blue-eyed guy assigned to me. I made his life miserable because I (p.103) learned to dodge, you know, when I felt like it. But they must have told him, said, “Don’t you let that woman get out of your sight.” But some of our bags was flanked and things was taken out of our bags—thank God we didn’t have nothing. So, they was looking for us, you see, to do a big thing there. They planned to kill a lot of us, but we’d done our homework. Told our black brothers, said: “Don’t you go out there, because they’re planning to get us, man.” So, they didn’t go. But they was so determined to do something they beat you kids nearly to death.
Now a society is sick when a convention would have to be held with fixed bayonets. And that mean, stick you if you stand there and shoot you if you run. But we need a change and the only way we’re going to have a change— don’t you think that this is not important—one man’s feet can’t walk across the land, two men’s feet can’t walk across the land. But if two and two and fifty make a million, we’ll see the day come around.
And we keep on saying we’re against the war. One crowd of people can’t change the status quo, but if two and two and fifty make a million, we’ll see the day come around that we will have our boys home. And we’ll be able to stand and fight together for the things that we rightfully deserve, not in Vietnam, not in Vi-Afra, but right here in the United States to make democracy a reality for all of the people of the world regardless of race or color. Thank you.