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Fannie Lou Hamer and Student Anti-War Activism

On August 7, 1971, hundreds of anti-war activists and protestors gather in Atlanta’s Hurt Park, a downtown area co-owned by Georgia State University and the city of Atlanta.  The protestors hear speeches by Anti-War Movement demonstrators, Black Panther Party members, and by the African American woman highlighted in this WSB clip: the grassroots organizer, Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party delegate, and prominent civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer

Hamer hailed from Sunflower County, Mississippi, a town tucked inside one of the poorest and most segregated areas in the South, the Mississippi Delta.  She was well known around the country for her cutting rhetoric and impassioned pleas for social justice.  Her appearance at this anti-war rally symbolizes the convergence of the Anti-War and Civil Rights Movements.  As can be discerned in her comments, the ideals of self-determination and individual liberty that had infused the Civil Rights Movement were now used in speaking out against what many believed to be an unjust and imbalanced war.

Hamer and others who opposed the Vietnam War saw it as merely another extension of racist American policy, foreign and domestic.  Anti-war demonstrators felt that the injustices suffered by the peoples of Vietnam at the hands of American soldiers, like those in the My Lai Massacre, mirrored the subjugation of African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color throughout American history.  Furthermore, the anti-war movement blamed the Vietnam War for funneling resources away from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, a part of his Great Society initatives, so that soldiers were being asked to sacrifice their lives for a government which failed to take care of many of its citizens’ basic needs.

Like Hamer, many anti-war protestors, such as Students for A Democratic Society president Tom Hayden, had been civil rights activists in the early 1960s.  Some of these white activists, like Abbie Hoffman, were originally members of SNCC, but they turned to the anti-war cause in 1965 when SNCC purged itself of its white membership.  The anti-war protestors were therefore familiar with the tactics of nonviolent resistance in street protests.

By the late 1960s, however, anti-war protestors had also acquired a variety of new and different techniques, including bombings of federal buildings, such as were committed by SDS spin-off, the Weather Underground, attacks on ROTC buildings across college campuses, or the more nonviolent Guerrilla Theater techniques seen in this WSB-TV clip.  Dressed in military regalia, students storm upon the peaceful rally and replicate an offensive strike.  Guerilla Theater became popular in the early 1970s, especially among Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW), as a means of offering the civilian and voting public a perspective on the War that was not a tool of Presidential or Congressional politicking but that was founded in the experiences of soldiers.  Guerrilla Theater was a way of peacefully bringing the War home to American soil so that the public might be more interested in helping to end it. 

A less melodramatic tactic used by Vietnam veterans with this same end in mind was to initiate dialogues with the American public. In fact, the year this WSB clip was filmed, the documentary Winter Soldier (1971) was created.  Winter Soldier documents a press conference, organized by anti-war and VVAW activists across the country, in which former GI’s, including former U.S. Senator John Kerry, discuss their indoctrination into the armed forces, the inhumanities they participated in while serving in Vietnam, and how the War had altered their lives upon their return.  Networks refused to air the program. 

This rally led by Hamer calls attention to how public dissent and civil disobedience have been central to the history of American activism.  In 1866, Henry David Thoreau's posthumously published essay Civil Disobedience (originally published as Resistance to Civil Government in 1849) declared the following:

  • A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.

It was not the intent of the civil rights or Vietnam Era activists to topple America as a nation, but to hold it to its national values of equality, peace, and justice.  This moment in Atlanta's civil rights history demonstrates as well how the Movement evolved to embrace global issues: for example, the oppression of minorities in Asia and Africa, the enslavement and second-class treatment of women, and the suffering of classes of people due to hunger, torture, poverty, and ignorance. 

As with the Civil Rights Movement, the media heightened Americans' focus on the war.  Like the street protests and sit-ins, it was the first war that entered Americans' living rooms.  However, the anti-war activists felt that their fellow citizens watching the war unfold on television might still not grasp the true gravity and scope--especially given the mounting numbers of casualties.  So an integral part of their anti-war agenda was to make what they considered the fiasco of Vietnam a visceral and visible experience: on street corners, in public parks such as this one, and on college campuses.

Suggested Resources (click here)

Discussion Questions

1.  Research epithets employed against the North Vietnamese during the War.  How do these racial monikers mirror or contrast with those used against African Americans, Native Americans, and other peoples of color in the United States.   

2. This story underscores how Civil Rights Movement leaders like Hamer could be effective spokespersons on behalf of the Anti-War Movement.  Is it effective when contemporary anti-war groups enlist public figures such as John Kerry, Jane Fonda, or Martin Sheen to speak out in support of their positions? Why or why not?

3. What is lost or gained by dividing 1960s social “Movements” into distinct categories: such as civil rights, anti-war, women's rights, gay rights

Take it to the Streets!

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was well known for his appreciation of a good joke.  In the later 1960s and 1970s, anti-war activists used humor to grab the public's attention, including puppet shows, skits, mock funerals, and cartoons in their demonstrations against the government's support and funding of the conflict.  Look at one week's worth of political cartoons in your local or school newspaper, or, using the keyword "Vietnam War," peruse the Clifford H. Baldowski Collection of political cartoons in the Digital Library of Georgia.  How do these cartoons use humor effectively to raise conversations and debates about social issues?  Compose a political cartoon of your own that invites readers to think about an issue that affects you.

Writer: Aggie Ebrahimi  
Editors: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Researchers: Aggie Ebrahimi, Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems

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