There are many interesting similarities between Fannie Lou Hamer, who led her small Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation one day to the U.S. House to lobby for a challenge and Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, who was already a U.S. Representative when she challenged. Both women are first generation political activists. Fannie Lou Hamer was a Mississippi sharecropper whose parents were also sharecroppers who lived in an overtly racist Mississippi society that denied their family living wage. Chana Kai Lee, a biographer of Fannie Lou Hamer writes of her family:
“Sometime between 1928 and 1929, James Lee Townsend [Hamer’s father] and his family momentarily broke the cycle of perpetual indebtedness and cleared enough to purchase their own wagons, cultivators, plows, and even livestock—three mules (Ella, Bird, and Henry) and two cows (Mullen and Della). Evidence of the Townsends’ upward mobility was no secret to the members of the community, including its white members. Late one evening a white man sneaked up to their animal trough and poured into the stock feed a gallon of poison known as Paris green [killing all their animals]…the poisoning dashed any hopes the family had of achieving self-sufficiency…Life became increasingly difficult after this tragedy…Fannie Lou had to drop out of school at the end of the sixth grade and began full-time, year-round fieldwork to help her family survive. In spite of the tragedy, according to Hamer, the Townsends mended their spirits and continued on, but all was not forgotten in her heart. She remembered, ‘I watched them [her parents] suffer and I got angry.’”[i]
Like Hamer, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones also grew up in the working class affected. She says: “my dad was a skycap for United Airlines and my mom was a factory worker for American Greetings. I came from a working class family.” Political scientist Richard Fenno wrote that the family in which Stephanie Tubbs-Jones grew up “did not know poverty but they knew discrimination:
My mother had a two-year teaching degree from Alabama State, came here [in Ohio], and couldn’t get a chance to teach, worked in a factory or wherever she could get work…My father retired after thirty years of carrying bags for United Airlines, because at the age of sixty four, he could not stand one more person calling him ‘boy.’”[ii]
The similarities between the upbringing of Fannie Lou Hamer and Stephanie Tubbs-Jones provide backgrounds to their ambitions to challenge the Congressional seating of candidates in 1965 and 2005. Both brought legitimate cases of voter disenfranchisement after being raised in a family that had experienced racism, as all African-Americans at that time had. In 1965, Fannie Lou Hamer along with Victoria Gray-Adams and Annie Devine ran to become U.S. Representatives from their districts. However, they lost in the 1964 national election due to a case of what they believed was voter disenfranchisement. Less than two months later, they traveled to Washington, D.C. to present documented evidence of voter disenfranchisement along with the actual legal documents that proved that racial discrimination at the polls was an infraction of the law. On January 4, 1965, they approached U.S. Representative William F. Ryan, asking him in his role as a U.S. Representative to challenge the seating of the five white male U.S. Representatives that were voted for in an election that they claimed discriminated against blacks. William Ryan, agreed, challenged their being given the oath. After successfully lobbying U.S. Representative William F. Ryan, the MFDP then proceeded to inform the public about this Congressional Challenge.
The decision to make a concerted effort to inform the public about this Congressional Challenge follows Gene Sharp’s nine step framework of nonviolent activism. It is the third step of the nine step framework, after first having an investigation of alleged grievances and second having stating the desired changes. The investigation of alleged grievances was documented in 1964 by COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations. In a three day period in Mississippi, COFO totaled these events: June 21 in Brandon: Molotov cocktail explodes in basement of Sweet Rest Church of Christ Holiness; McComb: homes of two civil rights workers planning to house summer volunteers bombed; Meridian: three civil rights workers [Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney] missing after a short trip to Philadelphia; Clarksdale: four volunteers arrested on vagrancy charges while engaged in voter registration work; Brandon: negro youth killed in a hit-and-run accident; Jackson: shots fired at the home of Reverend R.L.T. Smith; Moss Point: Knights of Pythias Hall [has been] firebombed; Jackson: white car fires shot at Henderson’s café; three shots fired, hitting one Negro in the head twice; Ruleville: Look and Time reporters who are covering a voter rally at Williams Chapel are chased out of town by a car [and] early next morning, nine Negro homes [are] hit by bottles thrown from a similar car…[In 1964], the summer’s statistics were staggering: six killed, eighty beaten, one thousand arrested, thirty seven black churches and thirty one black homes burned or dynamited.”[iii] This completes Sharp’s first step. Sharp’s second step of formulating a statement of desired changes was made clear in their publicized ambition to unseat the U.S Representatives from Mississippi. Their work followed the fourth step of Sharp’s framework which is a distinct effort at negotiation, through personal meetings and letters, as well as a clarification of minimum demands, the fifth step, which for MFDP became the demand to have a vote on whether to seat and whether to unseat these Mississippi congressmen. This campaign included significant protest element, with numerous arrests in Jackson of people showing their support for the MFDP. The MFDP also went to great lengths to publicize the voter disenfranchisement of their fellow Mississippians by demanding that the House clerk Ralph Roberts print thousands of pages of testimonies of Mississippi voters about their experience. Roberts at first refused saying that the documents were not properly certified, however he eventually relented and gave three 1,000 page volumes of these testimonies to the speaker of the U.S. House.[iv]
