BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Kay Mills, author of "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer," how many times during your project did -- when you told people what you were doing, they'd say, “Fannie Lou who?”
KAY MILLS, AUTHOR, "STALIN: "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE: THE LIFE OF FANNIE LOU HAMER A lot, far more than I care to think. I have to wonder what the schools are teaching kids in terms of civil rights history. I would get two responses. I would get, "Wow!" from the people who knew who Fannie Lou Hamer was. But I would very often get, "Who?" And I quickly learned I couldn't belittle that question. I just had to tell them a little bit about who she was so that -- I view the writing of it and the talking about it as education.
LAMB: Has there ever been a book written about her?
MILLS: No. I take that back. There have been several children's books. One children's book by June Jordan and one for, let's say, junior high children that came out a couple years ago. But there has never been a full-fledged adult biography that shows her place in the movement. And, frankly, there have been precious few about any of the women in the movement.
LAMB: When did she live?
MILLS: She was born in 1917, the youngest of 20 children of a Mississippi sharecropper. She died in March of 1977 in a hospital not more than 20 miles from where she'd lived most of her adult life.
LAMB: You say in the introduction that you met her once.
LAMB: What do you remember?
MILLS: I remember that she filled up a room. That's the main thing. I decided to try to write the book after I came back from that trip -- from that meeting with her. I met her in 1973. I had gone to Mississippi to do a set of stories on the civil rights movement, what had become of it. I specifically chose Mississippi because it had had so much of the violence that had occurred there, and I wanted to meet her. I had seen her testify at the 1964 Democratic convention, and I wanted to meet her. So I went to her house on a very hot, steamy, probably July day. And she wasn't well, she was frustrated, she was angry, but she spent an enormous amount of time with me. And "charisma" is an overused word, but it applied to her. And when I left that day, I came back to Washington -- because that's where I was working then -- and I had lunch -- I remember it was at the Peking Restaurant, 14th and something or other in Washington -- with Lawrence Guyot, who was one of the people who had been in jail with her. And I told him how incredibly dazzled I had been by her, and he said, "Why don't you write a book about her?" And so that's when the idea was born.
LAMB: And how long did you spend in Washington total in your life?
MILLS: Oh, in my life? Well, I was born here and ...
LAMB: In Washington, DC?
MILLS: In the old Garfield Hospital. Yes, indeed. I was born in Washington, DC. I grew up in Bethesda and then in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I left Washington to go to college, and then I came back here and worked, I would say, from 1970 through '78, first for Senator Muskie of Maine and then for the Newhouse newspaper chain.
LAMB: Where'd you go to school? Your college?
MILLS: Penn State -- undergraduate in political science, and then I got a master's in history from Northwestern University.
LAMB: We'll come back in a moment to talk about Fannie Lou Hamer, but I wrote down a bunch of names that swirled around her in this book, and I just wanted to list them very quickly: Eleanor Holmes Norton, congresswoman from the District of Columbia; John Dohr, former Watergate counsel and assistant attorney general; Stokely Carmichael, former head of SNCC; Pat Darien, former Assistant Secretary, I believe, of State; Andy Young, former UN ambassador and Congressman; Hodding Carter, former spokesman at the State Department of the Carter administration; Aaron Henry, former candidate for Senate, I believe, in the state of Mississippi; John Lewis, current Congressman from Georgia; Julian Bond, former state senator from Georgia and host of a television show; and Charles Evers -- it goes on and on. How come we know all those names and don't know Fannie Lou Hamer?
MILLS: Well, of course, I would like to think that a lot of people do know Fannie Lou Hamer, so I think if someone followed the movement at all or were part of it, they do know Fannie Lou Hamer. I think one reason, though, is -- if they don't know who she is -- was that she died in 1977 when the movement was sort of at its ebb. She didn't have someone -- like Coretta Scott King was to Martin Luther King -- to burnish the memory. She didn't have that. So that's one thing. And frankly, I think another reason is that a lot of the women in the movement have not gotten their due because, frankly, it's been the men who've written history. And I think as you get more and more women writing the history you'll get more of these stories. There are any number of women almost as powerful in terms of persona as Fannie Lou Hamer and they haven't had any story told.
LAMB: "This Little Light of Mine" -- why the title?
MILLS: That was her theme song. That was what she sang in any number of the mass meetings to sort of get people fired up to go out and confront the police dogs or the voter registrars or whatever, or if people were scared, she'd sing it to calm their fears. The other reason, I think, for the title "This Little Light of Mine" is it really summed up her. She was a little light -- she was actually a pretty big light -- and she shone that light on a lot of the dark places in the American soul. And so I think there was sort of a double meaning in that was her theme song, that was what everybody recognized from the movement was one of the things that she sang often, and that's really also what she did, was shine her light on a lot of the things that needed fixing.
