Commentary Human Rights

The 50th Anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer: Remembering What Fannie Lou Hamer Taught Us

Jazmine Walker

Modern Mississippi freedom fighters must remain committed to Hamer’s legacy of bridging voting and reproductive rights into a comprehensive reproductive justice effort to protect Black women and other populations that are vulnerable to violations of both.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This June marks the 50th anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer—a campaign launched to end the systematic and violent disenfranchisement of Black people in Mississippi by registering them to vote. This effort was not only to draw national attention to the terror Black people experienced as they fought for their right to vote, but also to cultivate the organizing skills of a network of local leaders.

Fannie Lou Hamer was one of those leaders. She used the power of storytelling to compel America to recognize the humanity of poor Black people in Mississippi.

This is also the 50th anniversary of Fannie Lou Hamer sharing her experiences on a national stage during her testimony at the Council of Federated Organizations’ sponsored hearing at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. She shared the brutal injustices she suffered for trying to vote, as well as the injustices of forced sterilization of Black women in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Hamer’s inclusion of sterilization in a hearing primarily organized to ensure the protection of Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers and lay the groundwork for the 1965 Voting Rights Act highlighted how both the right to vote and reproductive freedom were necessary to justice for Black women in Mississippi.

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Fifty years later, we have seen a separation of voting and reproductive rights in mainstream movements that has only accelerated Mississippi policymakers’ transparent attempts to roll back the gains of Freedom Summer, through aggressive legislation to institute voter identification laws, close the state’s only remaining abortion clinic, and generally limit the reproductive choices of Mississippi women.

The zealous legislature has successfully launched a multi-pronged attack of reproductive and voter suppression that endangers the already precarious livelihoods of Mississippi’s Black women and families. As advocates, our demand for justice must also be multi-pronged to avoid a return to dehumanizing policies that Hamer recounted during her testimony.

In her testimony, Hamer connected reproductive rights and enfranchisement. She revealed:

One of the other things that happened in Sunflower County, the North Sunflower County Hospital, I would say about six out of ten Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied. They are getting up a law that said if a woman has an illegitimate baby and then a second they could draw time for six months or a five-hundred-dollar fine. What they didn’t tell is they are already doing these things, not only to single women, but to married women.

As Hamer noted, in 1964 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a sterilization bill that would criminalize women for having children by fining or imprisoning women who birthed children while unmarried; women could elect to be sterilized in order to avoid imprisonment and/or the fine. Though the legislation explicitly targeted unmarried women, many poor Black women had already fallen victim to involuntary sterilization regardless of their marital status. Fortunately, the bill died in the state senate because of pressure from national media outlets and the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Still, modern Mississippi freedom fighters must remain committed to Hamer’s legacy of bridging voting and reproductive rights into a comprehensive reproductive justice effort to protect Black women and other populations that are vulnerable to violations of both.

Attempts to transform the state’s social reality into one that mirrors what Hamer spoke of 50 years ago were on full display in the 2011 election, when two ballot initiatives attempted to limit the voting power and reproductive decision-making of Mississippi families. Initiative 26, a “personhood” initiative, sought to define life at conception, thus outlawing abortion by deeming it homicide, while Initiative 27 sought to require potential voters to present photo identification at all polls in the state. The “personhood” bill was voted down by more than 55 percent of voters, but the voter ID initiative passed.

The voting law takes effect across the state during the upcoming June 3 primary election and stands to disenfranchise some 48,000 low-income Mississippians. Because voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise the poor through cost and geographic barriers to access, more than 35 percent of Black and Latina women living in poverty in Mississippi face compounding disadvantages at the hands of this legislation. This systematic disenfranchisement, reminiscent of the Jim Crow South, limits these women’s ability to use their constitutional right to vote against oppressive legislators who prioritize conservative, restrictive ideology over their health and well-being.

