“We’re On Our Way,”
“We’re On Our Way,”
Speech Delivered at a Mass Meeting in Indianola, Mississippi, September 1964
Abstract and Keywords
In early September 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer spoke at a mass meeting held in Indianola, Mississippi. Mass meetings, the format of which resembles that of a church service, featured religious sermons, freedom songs, and secular speeches and were a vital part of the black freedom movement’s grassroots contingent. This chapter reproduces Hamer’s speech, in which she encouraged the blacks of Mississippi to register and vote despite the risks by adopting two interrelated personae: that of a preacher and of a fellow community member. She challenged her audience to overcome their fears and realize their potential for activism.
So many black Deltans wanted to see the woman from their community whose testimony was broadcast before the nation that soon after Mrs. Hamer returned from Atlantic City, she was finally able to speak at a mass meeting in Indianola, Mississippi. Although speaking in a small church twenty-six miles outside of Ruleville might not seem like a telling measure of Hamer’s growing popularity, the fact that her campaign manager, Charles McLaurin, had been trying for the past two years—without success—to secure a speaking venue in Indianola demonstrates that Hamer’s national notoriety had begun to exert an influence on local politics.
The setting for this forty-five-minute speech was a mass meeting held in early September 1964. Mass meetings, like the one Hamer attended at Williams Baptist Church on the eve of her political awakening, were a vital part of the black freedom movement’s grassroots contingent; in many ways, they cultivated the ground out of which the larger movement for social change grew. Featuring free-dom songs, religious sermons, and secular speeches, the format of these meetings emulated that of a church service, and the content extended biblical lessons familiar to the meeting’s attendees. Despite the growing threat of church bombings and fires, the setting was still relatively comfortable for most southern blacks to whom the space represented community and permitted privacy from those whites who sought to control most other aspects of their existence.
Put simply, Hamer’s rhetorical purpose at this particular mass meeting was to encourage black Mississippians to register and vote. As her own experiences with voter registration attested, however, if you were black in Mississippi, there was nothing simple about voting. Convincing her audience to undertake such a risky endeavor, therefore, required Hamer to adopt two interrelated personae in her Indianola address—that of a preacher and of a fellow community mem-ber. Throughout the speech, Hamer balanced these two relationships with her audience in a manner that simultaneously instructed them on how to act and (p.47) empowered them to see their own potential for activism. She used her bond with the audience, grounded in their similar life experiences, as a bridge to meet them where they were and move them forward along the path to civic engagement. She acknowledged their fears and inhibitions, but did not become mired in commiseration; instead, Hamer challenged her audience to overcome their fears and realize their political potential.
Thank you very much. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am very glad to be here for the first time in Indianola, Mississippi, to speak in a mass meeting. And you just don’t have a idea what a pleasure this is to me. Because we been working across—for the past two years—and Mr. Charles McLaurin worked very hard trying to get a place here during the time that I was campaigning and he failed to get a place. But it’s good to see people waking up to the fact— something that you should’ve been awaken years ago.
First, I would like to tell you about myself. As McLaurin say, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street in Ruleville, Mississippi. It was in 1962, the thirty-first of August that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to this place, to the county courthouse, to try to register to become first-class citizens. When we got here to Indianola, to the courthouse, that was the day I saw more policemens with guns than I’d ever seen in my life at one time. They was standing around and I never will forget that day. One of the men called the police department in Cleveland, Mississippi, and told him to bring some type of big book back over there. But, anyway, we stayed in the registrar’s office—I’m not sure how long because it wasn’t but two allowed in the room at the same time. After we got out from the registrar’s office, I was one of the first persons to complete, as far as I knew how to com-plete, on my registration form. And I went and got back on the bus.
During the time that we was on the bus, the policemens kept watching the car—the bus—and I noticed a highway patrolman watching the bus. After everybody had completed their forms, and after we started back to Ruleville, Mississippi, we were stopped by the highway patrolman and the policeman, and was ordered back to come to Indianola, Mississippi. When we got back to Indianola, the bus driver was charged with driving a bus the wrong color! This is the gospel truth, but this bus had been used for years for cotton chopping, cotton picking, and to carry people to Florida, to work to make enough to live on in the wintertime to get back here to the cotton fields the next spring and summer. But that day the bus had the wrong color.
