Fannie Lou Hamer and American Democracy

This post is part of our online roundtable on Keisha N. Blain’s Until I Am Free.

Fannie Lou Hamer and Paul Robeson Mural, New Orleans, Louisiana (Flickr)

Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper turned voting rights activist, is the subject of historian Keisha N. Blain’s important new book, Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. A deft blend of historical reportage, memoir, cultural criticism, biography, and political analysis, Until I Am Free places Hamer at the center of Black Freedom movements during the civil rights era’s heroic period, a critical part of Black Power’s call for radical self-determination, and contemporary Black Lives Matter demonstrations that stand at the core of 2020’s racial and political reckoning.

One of the many strengths of Until I Am Free is the way it utilizes Hamer’s biography, political awakening, and subsequent triumphs and challenges to frame the contemporary moment of racial justice struggles that have erupted in the United States and around the world, especially over the past decade. Hamer’s life, Blain argues, forms a through-line to a more holistic understanding of the radical and revolutionary struggles from the 1960s to the present. In so doing, Blain has recovered Hamer’s extraordinarily generative activism, political and intellectual thought, and substance and symbolism for a new generation in need of the lessons revealed by examining her life now more than ever.

The Mississippi born Hamer did not enter politics until 1962. At the time she was a 44-year-old sharecropper, married, with two adopted children, who attended a mass meeting in Sunflower County, the home of James Eastland, the state’s notorious segregationist senator. Organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”), the meeting proved revelatory for Hamer and the movement. Jim Crow racism and white supremacy held Hamer and her entire family under the subjugation of a system of racial cruelty that normalized the rape and sexual assault of Black women; food injustice and malnutrition in Black families; poor or no formal education; and medical abuse that included the forced sterilization of Black women, something that the married Hamer painfully experienced. SNCC, the most important grassroots civil rights organization of the 1960s, offered local Black people the opportunity to craft solutions to their own problems. They offered civic lessons on the fundamental concepts of democracy, including how the Reconstruction Amendments represented Black people’s hard earned voting rights. Hamer listened and dove into activism at the expense of her future employment as a sharecropper on a white owned plantation. The talk from SNCC activists about voting “out people that we didn’t want in office” not only inspired Mrs. Hamer but moved her to action (1).

Organized in six crisply written chapters bracketed by an elegantly written introduction and conclusion, Blain’s history sheds new light on the way in which Fannie Lou Hamer’s activism helped to fundamentally transform American democracy. Most serious students of history are vaguely aware of Mrs. Hamer’s riveting testimony before the 1964 Democratic National  Convention’s Credentials Committee, where she documented the abuse, terror, and violence she and the entire Black community experienced in Mississippi for attempting to register to vote. Until I Am Free recounts this episode, highlighting the way in which Hamer’s refusal to accept the offer for two at large seats at the convention showcased not only her independence of mind, but also the patriarchy within the Black freedom struggle and the racism of erstwhile white allies such as Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, who brokered the deal knowing full well that his chance to be placed on the Democratic ticket as vice president hinged on stamping out the fire that Mrs. Hamer’s testimony ignited. As the most well recognized member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—organized as an alternative to the segregationist “regulars” seated at the convention—Hamer challenged the political status quo enough to inspire President Lyndon Johnson to refer to her as that “illiterate woman” and to hold a press conference to stop her live testimony from being aired around the nation. When that tactic failed to end the controversy over Black sharecroppers being violently prevented from exercising their citizenship rights in Mississippi or at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, the president dispatched surrogates, including Humphrey and United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther to threaten, cajole, and harass MFDP delegates and their allies into taking the deal. Civil rights leaders such as Roy Wilkins thought of Hamer as ignorant and out of her league. Bayard Rustin, the social democrat stalwart, March On Washington organizer, and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael advised the MFDP to take the deal. Martin Luther King Jr. conceded that the MFDP acceptance of the proposed compromise would make his life easier but that if he were a Mississippi Negro, he would reject it. Ella Baker, the radical Black feminist organizer of SNCC and former executive director of the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference, advised Hamer to go with her gut. As did Bob Moses, the bespectacled Hamilton College-educated Black math teacher turned non-violent organizer whose political exploits, begun three years earlier in McCombs, Mississippi, were now the stuff of whispered legend. Hamer refused to budge, learning important lessons, both within Black politics and nationally, about the political process.