Despite the MFDP’s adherence to a nonviolent activist framework that included not only the persuasion phase but a protest phase as well, these white male Representatives from Mississippi were still seated on a technicality and that year, the U.S. House officially dismissed Hamer’s Congressional Challenge, citing that the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was passed a month prior to the formal challenge and henceforth offered sufficient voter protection.[v] Kay Mills writes that the Democratic Party, like the rest of the Congress in 1965, seemed much more inclined to prohibit future discrimination rather than act against past discrimination, especially when it members feared the precedent that ousting the Mississippi representatives might set. This proved a pattern of white racist oppression not only during the 1964 presidential election in Mississippi, but a pattern that lasted throughout the entire year of 1964, extensively recorded by the umbrella organization of all civil rights groups, COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), and retold by Eric Burner. It was this pattern to which the MFDP sought to bring national attention. The MFDP was organized to bring this kind of white racist oppression to national attention and create a legal basis for mounting their Congressional Challenge in January of 1965.
On January 6, 2005, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones released a press statement about 2005 Congressional Challenge that protesting Bush’s receipt of the Ohio’s electoral votes after the 2004 presidential election, saying that she “object[s] to the counting of the electoral votes of the State of Ohio on the ground that they were not, under all the known circumstances regularly given.” This challenge was meant to protest the results of the 2004 presidential election and contains incidents of voter intimidation that were certainly less brutal yet undeniably effective when compared to the voter intimidation and disenfranchisement that existed during the 1964 presidential election. In this press statement, Tubbs-Jones writes:
I thank God that I have a Senator [Boxer] joining me in this objection. It is imperative that we object to the counting of Ohio’s electorate votes…poor and minority communities had disproportionately long waits—4 to 5 hours waits were widespread. Election Protection Coalition testified that more than half of the complaints about long lines they received “came from Columbus and Cleveland where a huge proportion of the state’s Democratic voters live. One entire polling place in Cuyahoga County (Greater Cleveland) had to “shut down” at 9:25 a.m. on Election Day, because there were no working machines…the Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell who served as co-Chair of the Bush re-election campaign, issued a bizarre series of directives in the days preceding the 2004 presidential election that created a tremendous confusion among voters in Cuyahoga county and across the state of Ohio. For example, [he] issued a bizarre series of directives local boards of elections mandating rejection of voter registration forms based on their paperweight—80 pound text weight. Mr. Blackwell’s issuance of this directive—which he ultimately reversed by September 28, 2004, resulted in serious confusion and chaos among the counties and voters. My objection points to the need to implement across this nation standards that apply to all states. We need to enact legislation that will: allow all voters to vote early so that obligations of employment and family will not interfere with the ability to cast a vote. [We need to enact legislation that will] provide equipment—whether it is the traditional punch card or the more modern electronic machines that are properly calibrated, fully tested for accuracy and provide a paper trail to ensure a verifiable audit of every vote.[vi]
The demands that Stephanie Tubbs-Jones calls for in her role as U.S. Representative are undoubtedly at the end of a long line of nonviolence, of which Fannie Lou Hamer’s 1965 Congressional Challenge is a part. Both Congressional Challenges ironically and symbolically, depended on the consciences of white U.S. Congresspersons: Ms. Hamer’s depended on William F. Ryan, and Ms. Tubbs-Jones’ challenge depended on U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. In 2000 however, no U.S. Senator was willing to sign to formally allow a debate about the delegates. Barbara Boxer admits to being asked by Al Gore not sign to allow a debate in 2000 and expresses regret that she followed that request. However in 2004, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer allowed the official challenge to be debated. Like the 2000 presidential election, the electoral college results of the 2004 presidential election centered around one state: Ohio. After Stephanie Tubbs Jones brought the debate to the House floor, the decision to still grant the Ohio delegates to Bush was still made after a formal re-counting ceremony where Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell hosted and Dick Cheney attended.