LAMB: I don't know whether the audience can tell or not, it's one of the more unusual covers. This is matted around here -- dull, black -- this is a shiny -- the audience can see that. Whose idea was this?
MILLS: Well, it was some genius at Dutton who designed the cover. It may say inside the book jacket who the cover design was. We ought to give that person the credit.
LAMB: By Neil Stewart.
MILLS: Right. So Neil Stewart is the genius who came up with that. The photograph is by a woman named Charmion Redding, and the photograph is stunning. It was taken during the Meredith march in Mississippi in 1966, and it was one of the few days that Mrs. Hamer was on the march. She didn't do marches very much because she had a severe limp from either a childhood case of polio or one of her brothers who had been tending her when she was little may have dropped her, broken her leg and it didn't set properly. It's not clear which that was. But she was on that march for a day or so, and I had been looking for a photograph of Mrs. Hamer with Dr. Martin Luther King -- in case people didn't know her, I wanted to place her with King so that they'd know sort of the crowd that she ran with. And I went to see Charmion Redding to see if she had a picture. I had seen some other things she had taken. She showed me that picture and then she said, "I have another one of Mrs. Hamer singing," and then it was just the head shot, and that became such a natural for the cover.
LAMB: Let me go back to this photo just a second here and ask you -- this is Martin Luther King.
LAMB: How old was he then? Do you know?
MILLS: Well, let's see. That was taken in 1966. He died in '68 and he was not 40 when he died -- right?
LAMB: '68 -- so he was 37 in this picture.
MILLS: Right. Exactly.
LAMB: And this is Andy Young. What was he doing then?
MILLS: That's Andy Young. He was a chief aide for Dr. King, and so he was always at King's right hand with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And Mrs. Hamer was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and so she was one of the people whom you could always count on to rally the troops or calm people down, and that would have been why she was on the march.
LAMB: There's so many connections in here, and this was a surprise to me when I saw this picture and learned about who this man was, because our audience knows Don Edwards, the Congressman from California. Who is Len Edwards?
MILLS: Len Edwards is his son, who is now a judge in San Jose, and he was a law student at the University of Chicago at the time of Freedom Summer 1964. And he was one of the volunteers who dropped what he was doing that summer and went to Mississippi. He lived with the Hamers part of the summer, and he wrote some wonderful reports that helped really bring that summer to life, because you could interview somebody now, you know, and they could sort of vaguely remember what happened. But his reports were written at the time for -- I think it was for the Council of Federated Organizations, which was sort of the umbrella group that ran the Freedom Summer.
And he told some very detailed stories about how when Mrs. Hamer would go into a meeting with the white summer volunteer, it would show people that they were to be taken seriously and she just could sort of grease the skids for so many things that would get done. And she also had written him a letter before he went to Mississippi that summer telling him how dangerous it would be, that the highway patrolmen were not your friend in Mississippi at that point and that -- how pleased she was that he was willing to come, but how dangerous it was and for him to be very careful. And he said, "She was the most inspirational person I ever met." And he said -- he told me, "She knew I loved her," and how truly remarkable he found what she and the other people in that small town were doing.
LAMB: You've got a map here in the front of the book, and on that map you can see Jackson down here and then -- but up here in this area -- where was she born?
MILLS: Well, she was actually born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, which is just slightly to the right, as I'm looking at it, from the shaded area. And she wasn't born in the delta. But when she was two years old, her family moved into the Delta and right outside Ruleville, which is on the map. And she lived the rest of her life outside or in Ruleville, Mississippi, which is in Sunflower County.
LAMB: The youngest of 20 children ...
MILLS: The youngest of 20 children.
LAMB: What was her life like?
MILLS: Dirt poor is about the most concise way of summing it up. She was the child of sharecroppers, so that ...
LAMB: What is a sharecropper?
MILLS: A sharecropper -- it's a farmer who rents the land or uses the land of a white plantation owner, and the sharecroppers can be white or black, but they were mainly black. And they would rent the land, the plantation owner would advance them seed and money to get through the summer. The sharecropper would plant the crop, chop the cotton, which meant weeding the crop, and then at the end of the season they'd weigh the crop and they'd figure out what share -- that's where the term came from -- the worker got. Well, things managed to get subtracted a lot from what the worker got, and so what it really was, was a modern-day form of slavery.
So at any rate, she was the child of sharecroppers, and at about six years old she started picking cotton herself. She had only a sixth-grade education. She was very smart, but she had to go to work after the sixth grade. And, in fact, that's almost false to say that she had a sixth-grade education because the children of sharecroppers could only go to school when they weren't working in the fields, so that would be about four months of the year. They didn't have very good teachers, they didn't have books, they -- you know, Mississippi basically wanted to keep an uneducated work force to pick the cotton. And so she was poor and they never had enough to eat, she didn't have shoes to go to school ...
