Lessons from a Civil Rights Pioneer

I finished reading a book recently titled, “All the Way Home”, by Ann Tatlock. It tells the story of two women who experience the challenges of racism and the cruel behaviors that often accompany white nationalism. The first half of the book takes place in California near the beginning of World War Two and depicts the struggle of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The second half takes place in rural Mississippi in 1965 and paints a stark picture of the treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow south, especially their struggle to realize the right to vote. It was a good read.

As I was nearing the end of the book the other evening, I turned to my wife, Rachel, and told her that the author had just written about a civil rights icon from rural Mississippi named, Fannie Lou Hamer. Not only was she an actual civil rights leader from the 1960’s and 70’s, but I had spent a week in 1971 staying across the street from her modest home and sitting in her living room every evening, listening to Fannie Lou and her husband, Pap, tell stories about their difficult but amazing lives. There were still bullet holes in the walls facing the street. In 1971, violence directed at civil rights leaders in Mississippi was not something from the distant past. I’ll share more about Fannie Lou Hamer in a bit. But first, I’ll try to explain what brought me to be sitting on her living room floor along with a bunch of other idealistic young people that Spring.

In the Summer of 1970 I was getting ready for my junior year in high school. Richard Nixon was the president. The military draft/lottery was still in full-swing and impacted most families. My brother, Bill, just two years older than me, had enlisted in the Navy and was in basic training in Illinois. He would begin his first tour of duty in Viet Nam a few months later. My brother, Jerry, was working for the Wisconsin National Guard and had trained as an Army nurse. My oldest brother, John, had enlisted in the Air Force following college and was stationed in San Angelo, Texas, learning to use radio equipment. The Air Force had sent him to school to learn Chinese and would eventually send him to Taiwan. His job would be to listen for interesting radio messages being broadcast from mainland China. John reports that there weren’t any.

It was a turbulent time in Madison, Wisconsin, with protests in the streets and student strikes on campus. In August of that Summer, Sterling Hall, a building on the UW campus that housed the Army Math Research Center, was bombed, killing a graduate student. The bombing was carried out by four college-aged men living in Madison. More than any other time in my young life, it felt like the world was falling apart.

Some of my closest friends at school were from the debate team. About half were in my class and the others, the class next older. We thought of ourselves as worldly intellectuals. We read books and the daily papers. We kept up with happenings at the university and spent lots of our free-time on campus. We attended some meetings of student groups opposed to the war and even tried to organize a student union in the Madison area high schools. Through a summer debate camp (yes, they really did have summer camps for debaters) I got to know several students from Madison West High School. They shared many of my ideas, dreams, and anxieties about the future. And I thought they were very cool. Several of them were involved in an organization called, Young World Development. YWD was a non-profit organization, formed to fight global hunger. It seemed to be led by students, and they were in the beginning stages of organizing a huge fundraiser. Over the course of a few weeks, I attended some meetings, did a bunch of volunteer work, and put my debate and public speaking skills to good use.

The leadership of YWD was made up mostly of students from the west-side high schools. I think they wanted to diversify and expand into some of the east-side schools. They asked me to take on a leadership position for the event. So, at the age of 15, I joined with a young man named, Rick Kreutzer, as the Co-coordinators of the 1970 “Walk for Development”. I had never had a part-time job. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t have much of an idea of what I was getting myself into. But fighting hunger seemed like a good quest. And I think I mentioned, the people seemed really cool.

Looking back on the experience, I am amazed at what our group of enthusiastic, young volunteers was able to accomplish. There was no “adult” infrastructure or supervision. There were no paid employees. All leadership was provided by high school students, and we operated like a small company. Committees were established to conduct the complex work required to pull off a major fundraising event. These included fund raising, finance, media and public relations, walk mechanics, and community development. The fundraising efforts would put most non-profits to shame, especially in the area of obtaining in-kind donations. A commercial real estate company helped us find donated office space in downtown Madison. The telephone company donated a phone system and multiple lines. Madison Gas and Electric covered all other utilities. Local businesses donated furniture, copying equipment, and office supplies. I should mention that the Chair of the Community Development Committee was a senior from Madison Memorial High School named, Sue Dodge. Some of my friends and readers may know her!

The Walk for Development was a 30-mile fundraising walk. Participants would get monetary pledges for each mile they completed. A route was designed that wound through most Madison-area municipalities. Permits were required by each city, and close cooperation was required with the various police departments. This was essential since our goal was to get 10,000 people to walk. That would be the largest event of this type in Madison’s history.

