rita schwerner

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In the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or “Freedom Democrats” for short, was organized with the purpose of challenging Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention, which failed to represent all Mississippians.

The Freedom Democrats’ efforts drew national attention to the plight of African Americans in Mississippi, and represented a challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for reelection.

[For] the testimony before the Convention’s Credential Committee, the FDP had a lineup of different people: they had Rita Schwerner, wife of slain civil right’s worker Michael Schwerner, and they had Martin Luther King Jr., who every knew. But the highlight of the testimony was that of Fannie Lou Hamer, who was a sharecropper that was evicted from her plantation for trying to register to vote. She came to symbolize the Mississippi movement.

The testimonies were being broadcast live across America on major television networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC). President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was watching the testimonies, wasn’t scared of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s testimony; he was scared of Fannie Lou Hamer’s and didn’t want America to hear it. So Johnson holds an impromptu press conference, knowing the press would break away from Hamer’s testimony and cover what they thought was Johnson announcing who his choice for Vice President was going to be. Instead, Johnson announced the nine month anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the assassination attempt of Texas governor John Connally, leaving the press puzzled. By the time Johnson’s “conference” ended, Hamer was done delivering her testimony.

However, Johnson’s plan backfired when the press found out that his conference was held in order to take Hamer’s testimony off the air, which became a big story. This led the major news networks to air Hamer’s testimony on their late news programs and for the next few days, gaining national attention and support for the FDP’s movement.

Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech:

My husband, Michael Schwerner, did not die in vain. If he and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded.
—  Rita Schwerner