LAMB: No hot water, no working indoor toilet, no shoes, as you say. And I wrote a bunch of this stuff down. Could she vote ...
LAMB: When she became 21 years old?
MILLS: No. No. No. You know, I've thought about that since then. The summer of 1962, I was 21 years old, I registered to vote I think by going to the courthouse or the post office and signing something.
LAMB: Where? Here?
MILLS: Montgomery County, Maryland. She, in the summer of 1962, was 44 years old, wanted to vote, had never been able to vote because after reconstruction in Mississippi, the state Democratic Party systematically disfranchised -- barred from voting -- the black population, because if they voted, then they would share power, they would want better schools, they would want roads paved, they would want indoor plumbing. They would want to share in the system, and the plantation owners didn't want them to share in the system. So she wanted to vote, she knew that the system was wrong, but she didn't know anything to do about it until the summer of '62, when the young people from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to Sunflower County.
LAMB: Now what was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee?
MILLS: Right. That was a group that was formed after the student sit-ins started in 1960 -- lunch counter sit-ins that started in Greensboro, North Carolina, and spread across the South. When the young black students were trying to get equal use of lunch counters, department stores and so forth, they had a meeting then which -- I'm forgetting the date, but I'm sure it was 1960 -- which they formed -- originally Dr. King wanted them to be a student branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group that he headed. But the students really wanted independence; they wanted to do things their own way.
LAMB: Now this is a picture of James Foreman. Who was he?
MILLS: He was one of the directors of SNCC, as it was called, by its initials,SNCC. He was one of the leading people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Bob Moses was another -- his picture's there. And the young man with the sunglasses over there, Charles McClurin, was the lead SNCC worker in Ruleville, Mississippi.
LAMB: Now back in those days, there was a lot of talk about SNCC people being trained -- what? -- at the Justice Department, there was a lot of suspicion about communist influence ...
MILLS: Oh, yeah. It would be ...
LAMB: ... where'd their money come from?
MILLS: They were the revolutionaries in the group. They were much more militant than SCLC and King's group.
LAMB: SCLC -- stood for?
MILLS: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They were much more militant. They were, in many cases, desperate and they would take the legal help of anyone that would help them. So the National Lawyers Guild was one of the few groups that would go to Mississippi. And so there was a lot of red-baiting. There was a lot of call of the group for communist that were, in fact, simply working for social justice. But it was easy to tar someone by accusing them of being communist. So SNCC was accused of communist ties, Ms. Hamer was accused of communist ties and -- no way. I mean, she knew about as much about communism as, she would say, as a horse knew about Christmas Day. She had absolutely -- she was not an ideological person. She was interested in civil rights and then, later, in human rights. But that was a way people could try to discredit the work that was being done.
LAMB: At the same time, there was a major figure out of Mississippi, the man on the screen right there, James O. Eastland. Who was he?
MILLS: He was the senator from Mississippi, he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It fascinated me -- he was also from Sunflower County. So here you had these two giants of that time, James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer, who lived 10 miles apart in Sunflower County and worlds apart. He had gone to several colleges. He had been elected to the state legislature when he was in his 20s. He had been elected to the US Senate in 1942 quite young -- he had a plantation, he had power. Fannie Lou Hamer, roughly the same age, sixth-grade education, couldn't vote until she was 44 or 45 years old, and lived in a house with no working indoor plumbing. I mean, it was fascinating to me that these two people were in the same county.
And, in fact, it didn't really even dawn on me until I was well into the project. She kept talking about Eastland this and Eastland that, and then I finally realized -- I think that was the spur that helped goad her to do even more than she did, was that she knew Eastland's power over people. And so she really meant it when she said she was opposing him and she wanted to bring Jim Eastland down. And ultimately, the work that she did -- he didn't run again. In 1978, he chose not to run because he wouldn't have been re-elected. Enough blacks had been registered by that time.
LAMB: You worked for Senator Edmund Muskie.
LAMB: Did you know Senator Eastland when you worked for him?
LAMB: Do you remember seeing him during those years?
MILLS: Perhaps I passed him on the elevator. I don't think so. I don't think I ever saw him.
LAMB: Jamie Whitten also plays a role. He is still, I believe, the man with the most time served in the House of Representatives, the dean of the House right now. Where does he figure in all this?
