Fannie Lou Hamer’s Message to Contemporary America

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

Fannie Lou Hamer during the Freedom Summer Project, Mississippi, 1964 (Flickr)

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America was a book that I felt compelled to write. I first encountered Fannie Lou Hamer during my senior year of college. It was 2008, and I had enrolled in a class on the civil rights movement. The professor, Anne Bailey, made the strategic decision to center the voices and experiences of lesser-known activists in the movement. While we certainly engaged a variety of texts on the most iconic figures, we also spent time reading about—and reflecting on—the “ordinary” people who made the movement possible. It is in this space that I “met” Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman whose story immediately captivated me. At the time, I did not even imagine I would one day write a book about her, but the encounter with Mrs. Hamer that year was a transformative experience and one that I will never forget. In the years to follow, as I worked my way through graduate school, I had the great fortune to read a biography on Hamer by Chana Kai Lee. Lee’s remarkable biography, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, gave me a window into the activist’s inner life and it powerfully captured the intersecting dynamics of race, gender, and class during the twentieth century. I would not have been able to write Until I am Free without Lee’s groundbreaking scholarship—which provided a brilliant model—as well as the significant contributions of several other scholars, including Maegan Parker Brooks, Davis W. Houck, and the late Kay Wright Mills.

During the 2020 uprisings, it became clear to me that I needed to write a book on Fannie Lou Hamer. Just a year before, I had written an article on Hamer for Time Magazine. The response to the piece was very positive—so many people resonated with my engagement of Hamer’s ideas, and they were especially moved by the way I had drawn on Hamer’s words and life experience to make observations about the current moment. “The fight for equality seems never-ending and the roadblocks are many,” I argued in Time, “but Hamer’s words offer much-needed guidance, direction and determination: faith without action is dead.” While I had envisioned the article as a piece others would read and connect with, I realized that it was also an article for me. Like so many other Black people living in the United States, I struggled to find my way under the weight of a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence directed toward Black people. These realities, combined with the myriad of troubling developments under the Trump presidency, was enough to make me discouraged. And I know that so many others were discouraged too. How could I respond? And how might I be able to draw upon my training as a professional historian to offer something useful in this moment?

The answer became increasingly clear as more people asked me to say more about Fannie Lou Hamer. The uprisings of 2020 against state-sanctioned violence and the dispro­portionate impact of COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths in Black and Brown communities brought on a renewed sense of urgency for me. The more I read Hamer’s words, the more clarity I found—clarity about how I might move forward; clarity about how we might respond individually and collectively to racial injustice in this country. While there is often an emphasis on what’s “new” and seemingly “original” in our society, I was compelled to look back in order to look forward. In other words, I was reminded that some of the answers we seek can be found in returning to the freedom fighters who came before us. What did Fannie Lou Hamer think about state-sanctioned violence? How did she seek to bring it to an end? What strategies and tactics did she employ in her lifetime to respond to a number of social issues? Which strategies “worked” and how might they work for us today? Ultimately, I settled on writing a book that would answer one question that I had been grappling with for some time: “What might we learn, and how might our society change, if we simply listened to Fannie Lou Hamer?” Until I Am Free is one response to this question.

If the reviews in this roundtable are any indication, then it appears that I have effectively answered this question. I am deeply honored by this forum and most thankful to the stellar group of historians—Rhonda Y. Williams, Stefan Bradley, Danielle McGuire, and Peniel Joseph—who carefully read and deeply engaged the book. Their rich observations and insights tease out the remarkable intellectual legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer. As Peniel Joseph writes in his review, I worked to place “Hamer within a long tradition and powerful historical trajectory of Black women’s activism.” Here I was greatly aided by the growing scholarship on Hamer as well as the rich sources available to me—including Hamer’s speeches and interviews, films, historical newspapers, oral histories, and archival material. These materials provided insight into the influences, forces, and developments that shaped Hamer’s thinking and political vision. They also offered glimpses into the painful experiences Hamer endured before and after her entry into the civil rights movement. As I wrote the book, I tried to be attentive to what might best be described as both the pain and the beauty of Hamer’s life story. I wanted readers to leave with a sense of the highs and the lows of her experiences—to present an honest rendering of Hamer’s life.

