"I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." Those were the poignant words of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the civil rights movement. While growing up in the Delta of Mississippi, Mrs. Hamer experienced firsthand the crushing demands of southern sharecropping labor that would render anyone's physical and mental body taxed beyond despair. Nonetheless, laborers would rise early the next morning to do it all over again. For all of their back-breaking work, they only earned a few meager dollars. Hamer toiled year after year, eventually winning the promotion to "timekeeper" as an adult on the W.D. Marlow Plantation.
In the 1960s, many African-Americans aimed for two goals in their quest to vote: first-class citizenship and the ability to elect a hopeful candidate who would change cruel conditions and the racist challenges that they lived in the Jim Crow South.
Hamer's zeal led to several attempts to simply register to vote, each one met with vile opposition and pointless eligibility requirements, such as literacy tests, marbles-in-a-jar predictions, and reciting and deciphering the constitutional amendments, to name a few. White voters, of course, did not need to complete these senseless tests.
On Aug. 31, 1962, Hamer's application for registration to vote was rejected, as she failed eligibility requirements. Sharecropper owner W.D. Marlow learned of her application and insisted she withdraw it immediately. The civil rights crusader replied, "I didn't go down there to register for you. I went down to register for myself." Hamer was roughly removed from the premises, leaving her family behind, temporarily. The violence didn't diminish her fire, however.
On June 9, 1963, while traveling home from a voter-registration workshop, Hamer and a fellow activist were stopped by Montgomery County, Miss., law enforcement in Winona, Miss. The group was carried off to jail for no reason other than their presence was considered a disturbance. While in custody the first night, Hamer endured a brutal physical assault that left permanent kidney injury and a blood clot in her eye.
In August 1964, at the Democratic National Convention, Hamer was offered an opportunity to share her four-day jail experience on national television. She cited the words told to her by one of the three officers: "We gonna make you wish you was dead!" His words had echoed moments before she sustained his first hit, first kick, and first strike from his blackjack, a baton weapon, she recounted.
Hamer was asked why she kept pushing for equal rights for African-Americans. With dignity and mustered courage she answered, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." She shared painful images of bleeding Mississippi trees (from lynchings), terrorizing phone calls from the KKK, and the regret that equal opportunities weren't accessible to all.
She later went on to run for Senate, although unsuccessfully.
Fannie Lou Hamer's persistence leaves a responsibility on us to fulfill.
As of late, national media sources report the travesty of voter suppression (voter-purge practices, poll irregularities, voter ID laws, etc.) and ineffective policies (outdated or new) like "stop and frisk," which is widely known to be prejudicial.
Additionally, the deliberate neglect by some elected officials on racial and social injustices that affect you, me, and our community should be considered. Martin Luther King Jr. committed his life to securing equality for all in American society.
Each candidate in this year's election - and all elections - ought to be challenged on issues that matter. Questions like, "Will you endorse plans to lessen the racial wealth gap between white and black American households?" should remain in the forefront.
This commentary is meant to lend an ounce of encouragement to those who may question whether their vote even matters. To the disenfranchised, I offer a cup of hope that your single vote can make a difference in a major way. To the African-American community, a gallon of strength, as we recognize that historical pains and survivals have given us the boldness that we breathe confidently today.
Make a difference. Do it for yourself. Go vote!
Chrystal Gardner of Duluth is a community organizer and advocate for racial justice.