Civil rights lesson not lost on national history champby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
Sade Ogundiran is only 17 years old, but she's already made history. She took first place among hundreds of competitors at the National History Day gathering in Maryland last month.
St. Paul, Minn. — Sade Ogundiran will be a senior at South High School this year. She'll turn 18 soon and she's excited to vote in this fall's elections. But she knows quite a bit more about WHY she can vote than the typical teenager.
Sade spent a good part of the last year studying the life and work of Fanny Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper who upstaged the president on the United States one night in 1964.
Hamer helped spark the civil rights movement. Sade is the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant. Hamer's example inspires her, she says.
"She just came from being poor, and I think that really spoke to me, because it means that anybody can make a difference. It doesn't matter how much money you have. Like Martin Luther King, he was middle class, and she was poor and she doesn't have as much fame because of that."
Sade told that story in an exhibit she built, by hand, and took to the University of Maryland for the national competition. The exhibit retold the life of a granddaughter of freed slaves who was 42 years old before she even knew blacks could vote.
When Hamer registered to vote in 1962, she was fired from her job on the plantation where she's worked for 18 years. When Hamer tried to register others, she was taken off a bus in Winona, Mississippi, jailed and beaten.
Hamer's place in history actually came in Atlantic City, New Jersey, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She spoke to the party's credentials committee, pleading with them to seat her Freedom Democratic Party representatives, rather than the state's all-white delegation.
Hamer spoke about the discrimination and violence in her home state.
"All of this on account of we want to register. To become first class citizens. And if the freedom democratic party is not seated now, I question America," Hamer said. "Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hook because our lives be threatened daily? Because we want to live as decent human beings in America..."
Lyndon Johnson called a White House press conference as she spoke, to pre-empt televised coverage of her plea to Democrats. But the television networks rebroadcast her speech that night anyway.
Sade traced that history and even tracked down a key player in the Hamer drama, Walter Mondale. He and Hubert Humphrey were part of a party faction that offered a compromise to the Mississippi Freedom Democrats. Hamer and the others rejected the deal, but ultimately prevailed at the 1968 convention.
Sade called him up and got the story from Mondale himself.
"I got an interview with him during spring break, and I had to go by myself, so I was really, really nervous to meet him. But it went well."
Very well, by any measure. Sade included audio from Mondale and Hamer in her table-top, six-foot high display of photos and research. It earned her top honors at South High and then the Minneapolis district competition. She finished first in the state History Day judging and won her trip to nationals.
Sade credits her history teacher, Robert Ferguson, for sparking her competitive zeal with what she calls history day fever.
"I don't know where it came from, but somewhere along the line of doing History Day, for many, many years, I came up with the history day fever, which clearly some kids get by the way," Ferguson says. "And the standard joke is be careful, because you never know when the history day fever is going to hit you."
Sade is spending her summer as an intern with the Minnesota Historical Society. She's already thinking about what she'll do for History Day next spring.
- Morning Edition, 07/30/2008, 7:24 a.m.