Writing a woman’s trauma. Balancing Fannie Lou Hamer’s silence with newly recovered testimony.
By Kate Clifford Larson
Please note this post contains discussion of sexual assault and police brutality.
On Sunday morning, June 9, 1963, African American Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was arrested at an interstate bus terminal in Winona, Mississippi. Hamer and several colleagues were returning home to Mississippi after spending two weeks in Charleston, South Carolina learning nonviolent protest techniques and participating in citizenship and voter registration classes sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), both civil rights organizations born out of the struggles for racial equality and justice in the 1950s and 1960s. The group had traveled by bus from Greenwood, Mississippi to Charleston and back and were nearly home—a 1,400-mile roundtrip—when they were confronted and arrested by state highway patrolmen and local police.[i]
Before they arrived in Winona, Hamer noticed that the bus driver, a white man named Eugene Haithcock, made calls on pay phones at several rest stops prior to reaching Winona. Haithcock was furious that Hamer and the others sat wherever they wanted to and not in the rear of the bus as had been the de facto law in the South for decades. Recently passed federal rulings outlawed segregated seating on interstate buses and terminals across the country. The new laws infuriated many southern white people, and some were determined to prevent the inevitable: integration. When the bus pulled into the terminal in Winona, the police were waiting. Hamer then knew who Haithcock was calling. That moment would begin four days of physical and psychological torture at the hands of law enforcement.
When I started researching and writing Hamer’s biography about five years ago, I knew the basic outline of her history— 20th child of Mississippi sharecroppers with a sixth-grade education, who endured profound poverty, discrimination, racism, and violence before standing up in the early 1960s and demanding, on national television, that she be treated with the respect owed a citizen of the United States. Since her death in 1977, she has been celebrated and memorialized, particularly around her October 6th birthday. Her activism in the mid-20th century movement for equal rights is often recalled during discussions about voting rights and grass roots political action, sparking comparisons of the status of rights and liberties decades ago to the still unfulfilled promises of equality and justice in America today.
Nearly everything published about Hamer’s life mentions her arrest and beating she endured in that jail. Hamer recounted it repeatedly in the scores of speeches she delivered over a decade during the 1960s and early 1970s. As I dug deeper into the archives and unearthed rarely viewed documents, I began to see a deeper, darker story, one that is far more violent than what she revealed to the public. It was disturbing and painful. Hamer had not only been brutally assaulted, she had also been raped.
As an historian and a biographer, I felt professionally bound to share Hamer’s story as I was discovering it the documentary record and through interviews with people who knew her. While Hamer never disclosed the sexual assault in public, she hinted at it several times. That left me wondering. Should I reveal what happened? How much detail does the reader need to know?
The police department in Winona had a reputation for being notoriously and gratuitously violent with Black prisoners. The youth and gender of Hamer’s colleagues— a young man, three teenaged girls, and a thirty-two-year-old teacher named Annell Ponder—provided no protection from the white officers’ unrestrained violence. What those policemen did to them, and Hamer specifically, would scar them for the rest of their lives. Pouring over Hamer’s heavily redacted FBI file illuminated some details of her assault, but clearly not all. That sent me searching for other sources, including the government files on her colleagues. There I found unredacted reports missing from Hamer’s file which described excruciating details of the assaults.
Hamer and Ponder appeared to be the most reluctant to give details to the FBI; they did not trust the agents who tried to interview them. Once the two women left the jail on June 12th, they flew to Atlanta, Georgia where SNCC and SCLC offices were headquartered. Barely able to walk or sit down, they gave detailed testimony to white colleagues. Hamer hinted that she had endured more than punches, kicks, and whipping from five different men in that jail, but she stopped short of reporting a rape.[ii] A reporter for a Black newspaper, the Atlanta Daily World, met with them, too. It was during this interview that Hamer first indicated the beating included sexual assault. “One of the policemen pulled my dress up and they were trying to feel under my clothes.”[iii] Those were the words she chose to disclose the sexual abuse. Barely twenty-four hours free from her tormentors, the opportunity to testify to a Black reporter may have empowered Hamer to unveil a little more. Though still trying to process the violation privately, at that moment she tried to bear witness and hold the perpetrators accountable.
Margaret Herring, a close friend and colleague of Hamer’s in the mid-1960s, reported that Hamer told her she had been raped.[iv] Color photographs from Hamer’s FBI file seemingly confirm the brutality and entirety of the assault. Her arms and hands bruises from the repeated blows she tried to deflect from landing on her exposed body. More disturbingly, the photos reveal widespread bruising of her buttocks, and inner and outer thighs.[v]
Nearly sixties years later, the #MeToo movement has empowered sexual assault survivors to come forward and tell their stories. The movement’s calls for justice helped me decide to reveal the details of Hamer’s assault in Walk With Me as a means to give her a voice denied her. Balancing Hamer’s public retelling of the assault in the Winona jail with the personal and private records recently uncovered forced me to walk a fine line between the truth, and respect for her privacy and silence, too. While I chose to not publish the graphic photos—the nakedness felt too personal and not my choice to make—my narrative of the assault vividly describes the terror she endured that day in Winona, Mississippi. And I hope in the retelling, those five men are held accountable—if only in the court of public opinion—bringing some measure of denied justice.
Kate Clifford Larson is a feminist historian, specializing in modern Women’s and African American history. Walk With Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer is her fourth book and was published in 2021. Larson is currently a Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center Visiting Scholar.
[i] I have reconstructed the events in Winona, Mississippi, June 9–12, 1963, from primary source documents found in the following collections: Federal Bureau of Investigation files for Fannie Lou Hamer, Lawrence Guyot, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); the 1,100-page transcript of the federal trial, U.S. v. Earle Wayne Patridge, Thomas J. Herrod, Jr., William Surrell, John Basinger and Charles Thomas Perkins, criminal action no. WCR 6343, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, Western Division, December 2–6, 1963; records held by SNCC, SCLC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People )NAACP), and the Southern Regional Council (SRC); published interviews with Hamer colleagues, and Hamer interviews and speeches; and author interviews with Hamer colleagues.
[ii] For a full transcription of this interview see, “The Winona Incident: An Interview with Annelle [sic] Ponder and Fannie Lou Hamer, June 1963,” in Pat Watters, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: The Arrival of Negroes in Southern Politics, edited by George Reese Cleghorn (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967)
[iii] Stanley S. Scott, “2 Women Charge Police Beating in Winona, Mississippi Arrest,” Atlanta Daily World, June 14, 1963.
[iv] Margaret Lauren McSurley Herring interview by author, June 25, 2019.
[v] I am deeply indebted to scholar and Hamer biographer Davis Houck for providing me with color copies of the photographs. The closing of archives during the Covid pandemic prevented me from accessing the physical FBI files for more than 18 months.