On this day in 1964, civil rights activist Ella Jo Baker spoke thundering words to rally support for a voter registration campaign in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
It was one of a number of “Freedom Day” events organized that year across the South to force local officials to obey the law and allow Black citizens to vote.
In Forrest County, southern Mississippi, not a single Black person was registered to vote. Hattiesburg Freedom Day would change that.
At an evening meeting in St. Paul’s Methodist Church, Ella Baker spoke alongside John Lewis and other leaders of the movement.
Howard Zinn, who’d been fired the year before from his position as a history professor at Spelman College for his politicized approach to teaching, was in the audience. As he described it, “Every seat [was] filled, every aisle packed, the doorways jammed; it was almost impossible to get in.”
Baker was a veteran grassroots organizer who’d been involved with the NAACP and SCLC before founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Her activist days went all the way back to 1930s Harlem, where she’d worked to build Black economic power through the Young Negroes Cooperative League.
Never one for showy proclamations and self aggrandizement, Baker generally moved behind the scenes. But on this day in Hattiesburg, she took to the podium using words that would go down in history.
“I’m not talking about Negroes,” she told the audience. “I’m talking about people. People cannot be free until they realize that peace — we can talk about peace — that peace is not the absence of war or struggle, it is the presence of justice.”
“I’m talking about people,” she told the audience. “People cannot be free until they realize that peace —we can talk about peace — that peace is not the absence of war or struggle, it is the presence of justice.”
Not once did she mention the next day’s voter registration campaign. Instead, she spoke about the movement’s larger goals — not just for Black Americans, but all Americans.
The future of all humankind was at stake in the struggle for equality. Everyone was involved, and everyone was complicit.
“. . . all of us stand guilty at this moment for having waited so long to lend ourselves to a fight for the freedom,” she said. “Not of Negroes, not of the Negroes of Mississippi, but for the freedom of the American spirit, for the freedom of the human spirit.”
The following day, hundreds of people marched down Pine Street to the Forrest County Courthouse, where local circuit clerk Clerk Theron Lynd had done everything he could to prevent Black people from voting. He’d already received a federal contempt citation for his disregard of the law. Now, finally, he would be forced to yield to the masses lined up at the courthouse.
The picket line stretched around the courthouse and two blocks down the street. Only four people at a time were allowed into the registrar’s office, so things moved slowly. But by the end of the day, nearly 150 African-American citizens were registered to vote in Forrest County, Mississippi.
“”. . . all of us stand guilty at this moment for having waited so long to lend ourselves to a fight for the freedom, not of Negroes, not of the Negroes of Mississippi, but for the freedom of the American spirit, for the freedom of the human spirit.”
Decorum prevailed – there would be no violence that day.
The Hattiesburg rally and march were among many events that called attention to the civil rights struggle, and put pressure on national leaders. In July of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act.
Ella Baker continued to be an influential leader in the fight for human rights up until her death, on her birthday, December 13, 1986. She was 83.
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