Though “personhood” failed in Mississippi in 2011, Gov. Phil Bryant has made it very clear that he is committed to ending safe abortion access in the state, and the actions of the legislature reflect his commitment. While it is unclear if the sole abortion clinic will survive the ongoing appeals process of legislation that requires each of the clinic’s physicians to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, Bryant has signed a law that regulates women’s access to medication abortion. The law requires a doctor to be present while a patient takes the medication, rather than allowing a patient to simply receive a prescription and take it in the comfort of her own home. This means that women who do not live in close proximity to a clinic and cannot travel there multiple times may be forced into a surgical abortion option or they may eschew an abortion altogether. Bryant also recently signed an 18-week abortion ban, which unconstitutionally restricts women’s reproductive health.

The barriers erected by the aforementioned legislation will be greatly exacerbated if the state’s abortion clinic loses its appeal and closes. Women seeking abortions will ultimately have no choice but to leave the state to receive an abortion, which is often unfeasible for poor women, especially those in rural areas who lack the transportation, money, and job flexibility to take a multiday, out-of-state trip during the week. And because of the new voter restrictions, these same women, who are the most vulnerable and in the greatest need of legislative change, may lack the ability to exercise their voting power in pursuit of that change.

State lawmakers need to trust Mississippians to make healthy decisions for their families.

With little voter accountability, Gov. Bryant continues to roll back programs that would help low-income families support the children they have, despite his crusade to protect the “unborn.” Bryant and other Mississippi conservatives have blocked Medicaid expansion that would have insured an additional 300,000 low-income people. Then, they will subject TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients to drug testing, if the state deems them likely substance users based on a questionnaire. Given the country’s history of deploying stereotypes against Black women, this legislation will likely fall hardest on them. If recipients test positive more than once, their benefits will be disrupted, thereby adversely affecting children whose parents struggle with substance use. In 2013, Mississippi also spent $1.6 million on the e-Childcare system, which forces parents who receive childcare vouchers to scan their fingers to monitor their child’s daycare attendance. If the child misses more that 15 days in the fiscal year, parents will lose their vouchers. These laws may not be as harsh as the sterilization bill, but they still endanger Black women and their families, who are at greater risk of losing equal voting and reproductive health access.

Fifty years later, national civil rights leaders are returning to the state to advocate for freedom, but they must remember that Mississippians do not live single-issue lives. It is critical that organizers build and strengthen resources across movements in Mississippi to fight back against laws like these that perpetuate systematic oppression on many levels, continuing to disadvantage poor families of color. National organizers also have to trust Mississippians to speak the truths that can only come from being rooted in these communities.

For Fannie Lou Hamer, reproductive freedom was always a part of Freedom Summer, and it is time we follow her lead. Activists must commit to the intersection of race and gender politics, examining both voter and reproductive injustices since they affect the same vulnerable populations. Our resistance to these violations must be as coupled, complex, dedicated, and fierce as our oppression if we are to succeed. The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony is the perfect time to recommit ourselves to this approach.

News Race

Cleveland Transit Officer Pepper-Sprays ‘Black Lives Matter’ Activists

Regina Mahone

The officer confronted a crowd of activists who had begun locking arms and chanting in protest over the way he forcefully detained a 14-year-old. “The crowd was determined that the youth would NOT be harmed or killed and were fierce, as we know it’s a real possibility,” explained one witness, Kimberly Ellis.

A three-day convening last week designed to provide Black organizers and community activists with a space to heal, mourn, and strategize around the Black Lives Matter movement ended in indignation following an aggressive interaction with a transit authority officer.

Participants of the Movement for Black Lives Convening, held July 24-26 at Cleveland State University in Ohio, encountered police violence after the closing ceremony, when a Cleveland transit officer took a local Black teenager into custody. The officer believed the teenager was “intoxicated to the point where he was unable to care for himself.”

Witnesses said the officer slammed the young man to the ground before moving the teen into a police vehicle.

Local law enforcement responded, joining the transit authority officer and other officials on the street as the crowd swelled with locals and activists who had attended the Movement for Black Lives Convening.

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The officer confronted a crowd of activists who had begun locking arms and chanting in protest over the way he forcefully detained the 14-year-old. “The crowd was determined that the youth would NOT be harmed or killed and were fierce, as we know it’s a real possibility,” explained one witness, Kimberly Ellis, on Twitter.

“Conference participants peacefully intervened using classic non-violent civil disobedience tactics, such as inter-locked arms, in order to prevent the police from leaving the area with the child in custody,” said the Movement for Black Lives Convening organizers in a statement.

