Fannie Lou Hamer’s Legacy: An Interview with Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain (Photo by Chioke I’Anson).

This is an interview with Dr. Nicole Gipson, an elected Early Career Member of the Royal Historical Society of the United Kingdom, and 2020 doctorate recipient in American Studies from the University of Manchester, and Dr. Keisha N. Blain. Dr. Blain, a 2022 New America National Fellow, is an award-winning historian and writer. She is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, the president of the African American Intellectual History Society, and a columnist for MSNBC. She is currently in residence at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study. Her latest book, Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America, will be published by Beacon Press on October 5, 2021. The book explores Hamer’s ideas and political strategies, highlighting their relevance for tackling modern social issues including voter suppression, police violence, and economic inequality.

Nicole Gipson (NG): You first learned about Fannie Lou Hamer in 2008. Is there a reason why you decided to publish your book about her in 2021?

Keisha N. Blain (KNB): Fannie Lou Hamer first left an impression on me more than a decade ago, and I have been thinking about writing about her for several years. The opportunity first presented itself sometime around 2016, when I was invited to write an op-ed for the anniversary of her famous 1964 speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC). I had been teaching a course on the Civil Rights Movement at the time, and since my research centers primarily on working-class Black women, I welcomed the opportunity to contribute a piece on Hamer. To my surprise, that piece did remarkably well—it resonated with so many people, and I was astonished by the great feedback I received. Since then I have been reading and doing research on Hamer–though I was initially unsure how I would incorporate her in my future book projects. In 2019, everything came together for me. I wrote a second piece on Hamer—and much like the first, the piece resonated with so many. It was one of the most popular op-eds I have written to date, and I was deeply moved when I saw a presidential candidate at the time sharing the piece through his social media networks. Several friends and readers suggested that I expand the article into a book. They insisted that it was a book that people needed to read. One afternoon that fall, I finally sat down and began writing it. I decided I would devote a few hours a week to it while simultaneously working on another book project. The uprisings of 2020 as well as the global pandemic brought on a new sense of urgency, and I decided to shift my attention to finishing the book on Hamer. Like so many people, I struggled to make sense of everything that was unfolding, and I began to doubt whether change was possible. The more I read Hamer’s words, the more clarity I found. Her vision for the world and her commitment to improving conditions for all people gave me a renewed sense of hope and purpose. I wanted to share that gift with others—and I firmly believe this is the opportune moment to share her story.

NG: You argue that Hamer believed in the power of public testimony as a means of making her audience “co-owners of trauma.” Today, the public forum of social media has become a digital space ridden with political division and rampant disinformation. Given this new reality, do Hamer’s beliefs on public testimony still reign true?

KNB: You’re absolutely correct to point out the rampant misinformation that we all encounter on a daily basis today. Social media certainly makes it a lot easier to spread these ideas. And I do not wish to downplay its negative effects on society or how it has been used to indoctrinate and recruit white supremacists and other extremists. But I think it’s important to remember that activists of the 1960s were dealing with rampant misinformation too. In many cases, this misinformation was being spread by the state. The FBI’s vicious tactics in the attempt to dismantle Black political movements is a case in point. While activists in the South were organizing for change, federal agents and local law enforcement were known to actively spread misinformation—suggesting, for example, that interracial civil rights groups were merely sites for interracial sex or in other cases, labelling activists as communists as part of a smear campaign to detract from the vital work these activists were doing to dismantle Jim Crow. Hamer therefore lived in a period of history where misinformation was rampant, and she viewed public testimony as one crucial strategy for combatting these false narratives. Hamer used her radical honesty to challenge injustice and bring attention to the violence that Black Southerners faced on a daily basis when advocating for rights. Her testimonies helped to lay bare the persistent problems of state-sanctioned violence and voter suppression in the United States. Will public testimony change every heart and mind? Certainly not. But it will change some and for that reason alone, it is worth it.

NG: According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the current backlash to 2020’s historic voter turnout, resulted in the introduction of 361 bills with restrictive voting provisions in 47 states. Given this new wave of assaults on voting rights, which disproportionately impact communities of color, how can we gauge the real impact of Hamer’s fight for voting rights?

