"Conventional Wisdom" brings you perspectives from both sides of the aisle. When author and Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin watched as Barack Obama won the presidential nomination of his party, she writes, "I wondered what [Fannie Lou Hamer] would have thought about this night."
Last night, the Democratic Party showcased its best. The Big Three — Kerry, Clinton and Biden — reminded Democratic voters and all Americans of the stark differences between Democrats and Republicans, between Obama and McCain.
John Kerry delivered what may be the best speech of his career. We expected Clinton to bring brilliance, passion and clarity, but Kerry demonstrated a side of himself we needed to have seen more of during his campaign. And Biden, while not as eloquent as either Clinton or Kerry, brought just the right balance of intelligence and toughness. They defined McCain. They painstakingly described the nation's current difficulties at home and abroad. They reminded us of the stark differences between Republican and Democratic conceptions of and visions for America. And they affirmed and legitimated Barack Obama as the man most capable of leading this country at this moment. More importantly, they told the American people that they were willing to stand behind him, work with him and follow his leadership.
Throughout the evening, I kept thinking about Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker. Especially Mrs. Hamer; she wouldn't leave me. My mind's eye focused on her at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. A sharecropper turned civil-rights activist, Mrs. Hamer attended the convention as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (The Freedom Democrats), which had been organized to challenge Mississippi's all-white, segregationist delegation to the convention. The white southern delegation threatened that if the Mississippi Freedom Party was seated, it would not to nominate Lyndon Johnson nor give him their electoral votes.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's alternate delegation had 64 black and four white delegates. National media coverage of Hamer's testimony to the credentials committee, regarding the violence and discrimination blacks faced when trying to register and vote, garnered support for her efforts from the American people. Eager to shut her up, Lyndon Johnson (who referred to her as "that illiterate woman"), sent a delegation, including Hubert Humphrey, to negotiate with the MFDP. They offered the Freedom Party two seats at the convention and Humphrey encouraged her to accept the concession because his vice presidential nomination was at stake.
Martin Luther King did endorse the compromise. But Fannie Lou Hamer asked Humphrey: "Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than 400,000 black people's lives?" Ultimately, Mrs. Hamer and the MFDP rejected the compromise and were not seated. But as the result of the efforts of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democrats that summer night in Atlantic City, just a year later, President Johnson signed the federal Voting Rights Act. In 1968, the Democratic Party began to demand equality of representation from all delegations.
Last night, as I listened to the soaring rhetoric and watched the waving flags, I also saw Mrs. Hamer standing outside the Convention Hall that summer night. I heard her say: "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?"
I wondered what she would have thought about this night when the party that refused to seat her delegation nominated an African-American man as its candidate for the presidency of the United States of America.
Would she have looked at the truly diverse delegates from all over the country and seen the successful culmination of what she'd fought for? Would she still posit the question to her party, to her nominee: "Is your position more important than the lives of black people, [of poor people]?"
She would have done both. She might have basked in the moment, but she most certainly would not have suspended judgment. Ever vigilant in holding up her people's suffering and aspirations, Mrs. Hamer nonetheless knew that the United States of America is a work in progress, capable of change though great struggle and tremendous sacrifice.