MILLS: He was the Congressman -- and back in those days -- the state's been redistricted since then -- he was the Congressman who was representing the area in which Mrs. Hamer lived. And in 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which was organized that year to oppose the regular Democratic Party, had a mock election that they ran Fannie Lou Hamer against Jamie Whitten. She had also tried to participate in the primary and she lost, obviously. The Freedom Democratic Party -- I should back up -- was an organizing tool. It was an attempt to show people what you could do, how you could get involved. So she knew she would lose. She ran knowing full well she would lose, but it was to show people how to do it. So she ran in the primary and then in the fall they had a mock election, and in the mock election, of course, a number of the blacks could vote in the mock election, and so she beat Jamie Whitten in the mock election. No surprise. So the following year, 1965, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray and Annie Devine challenged the seating of the five members of Congress from Mississippi, one of whom was Jamie Whitten.
LAMB: There's a picture here. Can you tell us who these three folks are?
MILLS: OK. On the left is Fannie Lou Hamer, in the center is Victoria Grey, now Victoria Adams, who lives in Petersburg, Virginia, and on the right is Annie Devine, who is from Canton, Mississippi. And Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Devine are still alive and still very active.
LAMB: Did you talk to them for the book?
MILLS: I sure did. They were extRauhrdinarily helpful.
LAMB: Now when did you start writing -- when did you start gathering the information for this book?
MILLS: In 1989. I got a leave from my job at that time with the Los Angeles Times. I got a Rockefeller Foundation Research grant and a fellowship at the University of Virginia, the Carter Woodson Institute. I went there, I spent a lot of time in Mississippi that year doing interviews, looking at the archives, reading the transcript of the trial, which we can get to in a minute, but mainly to do interviews. So I started -- I spent almost entirely that year doing research because I knew when I got back to California I can do the writing. And I had a contract with Dutton, so I knew I had that coming. And I got back to Los Angeles and then I wrote the book back in Los Angeles. I would say I spent, all told, about three years on the book, but it had been in my mind since '73.
LAMB: Why did Dutton buy the idea?
MILLS: Well, I think they knew it was a powerful story. I think they could see the drama in her attempt to vote, the beating in the Winona jail, which, as I said, we should talk about, and the confrontation with the President of the United States in 1964 at the Democratic convention and with the members of Congress in 1965. I think also they probably knew that by now in America people are looking for heroines. And Fannie Lou Hamer was a heroine.
LAMB: Now you've written a couple of other books.
MILLS: One other.
LAMB: Or at least one other book, yeah.
MILLS: One other.
LAMB: What was that about?
MILLS: That's about women in the newspaper business. It's called "A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page." It was published in 1988 and is now available from Columbia University Press. And it was about where women are in the newspaper business, how they got there and what still needs to change in terms of their further advancement. I also talked about what difference it made that there were more women, you know, writing, editing and assigning the news.
LAMB: Why did you leave the LA Times editorial board?
MILLS: I left because I wanted to write more books. I guess I'd had a taste of that freedom -- that wonderful freedom of being able to go to Mississippi and do research, being able to sit down at my computer and write what I wanted to write. I loved working at the LA Times, but I love writing books and I hope that I can keep doing it.
LAMB: How long did you work at the LA Times?
MILLS: I was there for 13 years.
LAMB: How much of a change did you see with the number of women at the LA Times during the 13 years you were there?
MILLS: Quite a number in terms of the women who came onto the news staff. When I started on the editorial page, I was the only woman -- there had been a woman before, but I was the second woman on the editorial page ever -- and now there are four or five. So that's a sea change. There still are not enough in the top management in the whole newspaper business. There's not just the LA Times. Women are making it to the sort of managing editor and middle level, but there are still very few at the top levels.
LAMB: Harry Belafonte. He keeps popping up in this book. What did he do?
MILLS: Well, he helped finance a lot of the SNCC activities. He would send money, he would help raise money by virtue of his name. He would have concerts and people would come and make donations. He went to Mississippi several times and at some personal risk. In 1963, I can recall, he went to Greenwood with Sidney Poitier, and so they appeared there -- at least one demonstration -- I'm sure he was there more often than that. He also helped support Mrs. Hamer at times because she didn't make much money. Her husband lost his job on the plantation when she tried to vote. Ultimately he got a job as a Head Start bus driver, but it was a gap of some years there when they really didn't have much income. And she would not keep any of the money that she helped raise for the movement or would keep very little of it. So every once in a while he'd send her some money, and the man who runs the general store there in Ruleville would remember sometimes that she'd get money orders from Harry Belafonte. And I think probably at first he couldn't believe that this was really from Harry Belafonte, but it became very clear when she kept coming back with them that, indeed, these were from Belafonte. So he'd cash them for her. But I remember talking to Harry Belafonte about Mrs. Hamer, and he sang with her some, I think ...
LAMB: Did you ever hear her sing? Did you?