(p.48) After we got to Ruleville, about five o’clock, Reverend Jeff Sunny drove me out into the rural area where I had been working as a timekeeper and a sharecropper for eighteen years. When I got there I was already fired. My children met me and told me, said, “Momma,” said, “this man is hot!” Said, “He said you will have to go back and withdraw, or you will have to leave.”
During the time he was talking, it wasn’t too long before my husband came and he said the same thing. I walked in the house, set down on the side of my little daughter’s bed and then this white man walked over and said, “Pap, did you tell Fannie Lou what I said?”
He said, “Yes, sir,” and I walked out.
And he said, “Fannie Lou, did Pap tell you what I said?”
I said, “He did.”
He said, “Well, Fannie Lou,” said, “you will have to go down and withdraw or you will have to leave.”
And I addressed and told him, as we have always had to say, “Mister,” I say, “I didn’t register for you,” I say, “I was trying to register for myself.”
He said, “We’re not ready for that in Mississippi.” He wasn’t ready, but I been ready a long time. I had to leave that same night.
On the tenth of September in 1962, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night, two girls was shot at Mr. Herman Sisson’s in Ruleville. They also shot in Mr. Joe McDonald’s house that same night. Now, the question I raise: is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave? Where people are being murdered, lynched, and killed, because we want to register and vote?
When my family and I decided to move back in Sunflower County in De-cember, the car that we had been paying on for the last three years, it was taken. We didn’t have many things and part of them had been stolen. But just to show you that God want people to stand up—so, we began at this address, 626 East Lafayette Street.
Last February, my husband was arrested because I said, “I don’t believe that I’ve used nine thousand gallons of water.” And don’t have a bathtub or running water in the house. Can’t you see justice in disguise? Can’t you see justice in disguise? One morning about five o’clock, my husband got up to use the washroom. There was a knock on our door; he said, “Come in.”
That was two policemens. “What are you doing up at this time of night?” Five o’clock in the morning. Can you see how justice is working in Mississippi?
You see the point is about this, and you can’t deny it, not either one of you here in this room—not Negroes—we have prayed for a change in the state (p.49) of Mississippi for years. And God made it so plain He sent Moses down in Egypt-land to tell Pharaoh to let my people go. And He made it so plain here in Mississippi the man that heads the project is named Moses, Bob Moses. And He sent Bob Moses down in Mississippi, to tell all of these hate groups to let his people go.
You see, in this struggle, some people say that, “Well, she doesn’t talk too good.” The type of education that we get here, years to come you won’t talk too good. The type of education that we get in the state of Mississippi will make our minds so narrow it won’t coordinate with our big bodies.
This is one of the next things that I don’t like: every church door in the state of Mississippi should be open for these meetings; but preachers have preached for years what he didn’t believe himself. And if he’s willing to trust God, if he’s willing to trust God, he won’t mind opening the church door. Because the first words of Jesus’s public ministry was: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim and bring relief to the captive.” And you know we are living in a captivated society today. And we know the things we doing is right. The thirty-seventh of Psalms said, “Fret not thouselves because of evildoers, neither be thy envious against the workers of iniquity for they shall be cut down like the green grass and wither away as the green herb. Delight thouselves in the Lord and verily thou shalt be filled.” And we are determined to be filled in Mississippi today.
Some of the white people will tell us, “Well, I just don’t believe in integration.” But he been integrating at night a long time! If he hadn’t been, it wouldn’t be as many light-skinned Negroes as it is in here. The seventeenth chapter of Acts and the twenty-sixth verse said: “Has made of one blood all nations.” So whether you black as a skillet or white as a sheet, we are made from the same blood and we are on our way!
We know, we know we have a long fight because the leaders like the preachers and the teachers, they are failing to stand up today. But we know some of the reasons for that. This brainwashed education that the teachers have got, he know that if he had to get a job as a janitor in this missile base that they are be building he’d probably turn something over and blow up the place because he wouldn’t know what it was.
Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. Sin is beginning to reproach America today and we want what is rightfully ours. And it’s no need of running and no need of saying, “Honey, I’m not going to get in the mess,” because if you were born in America with a black face, you were born in the mess.
