Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Dreams

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

Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial, Civil Rights Pilgrimage, March 2015 (Flickr/ Department of Communications at the University of Washington)

When Andrew Young, the US ambassador to the United Nations, delivered the eulogy at Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s funeral in 1977, he spoke as a revered civil rights movement veteran, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and seasoned political leader inside the Democratic Party. He stood alongside other civil rights luminaries gathered to mourn the loss and celebrate the life of Mrs. Hamer, including Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, Vernon Jordan, John Lewis, and Dorothy Height. He praised Mrs. Hamer’s courage, tenacity, and sacrifice, arguing that “no one in America has not been influenced or inspired by Mrs. Hamer.” It was her tireless efforts, her “sweat and blood,” he said, that fomented freedom in her home state of Mississippi, and in America as a whole. More than forty years later, when Kamala Harris accepted the nomination for vice president of the United States at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, she centered her historic rise in the past, citing the courageous women like Fannie Lou Hamer, who “organized, testified, rallied, marched and fought—not just for their vote, but for a seat at the table.” As Americans, she said, “We all stand on their shoulders.” Keisha Blain’s new book, Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America, shows how Hamer’s freedom work, political and organizing philosophy, and undaunted spirit continue to resonate decades after her death, providing new generations a lighted path toward change.

By organizing the book thematically, Dr. Blain chose to make explicit this link between past and present, illustrating clearly how Hamer’s freedom rights work in the 1960s and 1970s laid a foundation for—and speaks powerfully to—ongoing problems related to racial, sexual and economic violence in America today. For example, chapter two, entitled “Tell It Like It Is,” opens with the 2015 arrest, incarceration, and death of Sandra Bland and the present-day ravages of state-sanctioned violence to remind us that the past is far from dead. “The threat of violence Black Americans face each time they encounter a police officer today is no different from the fear of lynching Black people felt during each confrontation with a white officer during the Jim Crow era,” Blain argues (23-24).  Fannie Lou Hamer, like most Black Southerners at the time, lived in a constant state of fear of white supremacist violence. “We’re tired of all this beatin’, we’re tired of takin’ this,” Hamer said. “It’s been a hundred years and we’re still being beaten and shot at, crosses are still being burned, because we want to vote,” (27).

After Hamer joined SNCC in 1962, she began to use her voice to expose the racial, economic, and sexual violence at the rotten core of segregation. “The only thing they could do to me was kill me,” she said later, “and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember,” (31). Hamer’s public testimony about the physical and sexual assault she received at the hands of police in the Winona County jail in 1963 revealed how Black women were often targeted for racial and sexual violence. When she spoke out later about a forced hysterectomy she received in 1961, she called attention to the long, but often hidden, the practice of white doctors sterilizing women of color. It was so common, in fact, that local people called it a “Mississippi appendectomy.” As Blain importantly notes, Hamer was “the first civil rights activist during the 1960s to openly address” racialized medical violence (36). Her testimony about sexualized racial violence and her willingness to lay bare the private, painful realities Black women faced in the Jim Crow South showed that the everyday struggle for freedom rights was—and remains—intersectional.

Like the way Hamer centered sexualized racial violence in discussions about civil and human rights, she also emphasized the role of race and class in conversations about women’s rights, highlighting the interlocking oppressions Black women and other women of color faced in a white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal society. Blain skillfully shows how Mrs. Hamer pushed for women’s empowerment while critically assessing the Women’s Liberation movement; centered Black women in the struggle for freedom rights while refusing to de-center Black men; pushed white women to recognize their own racial privilege and power; and challenged conventional ideas about the liberating possibilities of birth control. In a speech before the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1971, Hamer argued that Black women did not need their consciousness raised by white women in the women’s rights movement—Black women had been in the fight for centuries. “The special plight and role of black women is not something that just happened three years ago. We’ve had a special plight for 350 years,” (77).

Not long after that, in July 1971, Hamer argued at the inaugural meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus that she didn’t want equal rights. “I’ve passed equal rights,” she said, “I’m fighting for human rights, not only for the black man, for the red man, but for the white man and for all people of this country. Because America is sick and man is on the critical list,” (80). Hamer’s political vision had become significantly more expansive than women’s or civil rights. She knew that the struggle for human rights was international and that economic rights—the right to basic necessities like food, water and shelter—were inseparable from political rights (123). This was as true in Detroit or Dakar as it was in the Mississippi Delta. “The changes we have to have in this country,” Hamer insisted, “are going to be for the liberation of all people,” (81).

Keisha Blain’s Until I Am Free deftly centers Fannie Lou Hamer and her expansive freedom dreams and organizing style into present-day campaigns for freedom, justice, and human dignity. By arranging the book thematically and opening most chapters with narratives of recent victims of state-sanctioned violence (Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor) and the work of activists for human rights (Opal Tometi and Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis), Blain brilliantly stitches the present to the past, highlighting Fannie Lou Hamer’s influence on American history and her enduring message to “tell it like it is” and fight for the liberation of all marginalized people.

Kamala Harris accepted the nomination for vice president 58 years after Fannie Lou Hamer joined SNCC and became a full-time freedom fighter. But the nearly six decades in between hadn’t erased or minimized Hamer’s political, social, and economic vision. Instead, it had been incorporated into most of the major struggles of our time, including the Black Lives Matter movement; the #MeToo movement; the Poor People’s Campaign; and the prison abolition movement. Harris, who would go on to be the first Black woman and first woman of Indian descent to become Vice President, channeled Hamer when she said, “we’ve got to do the work to fulfill that promise of equal justice under law. Because none of us are free… until all of us are free,” (135).

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Danielle L. McGuire

Danielle McGuire, PhD, is an award-winning historian, public speaker and author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance-a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Knopf), which won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the Lillian Smith Book Award. She is the recipient of the Lerner Scott Prize for best dissertation in women’s history. Her Journal of American History article, “It was Like We Were All Raped: Sexualized Violence, Community Mobilization and the African American Freedom Struggle,” won the A. Elizabeth Taylor Prize for best essay in southern women’s history and was reprinted in the Best Essays in American History. She is the editor with John Dittmer of Freedom Rights: New Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement; and wrote the foreword for John Hersey’s The Algiers Motel Incident. McGuire is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and has appeared on PBS, CNN, MSNBC, Headline News, National Public Radio, BookTV, and dozens of local television and radio stations throughout the United States. Follow her on Twitter @dmcguire13.