MILLS: I've heard tapes. I did not personally hear her sing. I've heard tapes. It was a very powerful voice that she had, and that's why I went to see Harry Belafonte, because one of the most difficult things I had to do in the book was figure out how to describe her voice. Printed page is hard to describe what somebody sounds like. So I decided I would go talk to some of the people who sang with her -- Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. So I went to see Belafonte. This was not hard duty, to go see Belafonte or Seeger, who ...
LAMB: Where'd you find Harry Belafonte?
MILLS: Well, it took about a year to get the interview because he's so busy. But finally, he was in Los Angeles doing some work, and I went to interview him at his hotel suite, and he could not have been more gracious. And he was another one of these people who loved Fannie Lou Hamer and wanted to make the time to talk to me. And he particularly told me some of the wonderful stories about the trip to Africa that they made after the '64 convention, in which Mrs. Hamer, who had just been confronting the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, and when they got to Africa, Sekou Toure, the president of Guinea, came to visit them without an entourage. And she just wept because she said, "We can't get in to see the president of our own country and the president of this country comes to visit us and treats us as honored guests."
LAMB: You got to tell, though, the story about what happened right before she met the President.
MILLS: Oh, yes. That was a good one. They'd gotten there, it was hot ...
LAMB: Now what's the country again?
MILLS: The country is Guinea -- and if I'm mispronouncing it, please, I don't want the whole embassy down on my neck -- in West Africa. She went -- they had a lovely villa that had been loaned by Toure. And she'd gone to take a bath, and so Sekou Toure arrives unescorted. So Harry Belafonte went up, knocks on the door, says, "Ms. Hamer, President Toure is here." "Oh," she said, "I'm -- you're just funning me -- I'm not ready to meet no president." He said, "He really is here." So she evidently just got herself out of the bathtub in a big hurry, dried off, threw powder all over her to try to dry herself off, and came steaming downstairs, and, indeed, nobody had been playing a joke on her. There was the president of the country, there. And he had on, apparently, a sweeping white caftan and just swept her into his arms. And she was really at a loss for words, but apparently for a few minutes there she was dumbfounded.
LAMB: And this was in '64, did you say?
MILLS: 1964, in September.
LAMB: Couldn't get in to see Lyndon Johnson.
LAMB: Why not?
MILLS: He didn't want to see those uppity folks from Mississippi. She had just challenged him and his selection of a Vice President and his well-ordered convention, and he just didn't want to deal with these folks.
MILLS: In -- no, this ...
LAMB: No, no, no, no. This was ...
MILLS: This was Atlantic City.
LAMB: Atlantic City, right -- the time before.
MILLS: Right. You know, Lyndon Johnson never left anything to chance. As we know, what happened with that election, he swept over Barry Goldwater, but he had just signed the Civil Rights Bill; you'd had all the turmoil in Mississippi. He did not want his coronation, if you will, didn't want any reason for the Southern Democrats to walk out. So he didn't want a floor fight over the challenge to the all-white delegation. And what the black Mississipians were trying to do was get their case in front of the American people, and Lyndon Johnson didn't want it on television. And so he sent Hubert Humphrey to defuse the situation with the either direct or implied threat that, "If you don't take care of this, you won't get the Vice Presidential nomination." So ...
LAMB: There are a lot of little things -- time flies.
MILLS: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: I want to make some connections here. This picture right here -- this woman is Eleanor Holmes Norton. When was this taken?
MILLS: That was taken in 1964, and I think Eleanor must have just been right out of law school then. And she ...
LAMB: Did she go to Yale?
MILLS: Yes, Yale Law School. And she had been working with Joseph Rauh on the challenge -- the legal brief -- to be presented to the credentials committee. And if you show the picture again, there's one other woman people should see. The woman on the right with the sunglasses is Ella Baker, who was sort of the intellectual guru, if you will, for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was the one who suggested to them, "No, don't be an adjunct of the SCLC; do your own thing." And she was also the one who suggested to them that they really be grass-roots organizing, rather than talk down the way King's organization was -- that they work from the bottom up, because if they didn't, when the students left, then the people wouldn't know any more than they had beforehand about how to deal with the powerful people. So that was, in large measure, Ella Baker's idea.
LAMB: Two other kind of non sequiturs: I could only find Jesse Jackson's name in here twice. Where was he during all this?
MILLS: He was in Chicago. I can't be positive -- I'm not quite sure. At some point he was still in college in North Carolina. He went to Chicago in the mid to late '60s, I think. He was definitely involved in the '68 convention. One of the things that I didn't have space for -- during the '68 convention -- I think I mentioned in there that Mrs. Hamer and Unita Blackwell and some of the other people from Mississippi went to Jesse Jackson's church, and rode through the streets of Chicago and saw the violence of the anti-war demonstrators. But Jackson's life touched Fannie Lou Hamer's often, but I just had to make some hard choices and really deal more with the people who were directly working in Mississippi.