The congressional office of John Conyers has prepared a report on the presidential election results in Ohio entitled What Went Wrong In Ohio: The Conyers Report on the 2004 Presidential Election. This report exposes striking similarities between the purveyors or executors of Jim Crow disenfranchisement in 2004 and disenfranchisement during 1965 in Mississippi. In 1965 those who carried out the most disenfranchisement were the local police officers, the election circuit clerks, and the local judges. In 2004 in Ohio there are two main executors of Jim Crow disenfranchisement: the voting machine companies and Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who also happened to work for the Bush/Cheney campaign in 2004. According to the Conyers report, “there was a wide discrepancy [in Ohio] between the availability of voting machines in heavily Minority, Democratic and urban as compared to heavily Republican, suburban and exurban areas.”[vii] The programming software for many voting machines was provided by Diebold whose CEO, Walden O’Dell is a member of George W. Bush’s Pioneer and Ranger team, and has visited the Crawford ranch and wrote a letter promising to deliver the electoral votes of Ohio.[viii] Not only does this speak to voter disenfranchisement via voting machine programming, it also speaks to the media spectacle or circus of the presidential “election.” When a CEO guarantees to deliver a state’s entire electoral college votes to a president, the aspects of presidential elections, that seem to actually be publicity campaigns giving the impression that the U.S. is a real democracy, are then raised. Another voting machine company employed whose machines were notorious for having its votes easily manipulated is Triad GSI. Triad is controlled by the Rapp family and its founder Brett A. Rapp has been a consistent contributor to the Republican causes; an affiliate of this group supplied the notorious butterfly ballot used in Palm Beach County, Florida, in the 2000 presidential election.[ix] Through these corporations’ desires for infinite profit, they continue the Jim Crow voter discrimination that disenfranchised tens of thousands of black voters in Mississippi. Former Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell also functioned to continue Jim Crow discrimination in 2004. As Tubbs-Jones, stated, he ordered outrageous directives or binding regulations that made the vote count process more difficult for Ohio county supervisors. His directive to that voter registration forms be printed on 80 pound paper was one that Blackwell himself did not even follow. In addition, Blackwell on election day of 2004 issued Republican poll challengers who caused long delays and long waits in voting lines. These poll challengers had the legal right to investigate vote counting procedures at their will. However according to the Conyers report: “two federal district court judges…found the challenge procedure to be problematic and tantamount to voter disenfranchisement. In one lawsuit, the plaintiffs were Donald and Marian Spencer, an elderly African American couple who alleged that the challenge statute hearkened back to Jim Crow disenfranchisement.”[x]
Ms. Hamer’s challenge calling for the seating of the U.S. Representatives was dismissed on the grounds of a law that was passed months after the disenfranchisement while Ms. Tubbs-Jones challenge that called for a simple debate, was just that: a debate, with Ohio’s electoral votes still going to Bush. What Ms. Hamer’s challenge represented, however, is the uncompromising political stance in support of the voting rights and the rights of those in poorer socioeconomic classes to make a living. What Ms. Tubbs-Jones challenge has represented is the way that the struggle to end voter disenfranchisement continues, with those who insist on using a nonviolent method to try and win that struggle, not only as a legislator, but as a challenger.
