Standing on my Sisters’ Shoulders

The Heroines

 

  
Unita Blackwell

“Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’. We didn’t have nothin’, so I was gonna try to see, could I get something? And one of those things was my right to register to vote and become a citizen of these United States.”Unita Blackwell was a sharecropper who rose to become Mississippi’s first black woman Mayor. During the Civil Rights movement, she worked for voting rights, and was arrested over 75 times, facing firebombs and burning crosses. She was part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that went to the Democratic Convention in 1964 and challenged President Johnson and the regular Democratic Party for the right of representation. She is a past national president of the U.S.-China People’s Friendship Association and has visited the country several times. In 1992, she was awarded the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant. She continues her work in Mayersville where she was Mayor for over 20 years.



Flonzie (Goodloe) Brown-Wright

“It’s been in my generation, in 1963, that blacks in this country could not register [to vote] without getting their heads cracked. I’ve seen it.”When Flonzie (Goodloe) Brown-Wright tried to register to vote, she was asked to define “Habeas Corpus,” as part of the registration form only black Mississippians were expected to answer. Although she didn’t know what it meant at the time, she studied the Mississippi constitution and returned to successfully register to vote. She vowed that she would get the job of the man who denied her the right to vote. And she did. She became the first black woman to be elected County registrar. She is now an author and lecturer.

 

Mae Bertha Carter

“I found myself back on the bed praying until my children came home. I went out on the porch when I saw the bus coming and I counted my children one by one as they got off the school bus.”Mae Bertha Carter was a sharecropper and mother of 13 who promised herself that her children would not pick cotton, but get the education she was denied. The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 called for the desegregation of all public schools which enabled the Carters to be the first to integrate the Drew County Schools. After enrolling their children, they were startled by gunshots in the middle of the night.Their decision also led to the loss of jobs and their home. At the all-white schools, the Carter kids were tormented and shunned by the other students. Undeterred, they all graduated and went on to get college degrees. Mae Bertha Carter was an active NAACP member and leader in the Head Start program.

“It was shocking to go to a classroom and to sit down, and then everybody pushes their desks to the side, and says I don’t want to sit beside you.”

–Gloria Carter Dickerson
(Mae Bertha Carter’s daughter)

Annie Devine

“And I say, America you need to think about your soul.”Annie Devine was an insurance executive turned Civil Rights worker who was instrumental in increasing voter registration for black Mississippians in the Canton, Mississippi area. She was a co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party whose objective was to be recognized as delegates at the 1964 Democratic Convention.

When she, along with Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray Adams, initiated the Congressional Challenge, they became the first black women to be seated on the Floor of the House of Representatives. Their mission was to unseat the Mississippi congressmen who they claimed were elected illegally because of discriminatory voting practices. They were unable to do that, but successfully put pressure on President Johnson to pass the groundbreaking Voting Rights Act of 1965. Annie Devine graduated from Tougaloo College and was a longtime volunteer in the Head Start program.

Victoria Gray Adams

Victoria Gray Adams grew up in Mississippi, but had opportunities to live outside the state. She decided if she could live differently in other parts of this country, she should be able to live that way in Mississippi.“I’m choosing to stay here and fight for the opportunity to be able to live in Mississippi as well as I can anywhere else.”

This businesswoman became a SNCC field secretary and played a key role in voter registration drives. She became co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which challenged the Democrats and President Johnson at the 1964 convention. She was also part of the Congressional Challenge, where she, Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Devine became the first black women to be seated on the Floor of the House of Representatives to plead their case about the election abuses in their state. She was also the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate from the state of Mississippi.

She continues her political activism to this day with community service. Her motto is, “Life shrinks or expands in direct proportion to the courage with which we live it.”

Fannie Lou Hamer

“I am sick and tired, of being sick and tired.”The youngest of 20 children, Fannie Lou Hamer, rose from the servitude of a sharecropper to become one of the best known grassroots leaders in the state. Her powerful singing voice inspired many and was known for singing “This Little Light of Mine.” She lost her job and home when she went to register to vote; and she was brutally beaten in jail for attempting to integrate a lunch counter at the Winona bus station.

Her most nationally recognized moment as a Civil Rights leader came in 1964 when a speech she made was televised during the Democratic National Convention. A co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, she testified before the credentials committee and asked the searing question “Is this America?” where she and others like her had to live in fear because of their quest for freedom. In a controversial move, President Johnson pre-empted the speech to divert attention away from her, but the nation heard her words that night when all the networks rebroadcast her powerful speech.

In 1965, she teamed with Victoria Gray Adams and Annie Devine for the Congressional Challenge. They attempted to unseat five Mississippi congressmen, who were unfairly elected because eligible black voters were systematically denied the right to register and vote.

A national leader and a local inspiration, she continued her activism with projects like the Freedom Farm Cooperative in which 5,000 people were able to grow their own food and own 680 acres of land. She also worked on issues such as school desegregation, child day-care, and low-income housing until her death in 1977 at the age of 59.

Quotes from other women about Fannie Lou Hamer:

 
“Her mission was to love yourself enough… to take this chance so that we can get this freedom… I started feeling like I could do anything.”

–L.C. Dorsey-Young

 

  
“I’m amazed at how she put fear in the hearts of powerful people like Lyndon B. Johnson.”

–June E. Johnson

  
“Fannie Lou Hamer made me realize that we’re nothing unless we can hold this system accountable and the way we hold this system accountable is to vote and to take an active note to determine who our leaders are.”

–Constance Slaughter-Harv

Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders

The award-winning documentary “Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders” takes on the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi in the 1950’s and 60’s from the point of view of the courageous women who lived it – and emerged as its grassroots leaders. These women stood up and fought for the right to vote and the right to an equal education. They not only brought about change in Mississippi, but they altered the course of American history.

The Civil Rights movement brought forth many heroes, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, who have been made famous by their commitment to the cause. Yet most of us have never heard of Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Unita Blackwell, Mae Bertha Carter, or Victoria Gray Adams. But without the efforts of these women, the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi would not have been possible. In a state where lynching of black males was the highest in the nation, a unique opportunity for women emerged to become activists in the movement. This is their story of commitment, bravery and leadership in the face of a hostile and violent segregated society.

This documentary presents original interviews with many of the Civil Rights movement’s most remarkable women: Unita Blackwell, a sharecropper turned activist, who became Mississippi’s first female black mayor; Mae Bertha Carter, a mother of 13, whose children became the first to integrate the Drew County schools against dangerous opposition; white student activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland who not only participated in sit-ins but took a stand on integration by attending an all black university; Annie Devine and Victoria Gray Adams, who, along with Fannie Lou Hamer, stepped up and challenged the Democratic Party and President Johnson at the 1964 Convention.

In the name of freedom and equal rights, these women bravely faced great adversity and risked their physical safety, their jobs, and even their lives. When asked how they did it, one activist said, “I was standing on my sisters’ shoulders.”


Racism in the movie ‘The Help’