LAMB: The now-deceased first black member of the Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall's name comes up once. And it's in connection with Harold Cox.
MILLS: Right. The story is told -- this would indicate Eastland's power and his attitude. Harold Cox had been Eastland's roommate, I think, in either law school or college. He wanted Cox on the federal court and Lyndon Johnson wanted Thurgood Marshall on the -- was it the Supreme Court then or was it as Solicitor General? I can't remember.
LAMB: I think it was Supreme Court, yeah.
MILLS: I think it was Supreme Court. So Eastland apparently ran into Bobby Kennedy at one point on the Hill, and he said -- and, please forgive me, my friends -- he said, "If you tell the President ...
LAMB: Senator Eastland's saying this?
MILLS: This is Senator Eastland and -- boy, this is where the memory plays tricks -- whether it was John Kennedy -- it may have been John Kennedy appointing Marshall as Solicitor General -- we need to look on this -- and I should know this, I wrote the book after all -- but, nonetheless, it really doesn't matter because it's what Eastland said, "You tell" -- I'm thinking he said, "You tell your brother that if he gives me Harold Cox, I'll give him the nigger," meaning Thurgood Marshall.
LAMB: I've got the page number, I'm going to go try to find out. I think before we end this and we've got some time, we ought to talk about Winona.
LAMB: But go back to -- when did Fannie Lou Hamer make the first public move that started this whole process.
MILLS: It was the late summer of 1962, after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee people had come to Sunflower County. They held a meeting. They told people what they could do if they would register to vote. It made perfect sense to Fannie Lou Hamer. So then they said -- this meeting was on a Monday night, see, some things I can remember and others I can't -- it was on a Monday night and they said, "Who will go down with us to the courthouse on Friday to register?" And she put up her hand. And when she put up her hand that night, I think she certainly changed her personal history, and she changed a lot of the history for the people who worked with her and lived around her.
They made the drive to Indianola. They tried to register, and, of course, there was a literacy test and it was geared for prospective black voters to fail, no matter how smart you were. They would always catch you on something. And if you didn't fail that part, they'd make you interpret a section of the state constitution. You know the state constitutions: they're incredibly complicated. So she failed the test and when she got back home that night, thrown off the plantation. So that was when the man who threw her off the plantation really threw her into the arms of the civil rights movement. And it was then, the following summer, that she'd gone to several meetings to learn how to train people to vote -- citizenship education, they called it. She'd been in Charleston, South Carolina. She was on her way home, and that's when she and half a dozen other people who were on a bus -- the Winona Bus Station -- they were arrested.
LAMB: Then what?
MILLS: The charge was something trumped up, like disturbing the peace. I always like to say I like to think they were disturbing the peace of Mississippi. But they were taken to this little brick jail, booked ...
LAMB: Have you been there, by the way?
MILLS: I've been there. June Johnson, who was one of the women who -- she was only 14 at the time -- two summers ago, June took me to the jail with her, talked the sheriff -- obviously, not the same sheriff that was in power then -- talked the sheriff into letting us see -- it was an enormous benefit. They put the people in the cells -- I think June was probably the first one that they hit with their fists -- hit her in the mouth -- hit her, beat her, put her ...
LAMB: These are policemen, doing this?
MILLS: These are policemen. It was the sheriff, highway patrolman and the chief of police. Then Annelle Ponder, who was sort of in charge of the group, was brought out of her cell. They kept trying to make her say, "Yes, sir." She wouldn't do it. She'd say, "Yes." It was not that she was impolite; she was not going to be humiliated, not going to be subjected to their indignities.
LAMB: Are all the people in the Winona jail black, that we're talking about now?
MILLS: Yes, they're all black. And then they took Mrs. Hamer out of her cell, took her to what they call the bullpen, which is where they kept the male prisoners. They had two black inmates then that they threatened that they would beat -- they would be beaten or worse if they didn't beat Mrs. Hamer. They made Fannie Lou Hamer -- this, at that point, 45-year-old stout, short woman who walked with a limp -- they made her lie down on the cot and then one beat her with a blackjack until he got tired, and then the other one beat her with a blackjack, at the order of the law officers.
LAMB: Did they break anything?
MILLS: I don't think so. She was left with probably permanent kidney damage. I mean, she was black and blue -- June said if you'd ever seen a snake's skin, it was like that after she was beaten. She couldn't sit down for several days. They took her back to her cell, where I think she promptly passed out. One of the women who was in the cell with her said that she ran a fever that night. I mean, she had been brutally beaten. And they sang to keep their spirits up. They weren't given proper food. And they were in jail for about three or four days. And one of the SNCC workers, Laurence Guyot, came to try to get them out of jail. He was thrown in jail and beaten.