Until I Am Free’s power lies in the story telling before and after the events in Atlantic City, by far the most well-known and often cited episode of Mrs. Hamer’s public life. Blain shifts back and forth chronologically, detailing the way in which Hamer’s early experiences working on a plantation picking cotton, suffering from malnutrition, and witnessing her family being denigrated and abused by white landowners ultimately shaped her own personal and political trajectory. Hamer’s belief in the kind of multiracial democracy briefly realized in portions of Mississippi and America during Reconstruction contained deep roots in her life and struggles as a sharecropper and as the descendant of enslaved Black people. She loved Black people, especially those, like her, who belonged to the grassroots. Political organizing emboldened her innate sense of justice, natural confidence, and intellectual brilliance. Hamer’s Christian beliefs informed her quest for justice, dignity, and citizenship in the Magnolia State and throughout America.

Blain places Hamer within a long tradition and powerful historical trajectory of Black women’s activism. Although Hamer never called herself a feminist, she insisted that white feminist organizers needed to think about liberation intersectionally, highlighting the racial and class dimensions of gender oppression often ignored by mainstream women’s rights leaders and organizations. Hamer’s own experiences in Mississippi, including being beaten and jailed for civil rights activism in Winona in 1963, reflect a long history of state-sanctioned violence, brutality, and unequal justice weaponized against Black women’s organizing. In this sense, Until I Am Free helps us to reimagine Black women’s activism within the context of the panoramic systems of oppression that erupted during America’s Second Reconstruction. This includes shining a spotlight on the police brutality and physical violence that Hamer endured in Winona and the forced hysterectomy she unknowingly received in the Magnolia State and subsequently referred to as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”

Blain powerfully places Hamer as one of the key political and intellectual leaders within civil rights-Black Power era organizing. The decade after her bravura public testimony at the Democratic National Convention Hamer emerged as a national political leader who mobilized key events, conferences, and movements, perhaps most notably the National Women’s Political Council in 1971, alongside of Black luminaries such as Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, National Council of Negro Women president Dorothy Height, National Welfare Rights organizer Johnnie Tillmon and white leaders such as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. Hamer’s efforts to forge interracial coalitions did not preclude her from leading efforts to institutionalize a race, class, and gender analysis into the mainstream women’s movement.

Hamer’s eclectic blend of Black political self-determination, multiracial democracy, and anti-racism posed challenges to aspects of Black feminist thought. She viewed abortion rights through the lens of her Christianity and as a victim of racist medical violence, arguing (like some male and female Black nationalists of the era) that the pill and other means of contraceptive were tantamount to an effort at Black genocide. She challenged patriarchy even as she conformed to some of its frameworks, especially regarding the make-up of the Black family. Hamer’s second marriage to Perry “Pap” Hamer, both challenged and conformed to gender conventions within the nuclear family. “He, Mr. Hamer, is the boss of the house,” she told interviewers (70). But she pushed back against racist and sexist ideas of Black matriarchy imperiling the Black family advocated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” asserting that “Moynihan…knows as much about the black family as a horse about New Year’s,” (71).

Hamer regarded politics as the terrain of Black women and men. In 1964 Malcolm X saw her speak for the first time in Harlem and invited her to one of his rallies in Washington Heights, famously referring to her as one of the nation’s most important freedom fighters. Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael told Chicago oral historian Studs Terkel that Mrs. Hamer was more important to the Black freedom struggle than Dr. King, since there were more Black folks like her than the famous preacher from Atlanta.