KNB: I think it’s important to remember that the Voting Rights Act has been under attack since its passage in 1965. What history has revealed to us is that when activists secure a victory, backlash always follows—this is especially true when we survey Black history. This reality forces us to assess impact in a nuanced way. We cannot, for example, draw a straight line between an event in the past to a contemporary moment. The most recent wave of attacks on voting rights is not surprising because of the powerful uprisings of last summer, which galvanized thousands of people across the nation and millions across the globe. What took place last summer was unprecedented in many ways and that terrified many people who oppose the vision of a more inclusive democracy.

Hamer’s story is significant here, and I think it’s imperative now more than ever to center her ideas and activism. First, I think everyone should be made aware of the many struggles Hamer endured in order to have access to the ballot. I emphasize this when I teach about the Civil Rights Movement, especially for students who may be frustrated and for those who might question if their vote really matters. Before the Voting Rights Act, many Black Americans throughout the South could not even access a voting booth, but they used their collective power and activism to create change. We must never forget those who came before us to lead the way; those who sacrificed so much to expand Black political rights. Second, Hamer’s story offers valuable lessons about how we continue to resist and how we block voter suppression today. It requires a broad knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement—a period in history that captures the remarkable power of grassroots organizing and the importance of direct political action. I think we honor Fannie Lou Hamer’s legacy when we take advantage of the opportunity to vote and work to ensure that all citizens— regardless of their race, gender, or ethnicity—can fully participate in the democratic process.

NG: The image of strong Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it showcases Black female leaders like Hamer, on the other hand it makes communicating and convincing others of Black female fragility all the more challenging and exceptional, I am speaking here of women such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. Could you speak to this contradiction?

KNB: One of the important aspects of Until I Am Free is that it highlights Hamer’s remarkable strength and centers her humanity. In Hamer’s story, readers will see how this courageous Black and disabled activist fought to overcome so much pain and hardship in order to help others around her. The book grapples with Hamer’s personal challenges, including the enormous stress she endured and the medical issues she battled until the very end. I think it’s important for readers to always be mindful that strong Black women are human. They are not perfect. They have struggles, flaws, and imperfections. Strong Black women hurt; strong Black women feel overwhelmed; and strong Black women have physical and emotional needs—as does everyone else. I think Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka reminded us of this recently, and their powerful show of humanity falls in line with a message Hamer boldly articulated during the Civil Rights Movement: Black people, as all people, are deserving of rights, love, respect, and compassion.

NG: Until I Am Free does not iconize Fannie Lou Hamer and the other Black civil rights leaders she encounters, which allows the hard facts about systemic racism and the tragic outcomes of rural poverty she endures to emerge. Was this a difficult book to write?

KNB: Mainstream narratives of the Civil Rights Movement often mythologize activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. It has taken the work of historians to add nuance and complexity to these narratives. Until I Am Free adds to this growing body of scholarship to ensure that we never lose sight of the ways ordinary people fought to create change in their local communities and beyond. As I wrote the book, I tried to be attentive to the many challenges Hamer endured, including the impact of poverty on her life and the violence she experienced. I should also note that I wanted the book to capture the love Hamer felt for her family and the compassion she felt for her community. She practiced the politics of love. I think it’s important to highlight all of these aspects of Hamer’s life to help readers understand both the pain and the beauty that shaped Hamer’s life story. As strange as it may sound to some, I felt a sense of closeness to Hamer in the writing process, and while it was not an easy book to write, I enjoyed the process of getting to know her more. I hope that readers will walk away from the book with the same sense of closeness and understanding of Hamer’s life and legacy.

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Nicole M. Gipson

Nicole Gipson is a French/American early career researcher who completed her PhD in American Studies at the University of Manchester in 2020. She is a member of the Association for the Study of American Life and History (ASALH) and an elected Early Career Member of the Royal Historical Society in the United Kingdom. Her research focuses on race, gender, social inequality in urban housing, homelessness, and urban poverty in the twentieth-century United States. Follow her on Twitter @antaeusargus.