August 22, 2016

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Like virtually all African Americans who grew up in Mississippi during the first half of the 20th century, Fannie Lou Hamer endured many injustices in her life.

Some went beyond the typical day-to-day discrimination of the Southern “Jim Crow” social system.

In 1961, Hamer was sterilized without her consent or knowledge by a white doctor, as a part of an officially sanctioned plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state.

When she tried to register to vote, the white farmer she worked for fired and evicted her.

In 1962, Hamer become an active volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the leading civil rights groups of the era.

In 1963, during a trip to register black voters in Winona, Mississippi, Hamer and four other SNCC volunteers were savagely beaten and arrested by the police. She later recalled that, from her cell, she could hear the sound of continued beatings and a policeman yelling: “Can you say, ‘yes, sir,’ nigger?”

It took Hamer more than a month to recover and she was left partially disabled for the rest of her life.

Undeterred, she went on to help organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

In 1964, the MFDP officially asked the the National Democratic Party to seat their chosen delegates at the party’s upcoming National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

This created a dilemma for the Democrats. At the time, the official Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi was all white. Those members demanded that the Credentials Committee reject the MFDP’s request. They warned that Southern Democrats would abandon President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election if any black delegates were seated.

The Credentials Committee members were concerned about a white voter backlash in the South. But they were also concerned about appearing to be opposed to the civil rights movement. So, they invited Hamer and her group to make a presentation to them during the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Hamer appeared before the committee on August 22, 1964.

She gave an amazingly moving account of the harassment and violence she and other blacks had been subjected to while trying to gain the right to vote in Mississippi.

President Johnson quickly tried to divert attention from Hamer’s appearance and the delegate seating issue by holding an impromptu press conference focusing on other issues. But, to his dismay, Hamer’s speech received widespread coverage in the national press.

Johnson then sent Senator Hubert Humphrey and other Democratic leaders to meet with Hamer and her colleagues. He offered to give the MFDP two non-voting seats at the convention. They refused to accept this crumb or any other token “compromises” the Democrats offered.

When asked why she persisted, Fannie Lou gave an answer she’d used before when asked why she persevered in her civil rights efforts.

“All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”

The last part of Hamer’s response — “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” — became a famous quote forever associated with her.

After failing to get Hamer and the MFDP to accept a compromise, Johnson and the Democrats decided they feared a white Southern backlash in 1964 more than rejection by the black Americans who were able to vote. They refused to seat any MFDP members as voting delegates.

But the public attention generated by the issue and by Hamer’s speech added to the momentum for change.

A year later, the Democratically-controlled Congress passed — and President Johnson signed into law — the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited states from denying voting rights “on account of race.”

For its 1968 national convention, the National Democratic Party adopted a policy requiring African Americans to be fairly represented in state delegations.

One of the voting delegates seated at that 1968 convention was Fannie Lou Hamer.

I wonder what she’d say about the recent sad series of events in Ferguson, Missouri.

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August 07, 2016

“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream...”

On August 8, 1966, Capitol Records released the Beatles album Revolver in the United States. (In the UK, the LP was released by Parlophone on August 5.)

Revolver became an immediate chart-topper and is now widely considered to be one of the greatest albums in music history.

It includes several especially famous and popular Beatle songs, like “Eleanor Rigby,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Here, There and Everywhere.”

Moreover, as a whole, Revolver was a watershed album for the Beatles and popular music — lyrically, musically and even technologically. (Some songs include recording effects never or rarely heard before on a mainstream pop album, like automatic double tracking, tape looping and flanging.)

Rock music historian and critic Richie Unterberger called it “one of the very first psychedelic LPs.”

One of the trippiest songs on the album is “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Written primarily by John Lennon, it is clearly an ode to the hallucinogenic drug LSD. (In 1972, Lennon openly referred to it as “my first psychedelic song.”)

Unlike some other songs on Revolver, few people can recall many of the lyrics from “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

If you look for them on the Internet or in books, you’ll find several variations. Almost none have all the lyrics right.

But the famous first line — “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” — is well known, cited by thousands of websites and books and usually quoted correctly.

A year or more before they recorded Revolver, John and the other Beatles — Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — began experimenting with “acid,” like many other musicians who were on the cutting edge of rock music and pop culture in the mid-1960s.

As recounted in many books about the Beatles and psychedelic drugs, John got the opening words of the song from a guide for users of hallucinogens that was co-authored by the Acid King himself, Timothy Leary, with his fellow psychoactive drug pioneers Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass).

Titled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it was published in 1964, a couple of years before Leary began using his catchphrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

In the introduction of the “manual,” Leary, Metzner and Alpert gave this advice to newbie LSD trippers who might feel a bit anxious when they saw the walls melting or felt like they were dying:

       “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.”

They adapted that recommendation from a line in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an 8th century Buddhist text originally said to be a guide for people who actually were in the process of dying, prior to reincarnation.

That venerable book says that one stage in the process involves scary hallucinations, or “hell-visions.”

According to the translation in The Psychedelic Experience, the Book of the Dead helpfully explains:

       “The teaching concerning the hell-visions is the same as before; recognize them to be your own thought-forms, relax, float downstream.”

I can’t vouch for the translation or for how well this advice may work during the process of dying.

However, not long after the album Revolver was released, back in my Hippie days, I did do my own experimenting with LSD. And, in that context, I can say that the suggestion to relax and float downstream was pretty good advice.

In addition, having listened to “Tomorrow Never Knows” a thousand times or so, I can say that I’m pretty sure the correct lyrics are as follows (although, given the distortion effect used on Lennon’s voice, I can understand why there are several versions floating around):    

      “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,
       It is not dying, it is not dying.
       Lay down all thought, surrender to the void,
       It is shining, it is shining.
       That you may see the meaning of within,
       It is being, it is being.
       That love is all and love is everyone,
       It is knowing, it is knowing.
       That ignorance and hate may mourn the dead,
       It is believing, it is believing.
       But listen to the color of your dream,
       It is not living, it is not living.

       Or play the game ‘Existence’ to the end,
       Of the beginning, of the beginning.”

By the way, the title of the song has nothing to do with drugs or death or Tibetan Buddhism. Like “A Hard Day’s Night” it’s another Beatles song title that started out as a Ringo Starr malapropism.

During a 1964 interview, Ringo answered a question by saying “Tomorrow never knows.”

Lennon remembered the quip and later explained that he used it as the song’s title “to sort of take the edge off the heavy philosophical lyrics.”

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