ATLANTIC CITY — It’s been close to 60 years since Fannie Lou Hamer tried and failed to register 17 people to vote at the Indianola, Mississippi Courthouse on Aug. 31, 1962.
For her efforts, Hamer was beaten, shot at and terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan. She lost her job and her home.
The next year, she successfully registered but could not vote under a loophole under what were known as Jim Crow laws, a series of laws and regulations designed to enforce segregation a century after the end of slavery and to prevent Black votes being cast or counted.
A year after that, in 1964, Hamer’s voice was heard around the country from Atlantic City, where she challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Her quote that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” was televised to a prime-time national audience.
She came to the city as part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge her state’s Democratic organization, which at the time only allowed white participation. She was part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group known under the acronym SNCC.
During the convention, supporters protested on the Boardwalk and pushed to get the integrated Mississippi delegation seated on the floor. They rejected an offer from President Lyndon Johnson to seat two of the 68 delegates who came to Atlantic City, but that offer was enough to lead the seated Mississippi delegation to leave the convention.
Kaleem Shabazz was 17 at the time, and protested outside the convention center.
Now an Atlantic City Council member and president of the city’s branch of the NAACP, Shabazz participated in a panel discussion on the push for equal rights in 1964, what was known as Freedom Summer. It included the challenges to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City and actions in Southern states.
That summer saw the murder of three activists by the KKK, including two white students from New York, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and a Southern Black man, James Chaney.
People were willing to risk their lives to stand up against racism and to improve the country, Shabazz said at the event Sunday at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey in the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University.
He was part of a panel discussion that included Donnetrice Allison, a professor of Africana Studies and Communications Studies at Stockton, Anne Glapion, a member of the African American Heritage Museum board, and Heather Perez, the special collections librarian and university archivist for Stockton.
About 20 people attended the free event. The museum also presented the exhibit “A Time for Change: Civil Rights in South Jersey,” created by the museum and Stockton, the first time it was presented in five years.
Most of those participating in Freedom Summer were young, Allison said, drawing comparisons to last summer’s Black Lives Matter marches around the country.
The discussion kept returning to Hamer, and would then go wide, taking in the national impact. An audience member described Hamer as a reluctant leader, one who stepped forward to address a pervasive injustice.
Allison embraced that description, saying circumstances put her in a position to become a leader.
Shabazz praised Hamer, calling her a phenomenal person, but cautioned against focusing too much on a single individual.
“I think we should remember that there were many Fanny Lou Hammers we don’t even know, all over the South and all over the North,” he said. “That’s not to diminish anything she did. I think we need to keep that in mind, there are many people who made significant contributions that we don’t even know about.”
That included many who risked their lives or faced assaults for the cause of civil rights.
Allison said the efforts of the summer of 1964 helped lead to the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That work is not over, she said.
“There’s no way for us to get around what’s obviously in front of us, that so much of what’s happening today and so much of that fight is so similar to the fights of the past,” Allison said. “It’s really a shame that we’re still fighting that. There are so many things in this world that need to happen but yet we’re still fighting that.”
Shabazz also brought contemporary issues into the discussion, including the controversy over teaching critical race theory. Some parents, and some politicians, use the phrase broadly to cover a variety of topics, and have suggested the efforts foist blame and guilt on white students.
Shabazz described the controversy as a smoke screen.
“I think we all recognize that there is a push across the country against critical race theory, which is really a straw man that’s being put up so that we don’t tell the truth about our history,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable. It’s not pretty. It really is traumatic.”
Education is vital, Glapion said. Many people marched and organized for equality, she said, or just tried to live their lives as best they could.
“It wasn’t easy way back when to be Black in America. It’s not so easy now,” Glapion said. “But we see a progression where things are getting better.”
She said education has been part of that change.
“You always want to honor teachers and put them on a pedestal,” she said.
Shabazz mentioned plans for the national convention of the NAACP to come to Atlantic City in July of 2022. He said the local branch wants to bring hundreds of local students of all backgrounds to the event.
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