Richard Fenno characterizes Stephanie Tubbs-Jones and other CBC members Louis Stokes and Chaka Fattah in a similar way: “the [Congressional] voting records of Stokes, Fattah, and Tubbs Jones track closely with one another and with the voting records of their fellow African Americans from northern urban centers. For them, the core socioeconomic agenda, to alleviate poverty, unemployment, and discrimination and to promote health care, housing, and education—is dominant, settled, and noncontroversial.”[xi] Noncontroversial is exactly how Ms. Hamer fought for civil rights. Voting rights in her mind and on many policy issues is a noncontroversial issue: you are either for it or against it. Without the activism of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, that forced the Democratic party on a national level to begin to integrate their convention delegations, and eventually their party’s state and national representatives, African-Americans probably would not have become U.S Representatives in the mass numbers they had. From another perspective, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones is the fulfillment of Fannie Lou Hamer’s activism. She is the reason Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray-Adams, and Annie Devine traveled to Washington, D.C.—not only to represent fellow Mississippians but to expose the racist political system to the entire nation during a national broadcast, of her dramatic testimony at the 1964 Democratic credentials committee, of her being beaten for helping other blacks register to vote. After the broadcast, President Johnson received thousands of letters and from that moment, Mississippi as well as other southern states included more black delegates. However Stokely Carmichael also suggests that were it not for Fannie Lou Hamer’s presence in Washington, clamoring for her Congressional Challenge to be heard, the Voting Rights Act, passed in August of 1965.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the MFDP and the CBC is related to their longevity. Robert Moses who conceived the idea of the MFDP noted that he never meant for it to last longer than its struggle against the Johnson administration. As opposed to the one presidential administration that the MFDP confronted, the CBC has experienced remarkable longevity after confronting the Ford, Carter, Reagan, First Bush, Clinton, and Second Bush administration. Each presidential administration in its own way, like the Johnson Administration has expressed in their behavior or through their public statements “paternalistic and condescending” views towards the CBC. With Nixon, it was ignoring the CBC for twelve months, after which time Nixon agreed to meet with them only after being implored to do so by then U.S. Senator Edward Brooke, the lone African American Republican in the Senate. With Ford, it was defending the insensitive remarks by vice president Spiro T. Agnew who stated that black leaders in America could “learn much” from Jomo Kenyatta, Haile Selassie and Joseph Mobutu who were, to a significant degree, dictatorial leaders in Africa.[xii] With Carter and Reagan it was their intransigence against making a federal Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday; William Clay writes that “it took fifteen arduous years to realize the dream of establishing a national holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King. [John] Conyers efforts were stymied in four successive presidential administrations: those of Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. Three of the presidents openly opposed the bill. The other, Jimmy Carter, was much more subtle but equally effective in blocking its passage. His hidden agenda was more detrimental than the others because it was less known but, in effect, just as callous.”[xiii]
The first Bush administration exposed their white racism and their condescending attitude toward blacks in their use of Willie Horton as the quintessential violent man in their political ads. The icon of the criminal Willie Horton was used to imply that Bush’s democratic opponent was soft on crime and would consequently let more criminals like Horton commit crimes. This ultimately scared many Americans into voting for Bush at the beginning of the 1990s. Joe Feagin, Hernan Vera, and Pinar Batur write that between 1988 and 1993, no fewer than 148 speeches or extensions of remarks in the Congressional Record, many of them by CBC members, contained references to the Horton ads.[xiv] These comments expressed disappointment at the way Bush was using a stereotype of the black criminal to win votes. With Clinton, Feagin, Vera, and Batur write that his actions regarding two talented black women, Sister Souljah and Lani Guinier, reveal a president who often pays more heed to the racial concerns of the majority of white Americans than to the desires for empowerment of the majority of African Americans. In both cases, he took the side of the mainstream media in attacking misrepresentations of both Souljah and Guinier. With Souljah, Clinton supported the notion of the mainstream media that Souljah herself advocated killing whites, based on a quote that was taken out of context; Souljah was not expressing her personal point of view but was attempting to justify the killings of whites by blacks during the Los Angeles riots. With Guinier, Clinton declined from defending her from attacks by conservatives who called her a “quota queen.” These relentless public attacks that went unchecked or unaddressed by Clinton created an upset CBC, which he satiated to some degree by appointing Dr. Mary Frances Berry as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by 1996. In the second Bush administration, the CBC has witnessed the very deliberate packing of the commission by the administration with very conservative ideologues such as Peter Kirsanow and Gerald Reynolds who announced that racial discrimination does not exist anymore. This dismantling not only saw the withdrawal of Berry but also the staggering decrease of funding the commission has received, which has rendered its work all but ineffective. Feagin, Vera and Batur writes that white racism is a centuries-old system intentionally designed to exclude Americans of color from full participation in the economy, polity, and society; it is a system of oppression of African Americans and other people of color by white Europeans and white Americans.