The officer pepper-sprayed a group of about 30 people, according to reports.

“At some point, based on what I saw, I felt that the police reaction was focused on reacting to the protesters as opposed to deescalating the situation,” Kimberly Ellis, American and Africana Studies scholar and creator of #BlackPoliticsMatter, told Rewire in a phone interview.

While some activists worked to treat pepper-spray victims, the handcuffed teen, with his mother, was escorted into an ambulance by the police to get checked out. A witness said the mother told officers that her son wasn’t intoxicated like the officer had claimed.

Ellis, who said she joined a small group of activists trying to “focus in on the mother and what we could do for the teen,” told Rewire that the officers hesitated to release the teen because of the crowd of people who had gathered around the ambulance.

“I was trying to find out what was happening and how I might be able to help … but everything changed when I heard one of the officers say, ‘Well, even if I were to release him, I can’t because there’s too many people around.’ And I just thought to myself, well wait a minute, I mean, now the dynamics have changed because if you’re even thinking about releasing him and now you’re sort of victim blaming … it’s just kind of like, but the protesters were there because some of them saw what happened and thought the arrest was unwarranted or extreme.”

The officers ended up releasing the teen to his family after the crowd cleared space for a relative to drive her truck to the ambulance, explained Ellis.

The conflict comes nearly two weeks before the one-year mark of 18-year-old Michael Brown‘s death in Ferguson, Missouri, which set off a spate of protests across the country in response to police violence against Black women, men, and children.

It also follows the recent deaths of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, who died while in police custody in Waller County, Texas, and Homewood, Alabama, respectively.

The national convening began on Thursday and attracted more 1,000 attendees, including “movement elders” such as the niece of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer and Miss Major, a leader in the trans community; #BlackLivesMatter co-founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi; community leaders representing labor unions and international delegations; and families of victims of police violence.

Speakers placed the movement in its historical context, as part of an ongoing fight for freedom that began before the attendees were born and will continue after they have perished.

Along with numerous panels on the various ways in which Black people are seeking justice, the event offered spaces for healing, a Youth Freedom program, which included “activities for children around political education, art and healing,” and tours of the Black-owned Rid-All urban farm.

The event closed on Sunday with a performance by Voices in the Valley youth and chants of “Black Youth Matter.”

Shortly after the closing ceremony, the transit authority officer detained the 14-year-old Black teen.

Following the police attack on Sunday, conference attendees who were still in Cleveland and those who were on their way home responded on social media.

“The whole point was we weren’t going to let another Black teenager be hurt, be abused, be killed, be maligned, be railroaded and swept into the criminal justice system. I mean there were so many reasons to be there,” Ellis said. “I don’t think [the teen] really understood what was going on, but I am sure that he has never had a crowd full of Black people just surrounding him and shouting at him, ‘We love you.’ And like, caring for him and chanting, supporting him the whole way … He had the biggest and the best support group ever.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the tactics used by conference participants during Sunday’s interaction with law enforcement.

Commentary Abortion

Enough Is Enough: Repeal Hyde Now

Jazmine Walker

As we acknowledge the passage of Hyde 38 years ago this month, it is important to look at how the amendment helped to usher in a wave of anti-choice legislation that has the most detrimental impacts on poor communities of color—especially in states like Mississippi.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

September 30 marks the 38th year since Congress passed the original Hyde Amendment—the measure that bans the use of federal money for abortion, with exceptions for rape and incest, primarily affecting Medicaid recipients.

This means that for 38 years, low-income women, people of color, young people, and folks at these intersections have been subjected to the unjust intent of Rep. Henry Hyde, and his amendment created on the heels of Roe v. Wade, to take away their constitutional right to plan for the family they want.

Rep. Hyde made his intent perfectly clear during his 1977 congressional debate over Medicaid funding when he said:

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I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the… Medicaid bill.

Though states can allocate state Medicaid funding for abortion beyond cases of rape or incest, some states opt to uphold Hyde while taking additional measures to make abortion impossible to access for just about everyone, just as Sen. Hyde intended.

