Giving Fannie Lou Hamer her due

A new book on civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer offers inspiration for a new generation fighting racial injustice.

Fannie Lou Hamer, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate, speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, August 1964. Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

In every chant of “Black Lives Matter,” there’s the sonorous voice of Fannie Lou Hamer. On her steady shoulders stand those devoted to making America a just nation. Whenever someone says they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” it’s the defiant cry of the Mississippi sharecropper who wanted for her country what she wanted for herself — an inclusive democracy.

Hamer was one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the political grip of Southern segregationists. She helped organize Freedom Summer to register Black voters in 1964. Her galvanizing speech that same year at the Democratic National Convention, which indicted this nation’s hypocrisy as “the land of the free,” helped spur the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

By any measure Hamer, who died in 1977 at 59, was a giant of the civil rights movement. Yet history hasn’t always done right by her. In her new book, “Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America,” Keisha N. Blain not only recognizes Hamer as a seminal figure but also uses Hamer’s own words and experiences as a roadmap for activists still fighting to make our democracy whole.

“I wanted it to be a tool,” Blain, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor of history, told me during a recent interview. “What I meant by that is to produce a text that people can read and do something with beyond just obtaining information about Hamer’s life, but more so figuring out how what she has to tell us. . . can help us address many of the challenges we’re facing today — which, not surprisingly, are just about the same challenges that she endured in her life.”

With voting rights under attack in Republican-led state legislatures, Hamer’s message of justice is as vital today as it was in early 1960s Mississippi. To read her words now is to still hear the crackle of passion, defiance, and honesty that illuminated her activism — which didn’t start until Hamer was 44.

That set her apart from the young firebrands, all men, who became the faces of the movement. With Hamer’s limited formal education and unvarnished speech, not all of them thought this granddaughter of enslaved Black people was an appropriate representative. Roy Wilkins, then the NAACP’s executive secretary, called Hamer an “ignorant woman,” Blain writes.

“The encounter with Wilkins is a reflection of the respectability politics and the notion that we can’t advocate for Black political life in this predominantly white space and have someone speak for us in a way that doesn’t come off eloquently or someone who doesn’t dress or carry themselves in a certain way because they would somehow disrupt the process,” Blain said.

Of course, that’s a self-defeating appeal to white sensibilities. Black people can’t fight for their rights while making white people comfortable. In many instances, it’s the fight, if not Black existence itself, that fosters their disdain. Hamer recognized this. Speaking at an NAACP event in 1971, she told the crowd,“ [W]hether you have a PhD, a DD, or no D, we’re in this bag together.” She would not be defeated by the sexism that sidelined the contributions of Black women, or by the classism, within the movement.

Nor was Hamer bowed by the violence of white supremacy. After attending a voter registration workshop in Mississippi, Hamer was arrested and beaten so severely she suffered vision loss in one eye and permanent kidney damage. When she tried to register to vote, she was fired, and Hamer and her family were forced to leave the plantation where she had lived and worked for nearly two decades as a sharecropper.

Despite threats, Hamer ran for office three times in Mississippi. Though she was unsuccessful, Hamer’s goals, said Blain, went beyond winning. “She kept saying, ‘I’m trying and I want to do this because I want to send a message that someone who looks like me can run for office and can serve in a leadership capacity.’ ”

Hamer’s spirit thrives in Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight and a former Georgia gubernatorial nominee. When then-Senator Kamala Harris became the first woman of color nominated as vice president, she name-checked Hamer among women who “inspired us to pick up the torch — and fight on.”

Last August, Blain watched Harris’s speech with a “mixed feeling.” She felt “a sense of celebration,” but she also saw that President Biden and, “in a similar way, Harris, would push for change, but not disrupt too much. Hamer would have called that out immediately.”

That’s because Hamer knew that in the fight for civil rights, there was no room for compromise — just as she believed and often said, “Until I am free, you are not free either.” She recognized that until Black lives mattered, no lives would matter.

Blain, coeditor of the recent bestseller “Four Hundred Souls” with Ibram X. Kendi, founder of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, said Hamer spoke for those like her — the Black working class and working poor, those whose concerns were often met with silence or violence. She was not interested in coddling racist power structures or maintaining a status quo designed to crush Black hopes and lives. That same approach drives activists today who refuse to settle for symbolic gestures in place of real and sustainable progress.

More than 40 years after her death, Hamer beckons to us not as a remnant of a dead past, but as a signpost of a more perfect union that still lies ahead.

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