Over the course of the summer, we interviewed non-profit organizations interested in being the beneficiaries of our hard work. Sometimes organizations would visit our office to make a presentation to our leadership team (all students). Sometimes we traveled to other cities or states to visit and evaluate programs. Our goal was to raise $100,000.00 and divide it between three projects. There would be one local project, one national project, and one international project. In the end, the local project was a Madison food co-op. The international project was helping build a school in Tanzania. The national project chosen was the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Sunflower County was one of the poorest counties in the United States, and the person who started the Freedom Farm Cooperative was Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer

The Walk for Development was held on a sunny Sunday in October. We reached our goal of 10,000 walkers. The walk started at Breese Stevens Field, a sports stadium on East Washington Avenue in Madison. I had the honor of welcoming the walkers and introducing U.S. Representative Robert Kastenmeier, who said a few words of encouragement and sent us on our way. I walked the 30 miles with a friend, David Clarenbach. Dave was the Chair of the PR Committee and was a natural salesman. He would later become the youngest person ever elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature, and a few years later would make an unsuccessful run for the U.S. House of Representatives. It took us all day to complete the route. We stopped for a quick bowl of chili at my house in Monona. For years afterward, Mom would talk about fixing lunch for David Clarenbach, before he became famous.

During Spring break in 1971, I traveled with a small group of people to Ruleville, in Sunflower County, Mississippi to visit the Freedom Farm Cooperative. We had the chance to see how our donation was being put to use in purchasing farm equipment. We also brought tools of our own and spent a few days helping repair some older homes in the community. We were put up by local residents. The older woman I stayed with lived across the street from Fannie Lou Hamer and her husband, Pap. In the evenings after dinner, we would gather at Fannie Lou’s home and spread out across the braided, living room rug. Fannie Lou would share stories about growing up as the youngest of 20 children, in a sharecropper family on a cotton plantation. She described having to drop out of school at the age of 12 to work in the cotton fields. Fannie talked about her experiences in the early civil rights movement, fighting to register to vote and being shot at, arrested, and beaten because of her activities. We were amazed that she had gone from being denied the basic right to vote in the early 1960’s, to running as a democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, a few years later. We learned about the forming of the Freedom Farm Cooperative and the work to change the economic model and improve the employment opportunities for agricultural workers in the region. For me as a sheltered high school student from a comfortable suburban community, this was an eye-opening experience.

Fannie Lou Hamer died in 1977, at the age of 59.

Rachel and I talk almost every day about the troubled times that we live in. We are bombarded by news stories about climate change, gun violence, racism, white nationalism, and corruption of our nation’s leaders. Sometimes it feels kind of hopeless. What can two people do that will impact on the myriad of problems that we face? But then I think about the accomplishments of a group of idealistic kids from Madison, Wisconsin. There are groups of kids organizing campaigns today to curb gun violence and to protect our planet. Maybe we can help the young people lead!

I also think about the courage, perseverance, and wisdom of a simple woman from rural Mississippi. There is a whole crop of new, progressive political leaders, ready to take up the mantle of civil rights pioneers like Fannie Lou Hamer.

Maybe there is still hope!


  1. Ed says

    I Remember. I was there with you in 71… In 1992 I coordinated a Presidential Campaign for one of the Democrat Candidates that ran against Bill Clinton in the Primaries.. I signed on in New Hampshire where I had been living since 81. Charles Woods needed my organizational skills. Charles Who? I know. Nobody remembers the also rans. I went all over the country with him. While at a speaking engagement at Notre Dame where half a dozen candidates declared and undeclared would present policy concepts. The candidates and their handlers had a room to themselves apart from the press. For two hours I sat across the table from Rev Jessie Jackson. As it turns out, He knew Fanny Lou Hamer too. I told him that I had been her guest for a few meals. She had a real good Fried Chicken recipe and she used to laugh out loud when I put sugar on my grits. He had stories of his own far more interesting. He had a cold that day and was drinking Orange Juice like it was going out of style. But when it was his turn to speak nobody could tell that he had a cold. That man could deliver a message. It was just a moment in time a realization that he who was somebody and me who was nobody both had been acquainted with this person from nowhere Mississippi of underestimated importance to the civil rights movement. There is an old Yiddish Proverb “He who saves one life, saves the world in time.” We know that all things we think, do and say are a cause set in motion. Do not underestimate your role as a 15 year old suburban kid and your part in bringing into being those Walks for Development. As Grandma used to say, You have cast your bread upon the waters. You will not know the full effect of that until all of time is done. I think you will be surprised. We think differently…But not completely differently We live purpose driven lives. Well written post my Brother…

  2. Ed says

    The Rich are Rich because the Poor are Poor was the YWD slogan…Nobody is right about Everything. In my 46 year working career I never worked for nor was ever contracted to work a project by a poor man…and I always got paid. A society does not function with out people with money. That said, A rising tide lifts all boats. I’m a praying man. When I pray about money, I ask God for Enough…plus a little. It’s all I need. By singular coincidence, That is how God answers. Enough…plus a little.

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