(p.50) Do you think, do you think anybody that would stand out in the dark to shoot me and to shoot other people, would you call that a brave person? It’s a shame before God that people will let hate not only destroy us, but it will destroy them. Because a house divided against itself cannot stand and today America is divided against itself because they don’t want us to have even the ballot here in Mississippi. If we had been treated right all these years, they wouldn’t be afraid for us to get the ballot.
People will go different places and say, “The Negroes, until the outside agitators came in, was satisfied.” But I’ve been dissatisfied ever since I was six years old. I remember my mother has worked for one measly dollar and a quarter a day. And you couldn’t say that was satisfaction. But to be truthful to you tonight, I first wished I was white. Some of you’ve wished the same thing. The reason I wished that was they was the only people that wasn’t doing nothing, but still had money and clothes. We was working year in and year out and wouldn’t get to go to school but four months out of the year because two of the months we didn’t have nothing.
Now you can’t tell me you trust God and come out to a church every Sunday with a bunch of stupid hats on seeing what the other one have on and paying the preacher’s way to hell and yours too. Preachers is really shocking to find them out. You know they like to rear back in the corners and over the rostrum and said, “What God has done for Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego.” But what he didn’t know, God has done the same thing for Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, and Lawrence Guyot.
And I can tell you now how this happened. After I had been working for eight or ten months, I attended a voter educational workshop in Charleston, South Carolina. On the ninth of June in 1963, we was returning from the workshop. We arrived in Winona, Mississippi, about eleven o’clock. Four of the people got off of the bus to use the restaurant; two of the people got off of the bus to use the washroom. At this time, I was still on the bus. And I saw the four people rush out and I got off of the bus. And I said, “What’s wrong?”
And Miss Ponder, Southwide supervisor for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said, “It was the chief of police and a state highway patrolman ordered us to come out.”
And I said, “This is Mississippi for you.”
She said, “Well, I think I’ll get the tag number and we can file it in our report.” And I got back in the bus. One of the girls that had used the washroom got back on the bus and that left five on our outside. When I looked through the window, they was getting those people in the car. And I stepped off of the (p.51) bus again. And somebody screamed from that car and said, “Get that one there,” and a man said, “You are under arrest.” When he opened the door, and as I started to get in, he kicked me and I was carried to the county jail.
When I got to the county jail, with the two white fellows that drove me to jail, they was calling me all kinds of names. And they was asking me questions and as I would try to answer they would cut me off. And as we got to the county jail there, when we walked into the booking room, one of the policemans walked over to one of the young men and jumped up with all of his weight on one of the Negro’s feet. And then they began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with Miss Euvester Simpson from Itta Bena, Mississippi. And during that time they left some in the booking room. And I began to hear screams. And I began to hear howls. And I began to hear somebody say, “Can’t you say “yes, sir,’ nigger?”
And I could hear Miss Ponder’s voice said, “Yes, I can say “yes, sir.’”
“So, well, say it.” She said, “I don’t know you well enough.”
And I would hear when she would hit the floor again. And during the time they was beating Miss Ponder, I heard her when she began to pray. And she asked God to have mercy on those people because they didn’t know what they was doing. I don’t know how long this lasted. But after a while, Miss Ponder passed my cell. She didn’t recognize me when she passed my cell. One of her eyes looked like blood, and her mouth was swollen, and she was holding up by propping against the back of the brick cell.
And then three men came to my cell: a state highway patrolman, and a police, and a plaindressed man. The state highway patrolman said, “Where you from?”
I said, “Ruleville, Mississippi.”
He said, “I’m going to check that out.” And it wasn’t too long before he was back. And he used a curse word and he said, “You are from Ruleville, all right.” He said, “We is going to make you wish you was dead.”
I was led out of that cell and to another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. Three white men in that room and two Negroes. The state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack; it was a long leather blackjack and it was loaded with something heavy. And they ordered me to lay down on my face on a bunk bed. And the first Negro beat me. He had to beat me until the state highway patrolman give him orders to quit. Because he had already told him, said, “If you don’t beat her,” said, “you know what I’ll do to you.” And he beat me I don’t know how long. And after a while, he was exhausted and I was too. And it was a horrible experience.
