Ella Baker of Littleton, NC was a strategizing genius and the secret weapon behind much of the Civil Rights movement's success. Paired with Fannie Lou Hamer's charismatic force, the duo set the stage for the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A sharecropper and a valedictorian
Ella Baker of Littleton, NC was a strategizing genius and the secret weapon behind much of the Civil Rights movement's success. Paired with Fannie Lou Hamer's charismatic force, the duo set the stage for the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In 1964, North Carolina’s Ella Baker and Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer helped found an independent, Black-led party, opening the door of democracy wider for everyone.

“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings?” 

The year was 1964, and these words weren’t ringing from the rafters of a church or resonating from a bullhorn in a street protest. They were booming from the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. And they were coming from a Black woman. 

Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper with a sixth-grade education, had partnered with Ella Baker, a brilliant civil rights strategist from Littleton, North Carolina. Together with a coalition of activists, they formed the Mississippi Freedom Party, and openly challenged the racism and sexism of the national Democratic Party. 

Hamer’s speech was so fiery, the sitting US president tried to silence her, with consequences that altered the political landscape for years to come.

Different Worlds, Shared Goals

Born in 1917 and the youngest of 20 children, Fannie Lou Hamer began working in the fields with her parents at age six. She left school to support her family at 12 and was a married woman in her 40s before ever stepping into the political arena. 

Ella Baker was born in 1903 and spent the first part of her childhood in Norfolk, Va., but a vicious riot by white mobs convinced her mother to return the family to her rural North Carolina hometown. Baker was only seven when the family relocated to Littleton in 1910. 

There, she grew up in relative comfort on her family’s land, hearing her grandmother’s stories of life under enslavement. It forged her belief that no one was better qualified to advocate for oppressed people than the people themselves. 

Baker attended Shaw University in Raleigh and graduated valedictorian of her class, embarking on a 50+ year career in freedom work. She cultivated a reputation as an organizing juggernaut. She rose through the ranks of the NAACP to become branch director, despite the sexism of the times, and was a foundational influence on numerous rights organizations, including Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta. 

But the student-led sit-ins of Greensboro, NC in 1960 turned her mind to the next generation of activists. 

Baker left SCLC and returned to her home state, where she started the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Shaw. With her mentorship, it became one of the main human rights advocacy groups in the country. From New York, Baker planned and coordinated successful protests, fundraising, and voter registration campaigns across the nation. And in 1962, she became aware of a rising firebrand in Mississippi, the belly of America’s racist beast. 

From Ignorance to Empowerment

That was the year Hamer attended her first meeting led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Before then, she hadn’t known Black people even had the right to vote. Fired up, she became a SNCC organizer. 

Hamer “was a forceful personality,” Georgia State Rep. Julian Bond said in a 1999 interview. “Unlike Ms. Baker, Ms. Hamer came from right off the plantation. … With other people off the plantation or on the plantation, she’s in effect saying to them, ‘I’m like you. Whatever you’ve experienced, I’ve experienced it too. Whatever life you’ve known, I’ve known that life too. So I’m not asking you to do something I haven’t done or I’m not willing to do myself.’” 

Hamer’s success at rallying people to the cause, despite brutal beatings and attempts on her life, quickly caught Baker’s attention. It was a bloody time in the liberation movement, especially in Hamer’s home state. 

Medger Evers, the president of the state chapter of the NAACP, was brutally murdered in 1963, and the next year, three young SCLC activists  – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner – were lynched for registering Black voters. 

Any Black person exercising their Constitutional right to vote faced poll taxes, literacy tests and often, death. Mississippi’s mainstream Democratic party did nothing to counter it.  

A Daring Plan

To make sure the voices of Black citizens were heard, Baker masterminded a plan: hold a mock election to highlight the true choice of the state’s Black citizens. A gifted consensus builder, she formed a coalition of advocacy organizations and with Hamer’s help, got the ears and hearts of everyday Mississippians. 

County- and district-wide meetings educated the populace on the political process they’d been locked out of. Members then debated resolutions, set campaign agendas, and conducted a “Freedom Vote,” a mock election that gained the participation of more than 80,000 Black residents. Among other results, the straw poll saw Mississippi’s new NAACP president Aaron Henry elected governor and white Tougaloo College chaplain Ed King as lieutenant governor. 

“I think it was that summer, night after night, meeting after meeting, that I really came to understand where Ms. Baker’s great faith in ordinary people came from,” activist Stokely Carmichael said.

This grassroots work gave birth to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an independent, Black-led political platform with the radical agenda of liberty and justice for all. They held a state-wide convention on August 6, 1964, in Jackson, Mississippi. Baker, who normally favored background support over the limelight, presented the convention’s keynote speech.  

The Plot Twist Backfired

Firmly opposed to this show of Black enfranchisement, the Mississippi Democratic Party fielded an all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention a few weeks later. Hamer, Baker and the MFDP delegates traveled to the DNC to challenge the so-called “Dixiecrats” for their seats, arguing that they were not legitimate representatives of the people barred from voting. The challenge gained the support of Northern delegates and prominent civil rights leaders. 

MFDP delegates testified before the DNC credentials committee, with Hamer going last. But the plan hit a snag. 

President Lyndon Johnson, as the Democratic incumbent, was practically guaranteed the party nomination. But he feared backlash from white Southerners if the MFDP delegates won their challenge. Just as Hamer prepared to address the committee, he called an urgent press conference, pulling the media’s attention away. 

His breaking news? That it was the 9-month anniversary of President John Kennedy’s assassination. The ploy backfired, provoking news outlets with its thinly veiled attempt at censorship. Every major news network aired Hamer’s testimony that night.   

Through her personal stories, Hamer aired the grievances of Black Southerners on national television. She spoke of her family’s eviction the day she registered to vote, attempted murders of the neighbors who gave them shelter, and the law enforcement officers who dealt her lifelong injuries for attempting to register others. 

“We are going to make you wish you was dead,” Hamer recalled a highway patrolman saying during the assault.

Hamer’s indictment of the system reached millions. To ignore them would be a public relations nightmare. Johnson and Democratic party leaders offered the MFDP delegation two at-large seats at the convention, for the Freedom Party’s governor and lieutenant governor candidates, and a promise to end racial discrimination at future conventions. 

The Freedom Party soundly rejected the deal. “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats, when all of us are tired,” Hamer said.

That night was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement. It catalyzed the drive for voting rights. One year later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. 

SNCC abandoned the philosophy of nonviolence as ineffective for dealing with white attacks, leaning into the more defensive liberation stance of Malcolm X and others. 

The Freedom Democratic Party remained active for several years, providing civic education, a farming cooperative, family services and other benefits, but slowly fizzled out. 

At the next Democratic National Convention, in 1968, Hamer became the first-ever woman and the first Black delegate since Reconstruction to officially represent Mississippi. She helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, and died of breast cancer in 1977 at 59. 

Baker continued pressing for human rights, passing in 1986 on her 83rd birthday.