In so doing, I hoped to make a broader, underlying statement about American public memory and the civil rights movement. All too often the stories of men dominate mainstream historical narratives of Black social movements, and this is certainly true when we discuss the Civil Rights-Black Power era. This is not meant to detract from the contributions of men or downplay their contributions. But my critique here is meant to emphasize the need to discard masculinist and male-dominated narratives. Despite the voluminous scholarship on Black women leaders in the movement, including the pioneering works of Barbara Ransby, Jeanne Theoharis, Vicki L. Crawford, ‎Joseph Fitzgerald, and many others, too many Americans still struggle to see Black women as significant figures in the long struggle for Black political rights. Telling Fannie Lou Hamer’s story—and believing wholeheartedly that her story is so significant that we can, and should, have multiple books written about her—is my modest attempt to bring to light the many ways Black women fundamentally shaped the civil rights movement and beyond. And by focusing on Hamer, an impoverished and disabled Black sharecropper from Mississippi with a sixth-grade education, Until I Am Free captures the diverse array of civil rights activists and leaders from different social classes and from all walks of life.

In many ways, I was thinking like a biographer—the details of her life certainly mattered to me, and I wanted to chart the developments of her life as accurately as I could. To pull this off effectively, I tried to emphasize what I viewed as the core issues that animated her life, and the central themes that guided her political work. As I detail in the book, Hamer had an all-consuming passion for social justice, which guided her commitment to making a difference in the lives of others. This fervor led Hamer to formulate an expansive vision of liberation—one that was no doubt informed by her experiences as a rural and working-poor Black woman, living with a disability, in the Jim Crow South. This political vision, captured in her well-known phrase, “Nobody’s free until every body’s free,” informed Hamer’s decision to join multiple efforts to address racism, sex discrimination, economic inequality, sexual violence, medical racism, and more. Paying close attention to several key developments in her life helps us see the evolution of Hamer’s ideas over time and help us also see the ideological underpinnings of her theory and praxis.

As Stefan Bradley reminds us, we must recognize that Fannie Lou Hamer emerged out of an organizing tradition cultivated by Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And, as I detail in the book, Hamer was very much aware of the significance of Baker and SNCC in shaping her political ideas. In one interview in 1966, she went as far as to suggest that “If SNCC hadn’t of come into Mississippi, there never would have been a Fannie Lou Hamer.”1 The SNCC members who first recruited Hamer instilled in her the importance of the community, the collective, and the importance of organizing from the bottom up. As Bradley notes, she “worked with her hands and led with her heart.” She carried this lesson with her when she asked Vice President Hubert Humphrey if his position on the Democratic ticket was more important than the Black population of Mississippi; when she asked Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. how many bales of cotton he had picked; and when she reminded the women gathered for the founding meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus that the organization could not address oppression in the United States without factoring in race. Hamer felt the most important work occurred with and for the people.

In Until I Am Free, I attempted to untangle the many threads of Hamer’s influence on the struggles for civil rights, Black Power, Black feminist activism, human rights, and against state-sanctioned violence. Fannie Lou Hamer exists as, to borrow from Peniel Joseph, a “generative force” whose legacy of speaking truth to power continues to guide our contemporary struggles. She refused to be intimidated in the face of racist violence and continued to register Black voters in Mississippi. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, she refused to be intimidated by the recognized national leaders of the civil rights movement—including Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, and Roy Wilkins—who tried to convince her and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) into accepting a two-seat, non-voting compromise from the national Democratic Party. Hamer later said she argued against the deal because “if there’s something supposed to be mine three hundred years ago, I just don’t want anybody to hand me part of it today.”2 This attitude reflected Hamer’s abiding belief in the promises of the US Constitution, but it also represents her resistance toward the idea of gradualism.

