Friday, September 28, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Fannie Lou Hamer's 1964 convention committee testimony

Now that the current U.S. political conventions have nominated their candidates for the next presidential election, this week's famous speech takes us back 48 years to another Democratic National Convention: The 1964 convention that Fannie Lou Hamer set on its ear.

A civil rights activist who'd faced jail, beatings that left her near dead and other kinds of violence in an effort to register to vote, Hamer at this convention was vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The party was challenging its state's all-white, anti-civil-rights delegation at the national Democratic convention. Hamer and other MFDP officials were invited to address the convention's credentials committee, and shared her personal efforts to register to vote, and the barriers thrown in her way. It's an unflinching testimony. She describes being jailed; how the police forced other black prisoners to take a blackjack and beat her, over and over; the hate speech hurled at her and other protestors; how bullets fired into a private home were meant for her on a night when many other blacks were killed; and more. Then she concludes:
Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?
The effort to seat the Freedom Democrats enraged then-President Lyndon Johnson, who had been made president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy; this would be his first actual election as president. It was feared that the Freedom Democrats would sway other southern states to break ranks and diminish support for Johnson, who went so far as to schedule a last-minute news conference to divert attention from the testimony. Several television networks carried it that evening, nonetheless. While Hamer was not seated at the 1964 convention, she succeeded four years later, becoming in 1968 the first African-American to be seated as an official national party convention delegate since Reconstruction, and the first woman to represent Mississippi at a convention. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Atrocities don't need elaborate language: When your speaking is intended to serve as witness to something terrible, your language can simply describe what happened. No flowery adjectives and adverbs are needed; no effort to further make sense of the insensible is wanted. Plain language lets the terrible tale tell itself.
  • Take the listener from the low to the high: As horrifying as her testimony is, Hamer brings it back in that last paragraph to the noble ideals of democracy, a contrast so stark that it's almost like a slap in the face. She doesn't need to frame it for the listener any further.
  • Details and specifics make it real for the listener: As a witness, Hamer recounts names and dates, but also details that make an unreal-sounding situation concrete for the listener, from "the bus driver [who] was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color" because he'd ferried the black protestors, to her cellmate who prayed while she was beaten.
You can read a transcript of Hamer's speech, and listen to it in the video below. It's also part of the great collection, Say It Plain: Live Recordings of the 20th Century's Great African-American Speeches: A Book-and-CD Set. What do you think of this famous speech?