Blain situates Hamer’s three-week visit in 1964 alongside SNCC activists to Guinea, West Africa, as an example of the breadth of the movement’s international and cosmopolitan heights. Having never stepped foot outside of the United States, Mrs. Hamer ventured to Guinea on a tour sponsored by Harry Belafonte that found her being feted, listened to, and learning from the leaders and high officials (including President Sékou Touré) of one of the jewels of Africa’s growing political kingdom. The sight of Black people flying airplanes, in control of industry, politics, and the economy inspired Hamer who returned home transformed. The trip, argues Blain, “helped her develop, more than ever before, a global racial consciousness and an increased desire to pursue transformational networks and solidarities,” (97).

Over the course of the next thirteen years, until her premature death from a recurrence of breast cancer in 1977, Hamer pursued the creation of new opportunities for Black political self-determination and multiracial democracy. Blain documents the speaking tours, conferences, and at times punishing schedule Hamer embarked on to build and expand upon struggles for Black dignity and citizenship during the 1970s. Freedom Farm, an effort to organize a Black owned farm collective in Mississippi, proved the most ambitious of these efforts. Although it ended in 1976, plagued by severe weather, financial difficulties, and Hamer’s returning illness, it proved another remarkable attempt by Fannie Lou Hamer to center the needs of the Black grassroots in the creation of a nation as good as the Black people who historically toiled to create its wealth and opportunity while receiving little of either.

Each chapter of Until I Am Free opens with a contemporary event, ranging from the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement to the book’s conclusion, which examines the significance of Kamala Harris, the first Black woman vice president in American history, taking the stage at the 2020 Democratic National Convention and publicly acknowledging Fannie Lou Hamer’s role in helping her to make history. “None of us are free until all of us are free,” Hamer eloquently argued on numerous occasions.

Keisha N. Blain’s brilliant history, memoir, and cultural and political analysis of Hamer’s centrality to postwar American and African American history helps to rescue this groundbreaking activist from the snapshot of memory that she occupies in cinematic retellings of the civil rights movement’s heroic period. By placing Hamer’s story as central to a larger story of race and democracy in the 20th and 21st century, Blain expands our collective fields of historical analysis and vision for contemporary politics. Hamer stands out as a generative force in the larger historical trajectory of Black women’s activism that spans centuries. Blain takes pains to critically analyze Hamer’s emerging political thought and the intellectual, strategic, and organizing contributions she made to civil rights, Black Power, and Black feminist activism and political and intellectual thought. Hamer’s human rights activism, like Malcolm X, found her advocating for political underdogs around the world. The cost of her political activism proved to be considerable. She suffered financial and health woes exacerbated by the very system of Jim Crow racism and white supremacy that she began to challenge in earnest after attending a SNCC organized meeting in 1962. Until I Am Free represents a political, intellectual, and cultural analysis of Fannie Lou Hamer’s central role in shaping her own times and the legacy she has bequeathed to a new generation of Black activists aware that struggles for citizenship and dignity are intimately and inextricably linked in America and around the world.

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Peniel E. Joseph

Peniel E. Joseph is Associate Dean for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values. A Professor of History and Public Affairs, he is also the founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CSRD) at The University of Texas at Austin. His career focus has been on “Black Power Studies,” which encompasses interdisciplinary fields such as Africana studies, law and society, women’s and ethnic studies, and political science. Prior to joining the UT faculty, Dr. Joseph was a professor at Tufts University, where he founded the school’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy to promote engaged research and scholarship focused on the ways issues of race and democracy affect people’s lives. In addition to being a frequent commentator on issues of race, democracy and civil rights, Dr. Joseph’s most recent book is The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. He also wrote the award-winning books Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His book Stokely: A Life has been called the definitive biography of Stokely Carmichael, the man who popularized the phrase “black power.” Included among Joseph’s other book credits is the editing of The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era and Neighborhood Rebels: Black Power at the Local Level. Follow him on Twitter @PenielJoseph.