Until I Am Free is structured thematically to demonstrate Hamer’s expansive political vision. Danielle McGuire notes the importance of this structure, which helps us see Hamer’s development as a thinker over time. Although most people who know Hamer’s story will point to her infamous speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, I pay close attention to other key moments to demonstrate that Hamer’s contributions are far more expansive than one speech. In Until I am Free, readers encounter an activist and intellectual who joined a chorus of voices in the 1970s that agitated for human rights and called attention to the devaluation of Black lives at home and abroad. For example, Hamer extended her support for a 1973 boycott of the Gulf Oil Corporation. Led by the Pan-African Liberation Committee, the boycott condemned the company for its business—and tacit support of colonialism—in Portuguese territories in Africa. Hamer supported the boycott, standing in solidarity with more than fifty Black leaders at the time—among them, Afro-Trinidadian theorist C. L. R. James and African American journalist Ethel Payne.

And during this same period, Hamer left her mark on the National Women’s Political Caucus, a group she helped to establish in 1971. During a significant, yet lesser-known, speech, the activist-intellectual boldly declared, “I’ve passed equal rights. 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.”3 These moments, combined with my broader discussion of Hamer’s internationalist ideas, help us see Hamer in a new light—not solely as a civil rights activist, but as a human rights activist as well.

While the biographical details of Hamer’s life were of importance to me, I was also thinking about the “here-and-now”—as Rhonda Y. Williams points out. Indeed, I found it impossible to write about Hamer without thinking about Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor and so many others. And I wanted to make those connections very clear—so clear in fact I settled on the decision to start most of the chapters with contemporary scenes (much like I would approach the writing of an op-ed). In so doing, I was able to both center Hamer within the civil rights movement and to connect the civil rights movement to the present. As Rhonda Y. Williams beautifully states in her contribution to this forum, “The here-and-now narratively frames the past, while the past helps us diagnose the here-and-now.”

This is the juncture where I hope Until I am Free will leave a lasting mark—on the scholarship, but also on society as a whole. Despite the many gains of the civil rights movement, we find ourselves at a moment where the present too closely resembles the past. From renewed assaults on voting rights and “critical race theory” bans to the widening wealth gap, health disparities exacerbated by COVID-19, and the persistence of state-sanctioned violence, many of the challenges we face today are ones that Hamer grappled with in her lifetime. Drawing on the politics of love, she set out to help build an inclusive democracy—working closely with activists from diverse backgrounds. Her ideas and political philosophies certainly speak to the current moment and if we choose to listen, I believe they may provide a blueprint for contemporary struggles. We don’t have to “start from scratch”—we can draw lessons from courageous leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer who were unwavering in the fight for social justice.

  1. Fannie Lou Hamer, interview by Anne and Howard Romaine, Anne Romaine Interviews, 1966–1967, November 1966, Ruleville, Mississippi, transcript, 2, Archives Main Stacks, SC 1069, Folder 1, WIHVR2050-A, Freedom Summer Digital Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI, https://content.wisconsinhistory.org/digital/collection/ p15932coll2/id/13726, in Keisha N. Blain, Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021), 45.
  2. Fannie Lou Hamer, “‘What Have We to Hail?,’ Speech Delivered in Kentucky, Summer 1968,” The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer, 82, in Blain, Until I Am Free, 55.
  3. Fannie Lou Hamer, “‘Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free,’ Speech Delivered at the Founding of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Washington, D.C., July 10, 1971,” The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer, 136, in Blain, Until I Am Free, 80.
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Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain is a historian of the 20th century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.

Comments on “Fannie Lou Hamer’s Message to Contemporary America

  • Sister Keisha Blain, I just had to thank you after reading this article on your book, ‘UNTIL I AM FREE’. In this super important time as Black/Brown/POC activists around the county work overtime on reframing our orientation towards voting, your book will help us stabilize what we’re trying to build. We need to always remember those who came before us and that requires examining the foundations they gave us, as we add onto that which they were building. FANNIE LOU HAMER’S SPIRIT IS STILL MOVING ON! ASE.

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