As we acknowledge the passage of Hyde this week, it is important to look at how the amendment helped to usher in a wave of anti-choice legislation that has the most detrimental impacts on poor communities of color, who are also routinely denied adequate health care, Medicaid expansion, comprehensive sex education, or programs that support pregnant and parenting teens—especially in states like Mississippi.

In Mississippi, where 22.3 percent of the population is living below the federal poverty line, poor folks have become a target of anti-choice legislators. Mississippi has only one abortion clinic, meaning 91 percent of women there live in counties without an abortion provider. This makes it difficult, if not insurmountable, for most Mississippians—who already struggle with lack of access to adequate health care, while Gov. Bryant refuses to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act—to access the abortion care that one-third of them will need.

While Mississippi’s legislature limits women’s reproductive choices, it also creates stigma around people’s sexual health.

In 2011, Mississippi enacted a law that requires each school district to adopt an abstinence-only or abstinence-plus sex education program, upholding monogamous heterosexual sexual relationships as the only “appropriate” kind of intercourse. However, a recent study by the Center for Mississippi Health Policy found that 12 percent of surveyed middle and high schools principals said they would not implement a sex education program at all. It is no wonder the state retains the second highest teen birth rate in the nation, while also holding a low ranking for programs that support pregnant and parenting teens.

This isn’t a surprise, because Republican Gov. Bryant favors shame- and fear-based tactics instead of healthy and productive conversations about sex. At a 2012 conference of 200 teens sponsored by the governor’s office, Bryant told participants, “If you want to fail in life, if you want to end up being on Medicaid—CHIPS [the Children’s Health Insurance Program] and Medicaid and food stamps the rest of your life—if you never want to have a career, then all you’ve got to do is drop high school and have a baby.”

“And I can almost assure you that’s what’s going to happen to you,” he said.

Bryant shames teens who choose to become parents and perpetuates stigma for people receiving public aid, despite the fact that research shows access to public benefits can improve health and economic outcomes for children and families. And, although Bryant questions teens’ ability to parent, and create thriving families, Mississippi has the most restrictive laws around abortion for teens.

Youth are required to get parental consent from both parents to have an abortion, with an exception only for a medical emergency. Requiring both parents to consent provides no additional medical benefit for teens, it simply limits young people’s ability to make informed and healthy decisions about their reproductive lives and their access to care.

Though Mississippi is adamant about limiting access to abortion and comprehensive sex education, it is one of the most dangerous states to carry a pregnancy to term—especially for Black women. Black mothers in the state between ages 25 and 29 are four times more likely to have infants die before their first birthday than their white counterparts. Mississippi ranks 47th in the country when it comes to maternal death, where Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related conditions in comparison to white women.

Medicaid expansion could have been an important first step for eliminating many of these health disparities by insuring an additional 300,000 low-income people, but still would not ensure the affordability of abortion care.

At the federal level, in 2010 President Obama signed an executive order that extended Hyde Amendment provisions to the Affordable Care Act, thereby affirming that no federal subsidies would be used to pay for abortions. If federal exchange insurers cover abortion care, those insured are required to pay a separate itemized charge for said coverage, which creates additional costs for poor and young women of color trying to access affordable health care. Meanwhile, 21 states have enacted legislation restricting coverage for abortion in insurance exchanges. While access to health insurance is only one step to addressing racial health disparities, insurance, of any kind, should not be a barrier between a woman and making the best decision for her circumstances.

People should have access to safe reproductive health care, regardless of their income or health insurance coverage.

Now more than ever we need to repeal Hyde and other policies like it that make abortion care, and other reproductive and sexual health programs, less accessible for the people who need it most.

Mississippi shows us that the Hyde Amendment is not only a means for making abortion care less accessible for poor women of color, but also has led to more laws limiting the sexual and reproductive choices of said women. Poor women of color were among the first to be denied abortion access through Hyde, but the intent and purpose of Rep. Hyde was to eliminate access to safe abortion care for us all. If we do not commit to repealing Hyde now, Rep. Hyde’s dream will soon become a frightening reality.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece incorrectly identified Henry Hyde as a member of the Senate. In fact, Hyde served in the House of Representatives.