JUNE 9, 1963

Fannie Lou Hamer after being beaten in jail, June 1963. Credit: FBI photo

Returning from a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee training session in South Carolina, Fannie Lou Hamer and nine other civil rights movement activists dared to ride in the “white” section of a Greyhound bus and sit at the “whites-only” lunch counter inside the bus terminal in Winona, Mississippi. 

The police chief had them arrested. Inside the jail, activists Fannie Lou Hamer, June Johnson, Annell Ponder and Lawrence Guyot were all beaten. Jailers brought in two black inmates to torture Hamer, who called the violence “the most horrifying experience I’ve ever had in my life.” 

Euvester Simpson, who witnessed the brutal beating, nursed Hamer’s wounds and became even more dedicated to the movement.

Six months later, the Justice Department charged the police chief and sheriff with depriving the activists of their civil rights. Prosecutors held up the bloodstained clothes of Johnson and Hamer as evidence, while the defense lawyer declared, “You have agitators on one hand, and elected officials on the other, who shall you believe?” 

Some students from the University of Mississippi School of Law cut classes to watch, marveling at Hamer’s courage. “It was plain to us that she was telling the truth, and that the defense witnesses were lying,” recalled Avery Rollins, who became an FBI agent. 

Although the all-white jury acquitted the law enforcement officers on all counts, Hamer refused to stay silent. Months later, she testified before the Democratic Credentials Committee about her beating, moving a nation.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.