In the last post, I started looking at the ways that John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell depict Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech in front of the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Today, I want to finish looking at that sequence, focusing on the latter part of Hamer’s speech and moving into her interaction with Hubert H. Humphrey later during the evening. This sequence is important because it shows Hamer’s speech, in full. As well, it is important because it highlights the power of comics, breaking down a static moment, in this case Hamer sitting at the table delivering the speech, and expanding our focus, looking at everything that occurs in the scene. Powell does this through shifting the focus from Hamer’s face to her hands to the audience and to other focal points as she delivers her speech. He does this as well in books such as Any Empire where he deploys the same method as Lee and Sarah speak with one another.
After detailing how Marlow kicked Hamer and her family off of the plantation because she registered to vote, she moves to relay the racial violence enacted upon her and others because of her actions. She tells the audience, “That night, sixteen bullets were fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night, two girls were shot in Ruleville. Also, Mr. Joe McDonald’s house was shot at.” As Hamer speaks, Powell shows three panels, moving from the Tucker house to the girls to McDonald’s house. In the first panel, we see the door with bullet holes scattered over the surface. In the second panel, we see the smoking barrel of a shotgun following the shots that hit the girls. In the final panel, we see McDonald’s mailbox with bullet holes. While we do not see the victims, this progression takes us to the scenes of these violent acts and show us their impact, both physically on the space and psychologically because following this, we move to a horizontal panel of Hamer in front of the microphone against a black background.
Here, Hamer describes returning to Mississippi from a voter workshop in 1963 and getting arrested. This is where she begins to detail the physical and sexual violence she endured all because she registered to vote in Indianola. As she progresses with the story, talking about stopping to eat and getting arrested, Powell moves to an exterior view of the White House then to and interior view where President Lyndon Johnson watches the speech on a television as he screams, “Goddammit, are you watching this?” This movement from Atlantic City to Washington D.C. does two things, One, it links the moments because Johnson interrupted Hamer’s speech on national television, breaking in to mark the ninth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. Two, it highlights the reach of Hamer’s speech and the instantaneous manner in which it travelled over the airwaves, across the nation and across the world.
Over the course of the next two pages, Hamer goes into detail about the arrest, the beating and sexual assault she endured, and more. Powell begins, on the first page, with five horizontal panels moving down the page. We see, in the first and third, Hamer on the television delivering her speech as Johnson looks on screaming. The second and fourth panels show Johnson on the far right of the panel, looking towards the left and the television. We don’t see the television, and we only see a profile of Johnson’s face. We see his expression go from anger in the second panel, as he says, “We’ve got to get that woman off the television,” to shock in the fourth as Hamer talks about the woman getting beaten down the hall from Hamer’s cell. The final panel zooms out, showing Johnson grab his coat as he yells at his aids to call a press conference.
The next page has a five horizontal panel sequence, and the first three show Johnson getting ready for the press conference as Hamer’s words emanate from the television. In the fourth panel moves back to Atlantic City, with a focus on Hamer’s mouth as she relays what the officer told her as he beat her in the cell. The final panel moves out, showing Hamer in profile with the media lights around her. We see the top of her purse in the bottom of the panel, as it sits on the table. This movement, back from Washington D.C. to Atlantic City again shows the ways that the story traveled, the instantaneous movement from one space to millions of homes. It also shows the impact of Hamer’s story, even on the halls of power. Johnson’s response is self-serving, as we see later when Hamer speaks with Hubert Humphrey. He’s thinking about his own political standing, trying to maintain Southern Democrats’ votes. As such, he tries to stifle Hamer’s voice, supplanting it for his own. We see this on the next page where we see Lewis and others watching Hamer’s speech on a television down the hall from the conference room.
Here, we move from the television to Hamer’s eyes to a final panel splitting Hamer and Johnson. The final panel is powerful, showing the severing of the transmission and usurping of Hamer’s speech. In the top left, we see Hamer talking about her sexual assault, saying, “I pulled my dress down, and he pulled my dress back up.” In the bottom right, we see Johnson on the television as he talks about what happened nine months ago, in November 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX. A newscaster sits at the bottom left in the panel, and his words separate Hamer in the top left and Johnson in the bottom right. He says, “We will return to this scene in Atlantic City, but now we switch to the White House.” This speech bubble severs the speakers, separating them and silencing Hamer.
March does not continue with Johnson. Instead, we remain with Hamer as she concludes her speech, without the television streaming at this time. Powell finishes the speech with a four panel page where we move from a panel of Hamer’s head and shoulders to her face to her hands folded in front of her before moving to the final panel, sans borders, of a wide shot behind Hamer as we see news cameras to the right and the audience in front of her clapping. This movement, to Hamer’s hands, again shows her poise and strength. Her hands remain, as they did at the start of the speech, on the table, in full view. She doesn’t fidget underneath the table, nervously speaking her truth. No, she steadfastly speaks about her experiences. She showcases strength and resilience.
Hamer’s depiction in March is important. It shows how she impacted the movement, and it also shows her power, specifically the power of an individual’s lived experiences in the face of racism and oppression. It also shows tensions within the movement and the broader political landscape. Roy Wilkins called her “ignorant,” and Johnson interrupted her speech because he found it problematic. Hamer had limited education because she had to work in the fields to support her family. She didn’t even know she had the right to vote until she attended a SNCC meeting in 1962, when she was 44 years old. Two years later, she was running for congress and speaking in front of the Credentials Committee. She embodied the fact that education, class, and social status do not determine leadership, power, resilience, and strength.
In the next post, I will finish up my discussion of Hamer in March by looking at what happened following the speech and her interaction with Hubert H. Humphrey. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.