Fighting like Fannie Lou: On Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, and the Democratic Process

On August 8th, 2015, Black Lives Matter “shut down” a Bernie Sanders presidential campaign event in Seattle, Washington. Taking the stage, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford called attention to gentrification, police brutality, and systemic racism, and asked for four minutes of silence as a tribute to slain St. Louis teenager Michael Brown. A month earlier, Tia Oso interrupted Sanders at the Netroots National Presidential Town Hall in Phoenix to “focus the attention” of “progressive leaders and presidential hopefuls on the death of Sandra Bland and other black women killed while in police custody.”[1] Many detractors have chided these activists for targeting Sanders, citing his history of civil rights activism as evidence of his support of the black agenda. But a key tactic of this civil rights tradition to which many are so quick to connect Sanders was the protest and disruption of the Democratic Party and process.

These women are part of a larger history of black women (and I do mean black women) challenging the Democratic Party. The most prominent example was Fannie Lou Hamer’s role in the Atlantic City Challenge. Hamer was a renaissance woman; a sharecropper, a civil rights activist, an orator, a preacher. She spent most of her life working a plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi, a white supremacist stronghold. Hamer was always a political woman. And, in 1962, she answered Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) call for local residents to try to register to vote. She traveled with SNCC workers to Indianola, Mississippi to register multiple times, facing severe repercussions from plantation owners when she returned home. Hamer succeeded in registering on January 10, 1963, becoming one of the first registered black voters in the county.[2]

In April of 1964, Hamer joined forces with SNCC and other local women like Annie Devine and Victoria Gray to form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a political party designed to replace the Mississippi Democratic Party, which systemically excluded African Americans. The MFDP held parallel rallies, voter registration drives, and delegate elections. And, in August of that same year, Hamer and other MFDP delegates travelled to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City with the goal of being seated as the official delegates from Mississippi. In order to supplant the delegates from the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party, the MFDP had to appear before the Credentials Committee to assert their right to represent the state.

Millions of Americans were stunned when Hamer appeared on their t.v. screens, offering a powerful testimony that indicted white supremacy, police brutality, and systematic voter fraud on August 22nd 1964.

President Johnson, seeking the nomination at the convention, hurriedly ended the broadcast. This backfired, with news networks airing her speech in primetime.

Unable to ignore the MFDP, Johnson and his associates offered the MFDP two “at large seats,” (to the male delegates) a proposal meant to placate the delegation without alienating white voters and Johnson’s southern supporters. The MFDP rejected the compromise, with Hamer asserting “we didn’t come all this way for no two seats.” Despite its failure, the MFDP’s Atlantic City Challenge forced the Democratic Party to adopt a nondiscrimination clause in state delegate selection. It also propelled public support for the Voting Rights Act in 1964, a key piece of legislation that made the American body politic more racially inclusive. All of us reap the benefits Hamer’s disruption today, even if the rights she fought for are, in 2015, under attack.

To see recent events as a targeting of Sanders is to miss the point. Hamer stood before the Credentials Committee to indict a racist system, not just the Party or Johnson. The Black Lives Matters women stood before audiences to indict the structural racism that the presidency, law enforcement, and voting processes have and continue to represent. The democratic process requires engagement, not propriety. It requires the voices of all of their potential constituents. It requires discomfort; not complicity. It does not require leadership’s permission to engage, disrupt, and intervene.

Black women have continually risked their lives and livelihoods and thrust themselves into the national spotlight to force presidential hopefuls to take black demands seriously. They show us the power of the people at the forefront of shaping national political debates and that the Democratic Party still struggles to fully incorporate the political agenda of black Americans. In both instances women activists intervened in and disrupted the democratic process and, as a result, presidential candidates developed more inclusive political platforms. While these tactics are only part of the solution, history shows that they work.  We have women like Hamer to thank for advancing the fight to dismantle racism in the past as I am sure we will honor the women of Black Lives Matter for expanding democracy in the future.

[1] “I Am the Black Woman Who Interrupted the Netroots Presidential Town Hall, and This Is Why” http://mic.com/articles/122629/i-am-the-black-woman-who-interrupted-the-netroots-presidential-town-hall-and-this-is-why.

[2] Vicki Crawford, “African American Women in the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party,” in V.P. Franklin and Bettye Collier-Thomas, Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2001).

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Boston University. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.

Comments on “Fighting like Fannie Lou: On Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, and the Democratic Process

  • Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford are sectarians that advocate the overthrow of the government and decry voting as a tool of white progressives.

    What did they hope to accomplish by “protesting” at a rally for the expansion of Medicaid? There were literally both black and white people there holding signs stating “Senior Lives Matter” and “Black Senior Lives Matter.” That’s like protesting an auto repair shop because of long wait lines at the DMV.

    Johnson later on Twitter laughed at said elderly and specifically cited her young age as reason to not care about health concerns, which disproportionately affect black Americans.

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