Finally, Andrew Young, James Bevel and Dorothy Cotton came up from a meeting -- they had gotten the call that that's where they were, because when you didn't check in, the SNCC people would go to work and try to find out where you were. And so they found they were in the Winona jail and they called Andy Young. They also -- Julian Bond was at work in Atlanta. He called the FBI. And there were a lot of calls coming into this little jail. Finally, on about the third or fourth day, Andrew Young arrived with bail money and they -- they got out of jail. When they got out of jail, Mrs. Hamer and the rest were told that while they had been in jail, Medgar Evers, who was the NAACP director in Jackson, Mississippi, had been shot and killed in the driveway of his home.
LAMB: What proof do you have that she was beaten that badly?
MILLS: Well, you know, I asked the same thing because I had this horrible thought: suppose this story was made up? The law officers, you know, testified in court that the women, particularly, had resisted being put in their cells and they had to be dragged into the cell. So I wondered about this, and I spoke with the man who was the US attorney in Oxford at that point, a man named H.M. Ray. He, as it happened, had been in Washington for a meeting right after Mrs. Hamer and the rest of them got out of jail. Fannie Lou Hamer and Annelle Ponder went to Atlanta right after they got out of jail and they met with Dr. King. He sent them to the Justice Department.
So within, let's say, two days after they got out of jail, they got to the Justice Department. H.M. Ray was there for a meeting. Somebody said, "You've got to come and see this." He met these two women. He said there was absolutely no question in his mind that they had been brutally beaten. There was no way -- he saw their injuries -- he said there was no way they came from being dragged across a floor. And there was also a doctor that had examined them when they got out of jail. But H.M. Ray was not a radical. I mean, after all, when you've gotten to be the US attorney in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1963, you're not a SNCC worker. So I took his word for it. He was a very upright man.
LAMB: By the way, just so that everybody will get the full story. Thurgood Marshall's appointment as an appellate court judge in the Kennedy administration was being traded for Harold Cox to be a district court judge and that's on page ...
MILLS: I won't forget that again.
LAMB: That's on page 32 -- well, I had it wrong, too. So it's on page 32. Alright. They were in jail. They got out of jail. What got them out again?
MILLS: Andrew Young had the bail money for them.
LAMB: OK. What happened then? Was there a trial?
MILLS: There was a trial the following December. It lasted about three or four days. It was right after John Kennedy had been assassinated, so there was no press coverage -- none.
LAMB: You did not see any in The New York Times ...
MILLS: I could not find any press -- no.
LAMB: ... or LA Times or ...
MILLS: I could not find any press coverage.
LAMB: On this whole incident?
MILLS: In The New York Times there was a small story, three or four paragraphs about -- they were suspected to be in jail. Then there was a story that, yes, indeed, they were in jail. This came out of the SNCC press operation -- that Julian Bond had gotten this in the paper and it had gotten on the wires. There was a story on the front page of the Delta Democrat Times, that they'd been released. No word in any of these stories that they'd been beaten.
LAMB: Let me interrupt you.
LAMB: The Delta Democrat Times was run by?
MILLS: Hodding Carter. It's in Greenville, Mississippi. It was the only paper in Mississippi at that point that provided objective coverage of the civil rights movement. It's interesting, in that story Mrs. Hamer's name was misspelled. It was J-A-M-E-R. And so the first time she gets in the paper, her name's misspelled. You know, what else is new? But then there were some stories that summer, when the Justice Department brought charges against the law officers and the city of Winona. They brought civil and criminal charges. And the interesting thing is this was very rare for the Justice Department at that point, to bring criminal charges against a Southern law official. This was before Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were arrested and disappeared the following summer, so this was very rare. If it wasn't the first time, it was certainly one of the first times that this happened. Bobby Kennedy got personally involved and announced the charges at a news conference, so that was in the papers. But when the trial came, it was a week after Kennedy was assassinated. Maybe somebody else has some press coverage. I couldn't find any. And so the trial lasted three or four days -- all-white jury in Oxford, Mississippi.
LAMB: All males?
MILLS: Yes. Women didn't serve on juries at that point in Mississippi; whole 'nother story. The jury deliberated a little over an hour and acquitted all the law officers.
LAMB: Acquitted the law officers.
LAMB: What happened to the whole movement after that? What did Fannie Lou Hamer do from that moment forward?
MILLS: Well, I think this was one of many cases that made the people that were working in Mississippi decide that they needed help and they weren't getting protection -- black people were dying, were being jailed and beaten, and it seemed that nobody cared. So that's when they brought the college students down to Mississippi for the summer of '64 and challenged the all-white Democratic Party delegation to the '64 convention. But this was just one element, I think, that led them to bring the students to Mississippi that summer.
LAMB: They tried to challenge the Mississippi delegation in '64?
LAMB: What happened?
