I spent June 8, 2022 driving to Winona, Mississippi. In the past, I have always driven the interstates, but yesterday I opted for Highway 82. That’s the road Fannie Lou Hamer and her friends were traveling when they stopped in Winona on June 9, 1963. That night, Hamer was beaten so badly in her prison cell that she couldn’t move. Her entire body was as hard as steel. She and Euvester Simpson survived the night by singing gospel songs.
The men who assaulted Hamer and her friends were untouched by the Mississippi criminal justice system. There wasn’t a DA in the state who would dream of pressing charges against a white assailant if the victim was Black. Federal charges were filed, but an all-white jury quickly acquitted the defendants.
But Hamer got the last word. At the 1964 Democratic Convention, she told the entire nation what happened to her in Winona. President Lyndon Johnson was so afraid of her testimony that he ordered the networks to cut away from her remarks. But, to Johnson’s dismay, Hamer’s testimony was replayed on the evening news.
Johnson wasn’t opposed to a victim of abuse having her say. But he was a child of the South. He knew there would be backlash. He was right.
And yet, even in these fraught times, Winona is changing. A group of local organizers headed by Vickie Roberts-Ratliff talked local white leaders into formally acknowledging the crimes committed against Hamer and her fellow civil rights activists in 1963. That is an amazing accomplishment!
This afternoon, I will be attending a memorial event at the site of the old County Jail in Winona. I will be with Curtis Flowers, the man tried six times for a heinous murder he did not commit. Hamer and Flowers have always been associated in my mind. When Ray Charles Carter, part of the legal team representing Flowers back in 2008, asked me to intervene on his client’s behalf, he reminded me that Winona was the town where Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten half to death back in 1963. I had heard Hamer’s name before, but had no clear idea of who she was.
As I researched the Flowers case, I found myself driven back to the fight for civil rights in the Mississippi Delta. Ms. Hamer was from Ruleville, in Sunflower County, just down the road from Winona. She was a gospel-singing sharecropper-turned-voting rights activist. A woman of indominable spirit and endless courage. What happened to Curtis Flowers in Winona was, I realized, simply the latest expression of the Winona justice that took years off Hamer’s life.
As I drove across Arkansas and Mississippi, signs of religious fervor were everywhere. Even in parts of the country that were hurting economically, big, flashy Baptist churches dominated the landscape. Shortly after crossing the Mississippi, I passed a cotton gin sporting huge American and Christian flags. An hour later, when I pulled up to the Winona Holiday Inn, I remembered the huge metal cross constructed right next to the hotel. The cross is surrounded by dozens of granite signs covered with copious quotations from the Bible. In front of the cross, there are two bits from the book of Romans. The first begins, “The wages of sin is death;” the second reads, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Fannie Lou Hamer knew all about the wages of sin. Like Jesus and the Apostle Paul she bore the marks of sin and death on her own body. And, like Jesus and the Apostle, she didn’t suffer for her own sin. She bore the sin of Winona, Montgomery County, the state of Mississippi, and these United States of America.
And now, if the Washington Post is to be believed, Winona has acknowledged her sin. At least in part. Will it take another 60 years for this small Mississippi town to acknowledge what it did to Curtis Flowers?
I was looking forward to seeing the mighty Mississippi. But when I approached the bridge, the wind came up and an angry cloud dominated the horizon. By the time I made my crossing, the rain was falling so hard, the traffic had slowed to a crawl. Was this a warning? I choose to think not. Even the angriest of storms eventually pass. May it be so in Mississippi!