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'The Help' I knew cared more about voting rights than getting back at white ladies

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What concerned the help I met over the course of the summer was not embarrassing the white women they worked for – delicious as that thought might be – but real political power, beginning with voting rights. At least once a week, the family I was staying with, along with a number of other families from Indianola, drove to nearby Sunflower City for a meeting on voter registration that was presided over by Fannie Lou Hamer, who had gained national fame at the Democratic National Convention of 1964 as one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

At these weekly meetings, complaints about a mean white employer were never part of the discussion. Spending time on such a grievance would have been as pointless as grumbling about the hot Mississippi weather. Too much else was at stake to get sidetracked by what couldn’t be changed.

Although I was there two years after the famous Freedom Summer of 1964, Indianola, like the rest of Mississippi, was still a dangerous place. Racial tension was present everywhere, and most blacks were not yet on the voter rolls, as I quickly realized from going house to house, trying to put together a record of who was and was not registered. Earlier in the year, James Meredith, who in 1962 with the aid of federal marshals had entered Ole Miss and broken its color barrier, had been shot near Hernando, Miss., as he staged a one-man “March Against Fear.”

The woman in whose home I stayed that summer had all the risk she wanted to take on by sheltering me. In her living room there was a lithograph of Jesus on the cross and color photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Kennedy, but she made sure she kept her feelings about right and wrong to herself when she wasn’t around close friends. Her husband was dead, and she was supporting her daughter and grandson on her maid’s salary. Every penny counted.

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