Thursday, December 1, 2011

Rosa Parks, Daisy Bates, Fannie Lou Hamer -- Three Women Who Changed America

One woman took a seat, another mentored nine students and another one told her story. All three of these women helped to change America.
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Rosa Parks 
Source: Library of Congress

On this day in history a small fragile woman got on a bus to go home. She paid her fare and took her seat. By the day's end she would be in jail for riding that bus.

Shortly, after taking her seat she was asked to move and give her seat to a man. She was tired and she only wanted to go home. She was arrested for not giving her seat to the man.  Her crime was that she was a woman of color and was not allowed by law to sit where she chose to sit. The man who needed the seat was white, as was the driver of the bus. Within an hour she was arrested and taken to jail. Her name was Rosa Parks. Her arrest initiated a boycott of the Montgomery Alabama bus system, and through non-violence, a system was changed in America.

I was a child and never heard much about Rosa Parks until years later. While I was a small child in western Arkansas, we  had a bus service and I remember riding the bus with my grandmother and I loved watching the fare box where people put the change. I would not know until years later that I could sit in the front because of a small framed woman in Alabama who quietly took her seat a few months before. Rosa Parks had helped to change America.

Daisy Bates, Mentor to the Little Rock Nine

A few years later I had started elementary school. My mother was a native of Little Rock Arkansas, and I can only recall as I dressed for school that my mother was very focused on the news coming from her hometown. Nine children tried to go to high school. They were prevented from doing so, by the governor of the state. My mother was worried and quite upset and sensing my concern, she simply explained to me that a very bad man was in Little Rock (the governor) and he was trying to keep children like me from going to school. She kept telling me that I should not worry, because a very strong lady, was helping those nine children and they were winning their cause. The story of this lady was a lesson of how planning and strategy can bring about major changes that even the governor had to obey. The lady was Daisy Bates, and the children were known later as The Little Rock Nine. 

She was the mentor to the nine students, and she was the person who organized activities around the students. She sought national support and worked for their legal protection. Because of her, and nine brave students, policies changed. And when it was time for me to go to high school, there were no policies that prevented my going to whatever school I chose. All of the schools had finally eliminated barriers preventing students of color from attending the same schools as their white peers. Daisy Bates had helped to change America.


Voter Registration and Civil Rights Activist 

When I was in the 7th grade, I was more aware of the world around me. I was influenced by my parents who were members of several organizations for social change. In the summer of 1964, I remember that my parents watched the proceedings of the Democratic National Convention that year. I also remember watching two ladies speak. My mother insisted that I watch one of them-- Patricia Roberts Harris, an attorney, an activist and an eloquent speaker who seconded the nomination of Lyndon Johnson to run as president for the Democratic Party. And I was impressed, for this was the first time in history that a black woman had such an honor. She was as eloquent as she was elegant. But there was another woman, at the same convention who left an amazing impression upon me. Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer.

She was an activist, and she was a poor woman from Mississippi. This woman captivated the entire floor of the convention hall---telling her story of her actions for voter registration, and of her survival from a vicious police beating in Indianola Mississippi. 

Her crime was working for the right to vote. She was active in voter registration projects in Mississippi. Police jailed her and others including her husband. The police made two prisoners beat her mercilessly, and when one was exhausted they made the other prisoner beat her until he too was exhausted! She was a former polio victim, and could not protect her weakened side from the police sanctioned attack. 

It took her weeks to recover---but recover she did! She did not use violence to retaliate, she used her words. She made it to the National Democratic Convention representing the "Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party" and told her story in front of the nation, and the world. She spoke with courage and detail of the extreme police brutality she suffered for one mere reason--the right to vote. She left these words on the convention floor, to weigh on the conscience of America:

"All of this is on account we want to register to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. 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?"
~Fannie Lou Hamer~

This simple woman, who dared to challenge things as they were by telling her story, had me captivated! I had never heard a person speak of such violence, as my parents had protected me from the politics of the times. I was moved, and became aware of the world as it was that day.

Her actions, her words and her courage to speak to the national convention that year, also taught me the value of language. And through language,the actions of legally permitted and locally sanctioned violent attacks on citizens of color was now being exposed to the world. And they had to be addressed by a nation that had continually closed its eyes. The denial of the right to vote could no longer be enforced by heinous violence, and of the larger public merely looking away. By speaking out--the words of Fannie Lou Hamer and others like her, illustrated that non-violent social change made a difference. 

A year after Fannie Lou Hamer spoke and returned to Mississippi to continue her work on Voter Registration, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, into law in August 1965. Fannie Lou Hamer had helped to change America.

Ms. Hamer's speech can be seen here:

Fannie Lou Hamer's Speech at the Democratic National Convention

Today is Rosa Parks Day. On this day she sat down on a bus and changed America. When I think of Rosa Parks, I also think of Daisy Bates and I know I must also think of Fannie Lou Hamer. These women were names that I learned were women who lived in my lifetime, and who were able to bring about change in America.

 On this day, honoring Rosa Parks, let us remember all of those brave women, whose actions made a difference.


Deborah said...

Such courageous women! Thank you Angela for sharing this. An excellent post!

Root Digger said...

I love how you brought the three ladies history to life in this post. Learned something new; did not know about Daisy Bates. Thank you for sharing.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thanks Deborah for visiting the page and I am glad that you enjoyed reading the post.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Hello Deborah,

Not as many people know how Daisy Bates mentored the students and know of her role in the Little Rock crisis. Thanks for visiting the blog and I am glad that you enjoyed the post about the three women.

Mavis said...

Thanks Angela. I enjoyed your review of these 3 fabulous women in our history.

Kristin said...

I don't know how I missed this post first time around but it made me think about my memories of those times. Fannie Lou Hammer has always been a heroine of mine ever since I heard that speech in the summer of 1964. I had just graduated from high school. Thank you for posting this.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thanks for your comment, yes Fannie Lou Hammer was one of those unsung heroes of her day. May she rest in peace--and we thank her for her courage to tell her story!