Dark River: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story
An Opera in Two Acts By Mary Watkins
Scene by Scene Plot Synopsis
Scene 1 – [August 1955] Sharecroppers gather in a cotton field in Mississippi after learning of Emmett Till’s murder. They pray for safety. [Flashback] Fannie is shown as a child on a plantation. She wants to go to school like white children but is not allowed. Her mother warns her to beware of white men. The audience sees images of houses burning, a man being shot, a funeral, and Fannie in a hospital being sterilized.
Scene 2 – [Seven Years After Emmett Till’s Death] People gather in a church to discuss plans to gain voting rights. Fannie volunteers to go to the courthouse to try to register to vote.
Scene 3 – [Flashback] Fannie’s father has saved enough to purchase a farm and animals. Night riders poison his animals and break his tools. The family is forced to go back to the plantation.
Scene 4 – [Back To Present] Fannie tells her husband, Pap, that she has volunteered to register to vote. She says that ever since she was sterilized, she has wanted to fight segregation laws. He tries to dissuade her and worries about their daughters, but knows he can’t change her mind.
Scene 5 – [A Few Days Later] A group of black people try to register to vote at the courthouse. A hostile crowd of white people tries to intimidate them.
Scene 6 – [Evening of the Same Day] Fannie returns home where Pap and the children are waiting for her. Marlow, their landlord, threatens to throw Fannie off the plantation unless she withdraws her registration. Fannie resists him and prepares to leave. She and Pap discuss her decision to leave and try to reassure their children.
Scene 7 – [Soon After] Outside the church surrounded by women of the community, Fannie rails at Marlow’s cruelty and lack of compassion. She worries about her children, but decides to stand up for her people.
Scene 8 – Two black men try to deliver donated goods to the black community of Rulesville. Two policemen harass and arrest them.
Scene 9 – [Around The Same Time, In Another Town] Fannie urges a group of black men and women at a meeting/fundraiser to get actively involved in the struggle for justice by joining the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Scene 10 – [On The Way Home from a Conference and Later] Fannie and her companions have been arrested and roughed up. Fannie is isolated from the others, brutally beaten and later hospitalized as a result.
Scene 11 – The sheriff’s wife secretly visits Fannie in jail and expresses her remorse and fear to Fannie. Fannie responds with a gentle challenge from Scripture to help the woman see her choices.
Scene 12 – [Split Scene: A Meeting At A Church And At A Bar] Bob Moses speaks at a meeting of COFO (members of CORE, SNCC, SCLC, and NAACP), helping them to develop an action plan for the summer. He suggests that volunteers be brought in from the north, and that whites be involved as well. Members of the group discuss this issue and eventually decide to welcome the white student-volunteers to Mississippi.
At the same time, an informal meeting of three Klansmen is taking place at a bar. They agree that something has to be done about the black efforts to register to vote, and exchange information about a plan to attack a member of CORE. [Later] A group of Klansmen carry out the attack.
Scene 13 – [The Next Day, At A Church] Black members of SNCC, including Fannie and Bob Moses, meet with white student-volunteers from the North. Bob and Fannie ask the students to help the black people overcome their fear of registering to vote. A SNCC member interrupts Bob with some bad news, which he relays to the group: three SNCC workers, one black and two white, have disappeared and are believed to be dead. He warns the students that they may be in danger. The students reaffirm their commitment to the struggle for freedom.
Scene 14 – Four men tell about their experience of black people protecting themselves against the Klan by being armed and fighting back.
Scene 15 – A chorus, carrying signs, gathers in the background as the quartet sings. After the quartet, they all sing together of working for freedom.
Scene 1 – Members of SNCC, civil rights workers, students from the North, and others gather to hear J. Edgar Hoover speak on the evening news. He announces that the FBI will not defend or protect the blacks or other members of the voter registration movement from attack; the FBI will only investigate after the fact. The crowd is dismayed by the news.
Scene 2 – Inside the church, men and women representing the Freedom Party of Mississippi, including Fannie, are about to leave for the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, NJ and hope to be seated as the legal delegation from Mississippi. Fannie speaks to the crowd, and they respond emphatically, as they get on the bus “We are sick and tired of being sick and tired!”
Scene 3 – A few blocks away, a convention official is at a cafe with Joseph Rauh, the chief counsel for the Freedom Party. The convention official is concerned that the discovery of the bodies of the three murdered civil rights workers will cause controversy at the convention. Rauh insists that the delegation has a right to be heard even if it causes controversy.
Scene 4 – President Johnson does not want to allow the Freedom Party to challenge the white Mississippi delegation. He tries to contact members of the Credentials Committee. He insists that the Freedom Party must be stopped from disrupting the convention.
Scene 5 – Members of the Credentials Committee, the press, the civil rights leaders, and the Freedom Party Delegation are crowded in a hearing room. Joseph Rauh calls witnesses – the president of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins from the national office of the NAACP, and finally Fannie, who gives a stirring speech which draws national attention.
Scene 6 – Pap talks to Fannie on the phone and tells her he heard her on the radio, though she was cut off part way through her speech. Pap tells Fannie that their daughter Dorothy isn’t well, but Fannie does not need to come home. Fannie is called to meet with Hubert Humphrey.
Scene 7 – Hubert Humphrey tells the Mississippi delegates that he will allow two of the Freedom Party delegates, one white and one black, to be seated with the Mississippi Delegation at the convention. He says the party leadership fears a backlash in November if he does more. Fannie insists that the whole delegation must be seated. She tells Humphrey that the delegates will talk and decide together. Humphrey tells the press he is optimistic that things will work out.
Scene 8 – Roy Wilkins tries to persuade Fannie Lou and the other members of the Freedom Party delegation to go home and let the NAACP handle the situation. Fannie tells him that the delegation will make their own decision about the two seats that were offered to them.
Scene 9 – Fannie tells the members of the Freedom Party delegation about her conversation with Roy Wilkins. She and the delegates agree that the Freedom party should be seated.
Scene 10 – Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Moses, Ed King, Ella Baker, and Aaron Henry join the delegates and begin discussing Humphrey’s offer and their options for responding. Some delegates waver. Fannie and others insist that the offer is insulting. After a heated discussion, Aaron Henry offers to tell the committee that the delegation will accept the offer. Fannie threatens to slit his throat, and then realizing what she has done, she prays for forgiveness. Fannie urges the delegation vote on Humphrey’s offer. They vote to reject it, and the delegation agrees to stand together and fight for freedom.
Scene 11 – Fannie returns home from Atlantic City to find Pap gone; a neighbor tells her that Pap has rushed Dorothy to the hospital. When Pap returns, he tells Fannie that Dorothy died because the hospital refused to treat her. Fannie and Pap are both grief-stricken. They lament the loss of their child and the injustice that led to her death.
Scene 12 – A few years later, several black SNCC members are meeting with Fannie back in the church in Mississippi. Even though the voting rights bill had passed, the Southern whites in power have prevented its implementation. Angry about the lack of progress, the SNCC members conclude that SNCC should be limited to black membership. Fannie protests that segregating SNCC is a mistake, but her view does not prevail. She leaves the meeting, deeply hurt.
Scene 13 – In the closing scene, the people sing of freedom and Fannie’s courage in the struggle. Fannie responds, speaking with wonder and gratitude of the changes that have happened in her lifetime. She affirms her commitment to work for human rights, as well as civil rights. She concludes with an inspiring quote from Scripture, urging them to continue to stand their ground.