The second prisoner said: “Move your hand, lady. I don’t want to hit you in your hand.” But I was holding my hand behind on the left side to shield some of the licks, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old and this kind of beating, I know I couldn’t take it. So I held my hands behind me, and after the second Negro began to beat me, the state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro that had beat me to set on my feet to keep me from working my feet. And I was screaming, and I couldn’t help but scream, and one of the white men began to beat me in my head and told me to “stop screaming.” And the only way that I could stop screaming was to take my hand and hug it around the tip to muffle out the sound. My dress worked up from this hard blackjack and I pulled my dress down, taking my hands behind and pulled my dress down. And one of the city policemens walked over and pulled my dress as high as he could.
Five mens in this room while I was one Negro woman, being beaten, and at no time did I attempt to do anything but scream and call on God. I don’t know how long this lasted, but after a while I must have passed out. And when I did raise my head up, the state highway patrolman said, “Get up from there, fatso.” But I couldn’t get up. I don’t know how long, but I kept trying, and you know God is always able. And after a while I did get up, and I went back to my cell.
That Tuesday when they had our trial, the same policemen that had participated in the beatings was on the jury seat, people. And I was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. And I want to say tonight, we can no longer ignore the fact, America is not the land of the free and the home of the brave. When just because people want to register and vote and be treated like human beings, Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman is dead today. A house divided against itself cannot stand; America is divided against itself and without their considering us human beings, one day America will crumble. Because God is not pleased. God is not pleased at all the murdering, and all of the brutality, and all the killings for no reason at all. God is not pleased at the Negro children in the state of Mississippi suffering from malnutrition. God is not pleased because we have to go raggedy each day. God is not pleased because we have to go to the field and work from ten to eleven hours for three lousy dollars.
And then how can they say, “In ten years’ time, we will have forced every Negro out of the state of Mississippi?” But I want these people to take a good (p.53) look at themselves, and after they’ve sent the Chinese back to China, the Jews back to Jerusalem, and give the Indians their land back, and they take the Mayflower from which they came, the Negro will still be in Mississippi.
We don’t have anything to be ashamed of here in Mississippi. And actually we don’t carry guns because we don’t have anything to hide. When you see people packing guns and is afraid for people to talk to you, he is afraid that something is going to be brought out into the open and on him. But I want the people to know in Mississippi today, the cover has been pulled back off of you. And you don’t have any place to hide. And we’re on our way now; we’re on our way and we won’t turn around.
We don’t have anything to fear. I don’t know today, I don’t know tonight whether I’ll actually get back to Ruleville, but all that they can destroy is the Fannie Lou that you meet tonight, but it’s the Fannie Lou that God hold will keep on living, day after day.
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” The beatitude of the Bible, the fifth chapter of Matthew said: “Blessed are they that moan, for they shall be comforted.” We have moaned a long time in Mississippi. And he said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” And there’s no race in America that’s no meeker than the Negro. We’re the only race in America that has had babies sold from our breast, which was slavery time. And had mothers sold from their babes. And we’re the only race in America that had one man had to march through a mob crew just to go to school, which was James H. Meredith. We don’t have anything to be ashamed of. All we have to do is trust God and launch out into the deep. You can pray until you faint, but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.
It’s very plain today, some of the things that you have read in the Bible. When this man looked out and saw the number and said, “These are they from every nation.” Can’t you see these things coming to pass today? When you see all of these students coming here to help America to be a real democracy and make democracy a reality in the state of Mississippi. Can’t you see the fulfilling of God’s word?
He said, “A city that’s set on a hill cannot be hid. Let your light so shine that men would see your good works and glorify the father, which is in Heaven.” He said, “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and shall persecute you and shall set almighty evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in Heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets which were before you.” That’s why I tell you tonight that you have a responsibility and if you plan to walk in Christ’s footstep and keep his (p.54) commandments you are willing to launch out into the deep and go to the courthouse—not come here tonight to see what I look like, but to do something about the system here.
We are not fighting against these people because we hate them, but we are fighting these people because we love them and we’re the only thing can save them now. We are fighting to save these people from their hate and from all the things that would be so bad against them. We want them to see the right way. Every night of my life that I lay down before I go to sleep, I pray for these people that despitefully use me. And Christ said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” And He said before one-tenth—one jot—of his word would fail, heaven and earth would pass away. But His word would stand forever. And I believe tonight, that one day in Mississippi—if I have to die for this—we shall overcome.