MILLS: They lost. They lost, but they won. Mrs. Hamer's involvement was, she was sort of the star witness. Their attorney was Joseph Rauh, who was active in the Democratic Party, who was a national committeeman from the District of Columbia. He knew a good witness when he saw it. And he had heard Fannie Lou Hamer's story. So he put her on the stand and, in fact, while she was on the stand in front of the credentials committee, telling what it was like to try to vote, try to be a first-class citizen, Lyndon Johnson called a press conference in the White House to try to bump them off the air. Well, it was played on tape or on film that night over and over, so everybody saw her testimony. This is the first time I ever heard of Fannie Lou Hamer -- was watching this testimony on television. She talked about going to try to vote. She talked about being beaten, described it in great detail. She talked about having shots fired into the house. She talked about the threats that she'd gotten. And then, finally, she said, "If the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party isn't seated, then I question America." So it was pretty powerful stuff. And then she argued against a compromise that Hubert Humphrey proposed. What they said they would do is give the Mississippians who'd come up -- there were 68 of them -- they would give them two at-large seats and they would tell the Democratic Parties and all over the country that hereafter, no one could discriminate. And they said anyone who will sign a loyalty oath to the party's nomination can be seated, knowing very well, of course, that the regular Democrats wouldn't sign a loyalty oath. But at any rate, Mrs. Hamer argued against the compromise because, she said, "We didn't come all this way for no two seats, because all of us is tired." So the full convention never knew, though, that the Freedom Democrats didn't want the compromise. It was voted on and it did become the rules of the party, and it really did start opening up the party to the diversity -- an overused word now -- but to the diversity that we saw at the Democratic convention in 1992.
LAMB: Just five minutes left. There's a lot more in here in this book, but let me jump to the end. And you've got some pictures here. This is a picture of the funeral. What was her life like in the last several years? Again, what year did she die?
MILLS: 1977. Her life was, I think, one of very great frustration in her last three or four years. She wasn't well. She had hypertension. She had a nervous breakdown at one point -- I'm sure from overwork -- but she kept on going. I mean, it was extRauhrdinary. She had very poor health care. She developed breast cancer and had surgery for that in 1976, but she stayed active. She helped bring low-cost housing to her home town; she sued the local school system, helped save the job of the black principal in the high school there. Her dream was the farm co-op that would help people have food -- produce their own food -- so they could have some independence from "the man" -- as she put it -- from the plantation owner.
She stayed active. I think five months before she died she went to Jackson for a demonstration about cuts in Medicare, so she wasn't well. I think she found Mississippi was resisting the full enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. This frustrated her enormously, so she felt somewhat abandoned, that things were moving on without her. So she -- I guess -- I get sort of sad when I think that she didn't live to see the changes that have happened today. She would have loved -- I have to tell this story: I was in Ruleville, Mississippi, very recently speaking at the public library that 30 years ago she couldn't use -- at the invitation of the librarian from Sunflower County. And the new state senator, a black man named Willie Simmons, stood up. He had defeated the man who defeated Fannie Lou Hamer in 1971, when she ran for state Senate. Willie Simmons is the first black senator from Sunflower County. He stood up and said, "I am living Fannie Lou Hamer's dream." Well, that was a pretty powerful moment.
LAMB: Here's the tombstone, and you can't see it clearly on the screen, but it says there, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." You read that a lot throughout your book. Where did that come from?
MILLS: She said it a lot. She said it to an interviewer in about 1964. She would say it in speeches all over and she meant it literally. "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!" And all of the people were tired of the -- of course, I was extremely excited last summer during the 1992 Democratic convention, when Bill Clinton quoted Fannie Lou Hamer, saying -- I think he said something like, "If, like Fannie Lou Hamer, you're sick and tired of being sick and tired, then" -- whatever it was he was proposing -- went on. I didn't hear what he was proposing because I got so excited about what he said -- that he mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer. So you know, she is known by at least, certainly, a lot of Southerners who came of age during that movement.
LAMB: What do you hope this book will do?
MILLS: I hope it will show young people that one person can make a difference.
LAMB: Next book for you?
MILLS: I'm about to sign a contract with Dutton for a primer on women's history.
LAMB: Other books you want to write?
MILLS: Yes. I'm not quite sure yet. I don't know when I'll get as good a subject as this again. But I'm sure going to be looking.
LAMB: Would you rather write biography or policy-oriented stuff?
MILLS: I think right now I'm a little -- I've been so immersed in her life, I'd like to do some policy stuff until I find another "This Little Light of Mine."
LAMB: Here's what the cover looks like and our guest has been Kay Mills, who's now a freelance writer, used to be with the Los Angeles Times editorial board. The name of the book is "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer." Thank you very much.
MILLS: Thank you, Brian.
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