WINONA – It has been 59 years since Euvester Simpson returned to town where police arrested her and beat her and five voting rights activists in the old county jail.
The then 17-year-old remembers seeing Fannie Lou Hamer after the beating and how black and blue the woman’s hands were. Simpson treated Hamer’s injuries by applying a cold cloth to parts of his body.
On Thursday, a multiracial group came together to unveil a Mississippi Department of Archives and History historical marker at the old Montgomery County Jail at the corner of Oak Drive and Sterling Avenue. More than 100 people watched Simpson and Hamer’s daughter, Jacqueline Hamer Flakes, remove a cover from the scoreboard.
“By being here today, he accomplished what he was here to do,” Hamer Flakes said of the commemoration and historic milestone, which are part of his mother’s legacy.
The dedication kicked off four days of events called Bridging Winona, which aim to remember the jail violence and commemorate Hamer and voting rights activists.
“The Winona Bridge can be a model for other cities, not just in Mississippi, but across the country,” said Simpson, now 75.
Bridging Winona organizer Vickie Roberts-Ratliff, whose family has lived in Winona for six generations, was one of 10 people who worked with city officials to obtain the historical marker and organize the commemorative events.
“It’s about knowing what your history is,” he said. “It can be hard to peel it off, but it can be curative.”
Roberts-Ratliff was a child when Hamer and other activists were beaten up in jail, and she didn’t find out what happened in Winona until later in her life.
He previously tried to obtain a historical marker for Hamer at the site of the old jail, but those efforts were unsuccessful.
During last year’s municipal elections, a new mayor, Aaron Dees, and members of the Board of Aldermen were elected. She approached Dees, who agreed to work with her.
He agreed that the city was losing its way by failing to acknowledge what happened to Hamer and the activists. Dees said a historical marker should have been installed by now.
“This is a time to bring the entire community together — all racial backgrounds, all ethnic backgrounds,” he said. “Hopefully we can take this and get on with this.”
The marker now stands as a reminder of the infamous violent events that occurred here nearly 60 years ago. In 1963, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers Hamer, Simpson, Annell Ponder, June Johnson, James West, and Rosemary Freeman were returning by bus to Greenwood from a voter education workshop in South Carolina. Members of the group got off the bus when it stopped in Winona and went to a food counter where they were denied service. The bus terminal area was segregated and an attempt was made to integrate it.
A Mississippi Highway Patrol trooper tried to get the activists to leave. The local police arrived and arrested them. Hamer got off the bus to see what was going on with her classmates and she too was arrested.
Hamer Flakes, Hamer’s youngest and only surviving child, said in jail that her mother heard screaming and crying from 15-year-old activist Annelle Ponder, who refused to address officers as ‘sir’. She was beaten until her dress was soaked with blood, according to SNCC.
SNCC leader Lawrence Guyot, who came to jail to pay bail for the group, was also beaten.
A sheriff’s deputy beat Hamer with a club and then ordered two inmates at the jail to beat her with the club until they were too tired, Hamer Flakes said. The deputy also hit Hamer in the head, his daughter said.
Hamer suffered kidney and eye injuries from the violence that accompanied her for the rest of her life, her daughter said.
“It’s amazing how he came through that beating but came out stronger than ever,” Hamer Flakes said.
The United States Department of Justice put five Montgomery County law enforcement officers on trial. They were acquitted by an all-male, white jury in December 1963, according to SNCC.
Hamer was born in 1917 in Montgomery County and lived in Ruleville in Sunflower County. She was the daughter of sharecroppers and a former plantation worker who began organizing at age 40.
In 1962, Hamer and a group traveled to the Indianola courthouse to register to vote and took literary tests. The next day, she was fired from her job at the plantation.
Hamer joined SNCC and helped organize voter registration drives, including during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
He entered other forms of organizing, including through politics when he helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Hamer and the activists traveled to the 1964 Democratic National Convention and made a speech calling for recognition of the party. In his speech to the DNC, Hamer shared his experience of violence in Winona.
In Ruleville, he founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative to help black farmers grow produce so that they would be economically self-sufficient.
Hamer, who died in 1977, has been commemorated in Ruleville, including through a sign along the Mississippi Freedom Trail and a statue of her and a memorial garden where she and her husband Perry are buried. There is also the Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights Museum in Belzoni.
Land Literary and Legacy, an Oxford-based non-profit organization of which Roberts-Ratliff is a member, was part of organizing the Bridging Winona events. The goal of the group is to raise awareness of the importance of local and national history through education and community building.
In April, Dees signed a proclamation designating June 9 as Fannie Lou Hamer Day, the same day she and the activists were beaten in jail.
The goal is not to forget what happened in Winona, but to close and use the lessons of the past in the future, Dees said.
He hopes to see a day declared for Hamer at the state and national level. Hamer Flakes said he would like to see an annual Fannie Lou Hamer Day in Ruleville.
On Thursday, after the scoreboard was unveiled, the community celebrated at the Winona Community House with live music, food, and children’s activities. Oral history interviews were also conducted and people were able to register to vote.
A Friday morning event at the Winona Baptist Church focused on land ownership. Representatives from the US Food and Drug Administration and the National Park Service spoke on sustainable agriculture, forestry, economic development and other topics.
Other commemorative events planned for the weekend are:
- Saturday 8am-5pm: Fannie Lou Hamer Legacy Historic Bus Tour through the Delta. The cost is $95 and lunch is provided. Sign up for Eventbrite.
- Sunday 4 pm: Fannie Lou Hamer Community Health Service at Winona Baptist Church. This is a free event and registration on Eventbrite is suggested.