We shall overcome means something to me tonight. We shall overcome mean as much to me tonight as “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” Because if grace have saved a wretch like me, then we shall overcome. Because He said, “Seek and ye shall find, knock and the door would be opened, ask and it shall be given.” It was a long time, but now we see. We can see, we can discern the new day. And one day the little Negro children—the little Negro boys and the little Negro girls—won’t be afraid to walk down the street because of so much hate that would make a police jump on the kid. And one day, by standing up going to the courthouse to try to register and vote, we can get people that’s concerned about us—because anytime you see a Negro policeman now, you can rest assured he’s a Tom. Because if he wasn’t a Tom, if he wasn’t a Tom, he would be elected by the people, not just a handful of folk. And he’ll get out on the street and beat your brains out and afraid to go around the corner and arrest a white man.
We want people, we want people over us that’s concerned about the people because we are human beings. Regardless of how they have abused us for all these years, we always cared what was going on. We have prayed and we have hoped for God to bring about a change. And now the time have come for people to stand up. And there’s something real, real peculiar but still it’s great: there used to be a time when you would hit a Negro—a white man would hit a Negro—the others would go and hide. But there’s a new day now, when you hit a Negro, you likely to see a thousand there. Because God care. God care and we care. And we can no longer ignore the fact that we can’t sit down and wait for things to change because as long as they can keep their feet on our neck, they will always do it. But it’s time for us to stand up and be women and men.
(p.55) Because actually, I’m tired of being called “Aunty.” I wondered in life what actually time would they allow for me to be a woman? Because until I was thirty-six I was a girl: “Girl this.” And now I’m forty-six and it’s “Aunty.” But I want you to know tonight: I don’t have one white niece or nephew. And if you don’t want to call me Mrs. Hamer, just call me plain “Fannie” because I’m not your aunt.
You know, people had said for years and years, “The Negroes can’t do anything.” That’s the report that they was sending out about the people of Missis-sippi: “The Negroes are ignorant.” But just who’s acting stupid now?
I heard a preacher say one night, I heard a preacher say one night that people could look at the cloud and say it was going to rain and it would rain. And still now they can’t discern the signs of time. We can see the signs, people, the signs of time. And the time now is to stand up. Stand up for your constitutional right. And one day, if we keep on standing up, we won’t have to take this literacy test—to copy a section of the constitution of Mississippi that we had never seen, and interpret it too. When if he had the same test, he couldn’t. One day we won’t have all of this to do. We’ll keep right on walking, and we’ll keep right on talking, and we’ll keep right on marching. And when your minister say, “Well, it’s all right to stand up, but don’t march— [tape break]
—I don’t like bringing politics into the church.” And when he says this it make me sick because he’s telling a big lie because every dollar bill got a politician on it and the preacher love it. And if this man, and if this man don’t choose to be a shepherd, he can be a sheep and follow the shepherd.
You know, actually, I used to have so much respect for teachers and preach-ers, I would be nervous when I’d be around them, but since I found out that that’s the scariest two things we got in Mississippi—how, how, how can you actually trust a man and have respect for him, he’ll tell you to trust God, but he doesn’t trust Him himself? We want leaders in our community. And what people will say, say, “Well, if we can get rid of Fannie Lou,” said, “we can get rid of the trouble.” But what they don’t know, freedom is like an eating cancer, if you kill me, it will break out all over the place.
We want ours and we want ours now. I question sometime, actually, has any of these people that hate so—which is the white—read anything about the Constitution? Eighteen hundred and seventy, the Fifteenth Amendment was added on to the Constitution of the United States that gave every man a chance to vote for what he think to be the right way. And now this is ’64 and they still trying to keep us away from the ballot. But we are determined today, we are determined that one day we’ll have the power of the ballot. And the (p.56) sooner you go to the courthouse, the sooner we’ll have it. It’s one thing, it’s one thing I don’t want you to say tonight after I finish—and it won’t be long—I don’t want to hear you say, “Honey, I’m behind you.” Well, move, I don’t want you back there. Because you could be two hundred miles behind. I want you to say, “I’m with you.” And we’ll go up this freedom road together.
Before I leave you, I would like to quote from an old hymn my mother used to sing: “Should earth against my soul engage, and fiery darts be hurled, when I can smile at Satan’s rage and face this frowning world.” Thank you.