Civil rights pioneer Victoria Gray Adams has died at the age of 79. She was the co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party along with Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Devine. We play an excerpt of the documentary "Standing On My Sisters Shoulders" that chronicles the vital role played by women from Mississippi in the civil rights movement. [includes rush transcript]
Civil rights pioneer Victoria Gray Adams has died at the age of 79. She was the co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party along with Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Devine. In 1964 they attempted to unseat the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party delegation during the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
Victoria Gray Adams began her Civil Rights work in Hattiesburg Mississippi where she taught voter registration and literacy classes that assisted other African Americans to pass the voter registration test. At that time, although 30 per cent of Hattiesburg’s citizens were African Americans, only 50 of them had been allowed to register to vote.
Victoria Gray Adams later became the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate from Mississippi. She also served on the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by the Rev. Martin Luther King.
We turn to the documentary "Standing On My Sisters Shoulders." It chronicles the vital role played by women from Mississippi in the civil rights movement.
- "Standing On My Sisters Shoulders"–excerpt of * documentary* produced by Joan and Robert Sadoff and directed by Laura Lipson.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the documentary, Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders. It chronicles the vital role played by women from Mississippi in the Civil Rights Movement. It was produced by Joan and Robert Sadoff and directed by Laura Lipson. In the documentary, Victoria Gray Adams recalls the day in 1965 that she and Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Devine became the first African American women to ever be invited as a guest on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. They were there to complain about election fraud in Mississippi. This is Victoria Gray Adams.
VICTORIA GRAY ADAMS: There was this long passageway down to the House of Representatives that the congressmen walked through on their way to the chambers, and we had people lined up on both sides of that passageway wearing signs that simply spoke to our reason for being there. And nobody ever said a word or anything, as well. They just stood there. And every congressman that went into that House had to look at them on their way down.
One congressman was later heard to say that he really had not taken the challenge remotely seriously. But by the time he had walked down that passageway and looked at all those people standing there and read those signs that they were wearing, he realized that he had to respond. When we came into the hall, there was all these bald-headed white men sitting in the chambers.
NARRATOR: For the first time ever, three African American women would be seated on the floor of a U.S. House of Representatives.
VICTORIA GRAY ADAMS: It was such a victorious moment, walking down that aisle to our seats on the floor of the House of Representatives. But by far, the most beautiful sight for me was to look up in the galleries and see all of those Black faces who had come by busloads from Mississippi to see, to be there when we walked down the aisle.
NARRATOR: The challenge put pressure on President Johnson to secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American in his heart can justify.
NARRATOR: This groundbreaking legislation would greatly increase voter registration by eliminating poll taxes and literacy tests. But by addressing the MFDP’s claims it would undermine their efforts to unseat the congressmen.
VICTORIA GRAY ADAMS: But I, at no time, was ever prepared to have the challenge dismissed without being heard, and, quite frankly, my disappointment is much more than I can express at this time.
NARRATOR: Despite the dismissal, it served as a warning to the nation’s politicians.
REP. JONATHAN B. BINGHAM: They must avoid this illegal disfranchisement, and that in the future the House will look carefully at any cases where challenges are brought on these same grounds of wholesale disfranchisement of Negro voters.
NARRATOR: This challenge and these three women changed forever the way Mississippi politics would be run.
VICTORIA GRAY ADAMS: We created an atmosphere where the needed changes, where the unfinished agenda, could be done outside of a climate of fear.
NARRATOR: What was impossible just four years earlier became a reality in 1968, when an integrated party was seated at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago. These Mississippi delegates who had been previously denied a role in electing their leaders were now a voice for Mississippi.
AMY GOODMAN: Victoria Gray Adams died on Saturday. That, an excerpt of the documentary, Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders, chronicling the vital role women played in Mississippi in the Civil Rights Movement. The documentary was produced by Joan and Robert Sadoff, directed by Laura Lipson. Special thanks to Women Make Movies here in New York.