[xv] The longevity of the CBC despite the exercise of white racist power by several presidential administrations is a testament to the power of its very critical cohesiveness. The CBC is more likely to act as a cohesive body when the president and the CBC do not share the same policy initiatives, usually during Republican administrations.[xvi] The function of this cohesive body is crucial to political representation of African Americans. The research of Charles E. Jones in 1980 has argued that the CBC is most cohesive on social issues such as civil rights, education, benefits, health, housing, and law and order issues.[xvii] Jones adds that “a prolonged and insidious history of dehumanizing discrimination has resulted in the feeling of a shard history and the recognition, among most black elected officials, of the need to undertake extra representational responsibilities.”[xviii] However several members of the CBC today can still stand to learn the lessons that those in the MFDP taught, in terms of refusing to compromise. The Johnson administration, in the presentation of its “compromise,” functions a lot like the corporate lobby in the U.S. House today in its ambition to persuade party members to make political choices that undoubtedly oppress those Americans in the lowest socioeconomic classes. Writer Glen Ford has reported in April 2005 that the corporate lobbying of the U.S. House during the Bush administration has been one of the most historic threats to cohesiveness of the Congressional Black Caucus. Three climactic bills during this month were passed that were corporation-friendly bills but had detrimental effects on the lowest socioeconomic classes of Americans. The surprising support or votes for these bills signaled for Glen Ford “a cataclysmic collapse of African American electoral leadership, to which progressive blacks within and outside the Caucus must respond—or be rendered irrelevant by their own inaction.” The collapse can be seen as cataclysmic particularly because fifteen of the CBC’s then 43 members, over one third of the caucus, voted for the detrimental April 2005 bills. These three bills: the bankruptcy bill, the estate tax bill, and the energy bill were detrimental in their own specific way. The bankruptcy bill puts limits on the ability to file for bankruptcy, which allows more venues for creditors to harass those in the working class. The Estate tax bill passed in April of 2005 repealed the estate tax, so the riches billionaires and millionares can have the luxury of another tax break. The Energy bill makes it tougher to block offshore oil drilling and shields oil companies from costly lawsuits. Of the fifteen CBC members that voted for one or more of these bills, U.S. Representatives William Jefferson, Sanford Bishop, David Scott, and Albert Wynn voted for all three of these detrimental bills. Their vote indicates the success of what Thom Hartmann calls the “corporatocracy” that in their drive for infinite profit will ultimately erode the ability of the middle class to be able to maintain a living. This is why this thesis has focused on the work of select U.S. Representatives such as Barbara Lee, Chaka Fattah, Maxine Waters, John Conyers, Charlie Rangel, and Stephanie Tubbs-Jones because it aims to celebrate the resistance against neoconservative and neoliberal policies that have attempted to reverse the gains made by the civil rights movement.
[i] Lee, Chana Kai. For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998:15
[ii] Fenno, Richard F. Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003: 192.
[iii] Burner, Eric. And Gently He Shall Lead Them: Robert Parris Moses and Civil Rights in Mississippi. New York: New York University Press, 1994: pages 163-164, 168.
[iv] Mills, Kay, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. New York: Dutton, 1993: page 162.
[v] Mills, Kay, page 171
[vi] Tubbs-Jones, Stephanie. “Congresswoman Tubbs Jones Objects to Certification of Ohio’s Electoral Votes,” Press Release, January 6, 2005. http://www.house.gov/tubbsjones
[vii] The Conyers Report on the 2004 election, page 18.
[viii] The Conyers Report on the 2004 election, page 59.
[ix] The Conyers Report on the 2004 election, page 82..
[x] The Conyers Report on the 2004 election, pages 30, 31, 38.
[xi] Fenno, Richard F. Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003: page 220.
[xii] Clay, Wililam. Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress 1870-1992. New York: Amistad (HarperCollins), 1993: page 181.
[xiii] Clay, page 98.
[xiv] Feagin, Joe. White Racism: The Basics. page 171.
[xv] Feagin, White Racism, pages 2-3.
[xvi] Neil Pinney and George Serra. “The Congressional Black Caucus and Vote Cohesion: Placing the Caucus Within House Voting Patterns” Political Research Quarterly. 52:3 (September 1999): 603.
[xvii] Charles E. Jones. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall: An Analysis of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Voting Behavior, 1975-1980.” Phylon 48:1 (1987): 32, 27.
[xviii] Charles E. Jones. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall: An Analysis of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Voting Behavior, 1975-1980.” Phylon 48:1 (1987): 32, 27.