Remembering Civil Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer

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

Fannie Lou Hamer Mural (Flickr/Mags)

I teach a course titled Biographies of Struggle. It’s a university seminar that examines identity, politics, and protest through social biography, testimonies, and oral life narratives. Students read about the lives of social justice changemakers, consider political coming-of-age stories, and grapple with the ways these social actors experienced and challenged oppression. The last time I taught the course, I focused explicitly on Black women. Fannie Lou Hamer was one of three Black women anchoring the course. The other two were Ella Baker and Patrisse Khan-Cullors.

As written in my syllabus, I wanted “to challenge the ‘great man’ theory of history and social movements by centering the (auto)biographical narratives of black women.” I wanted students to “have a better understanding of the lives, roles, and contributions of black women, as well as the impact of race and gender in society and social justice movements.” Both aims reflect the critically necessary work of recognizing the broader range of change agents—in this case, Black women – and their visions for how to be free and freely “be” in the world—then and now.

I titled Hamer’s unit, “Through the Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer: Personal Costs, Social Issues & Political Struggles.” We read the award-winning For Freedom’s Sake by Chana Kai Lee, a Black woman historian. Amazingly, this book is already over 20 years old! Students were also required to read Keisha N. Blain’s article in the Smithsonian Magazine and review select audio and video clips of Hamer. I wanted them to listen to Hamer’s messages on multiple registers; to grapple with the richness, as well as limits, of different kinds of historical sources. I wanted them to see, and to hear, and maybe even to pick up an energetic trace of Hamer—her presence, pain, and passion as she confronted oppressive power.

Most of my class—a very diverse group—hadn’t heard of or read much about Hamer. They were appalled by the daily indignities, racialized gender violence, and medical inequalities that she experienced. They were moved by her political and community-based activism. And they were stirred by her commitment to eradicate Black poverty born of white people’s drive for economic supremacy.

As I read the Introduction of Until I Am Free, this course came to mind. For in the book’s introduction, Blain describes being “blown away” when she first learned about Fannie Lou Hamer in 2008, and then she invites us to consider Hamer’s living “insights.” (xviii)

The echoes that arose, from this remembering, were palpable, haunting—and hopeful.

Palpable, because, even more than a decade later, name recognition—let alone awareness of Hamer’s doings, impacts, and visions—are still too sparse.

Haunting, because of contemporary efforts to erase knowledge of the intimacy and pervasiveness of cruelty, and ignore the traumas borne of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy that braid the past and present—as if the energies of animosity and heartlessness will simply disappear if we “ban” them.

Hopeful, because in the act of creating this course, witnessing Black women’s lives, and encouraging the art of questioning (not just passively imbibing or memorizing), there was an opening, sensing, arriving that gestured toward the possibility of discernment indispensable for recognizing and reckoning with the “then,” as well as the “here and now.”

Keeping Shining Lights Lit

In Until I Am Free, we have evidence that helps us further recognize and reckon. Philosophies that gesture. Narratives that shine a light on the experiences and insights manifested through Black women’s persistent struggles against poverty, gender discrimination, anti-Blackness, state violence, and health and medical injustices. I imagine that for some readers, the mere necessity and relevance of this book may register as palpable and haunting, but hopeful … hmmm?

But there is … hope … here. Not a pollyannish or naive hope. This hope is cultivated, conversant. It resides in the intentionality of defying (by historians, historical actors, and activists) the will to dehumanize while claiming Black people’s human rights, dignity, and quality of life. Making sense of the philosophies underneath the struggles waged by Hamer and others is no abstract matter—despite the inventiveness (or connivance) of the mind in making free and unfree people. This is the political and spirit work of comprehending, of discerning, of responding to the repercussions of living as people, in differently valued bodies, with different anatomies, covered in different skins, in a world driven by profit, greased by excess, and enraptured by power and the commodification of people.

So, we remember … & grapple with … echoes and power … until I am/we are free.

Echo 1—Palpable: Liberating Silences

“Fannie Lou Hamer,” unlike “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” (among others), is still not a household name. Her relative obscurity is as profound as the socially inflicted marginalization conveyed by that obscurity. Poor Black women in rural and urban communities in the United States are continuously damned, deemed disposable, and despised. Whether public housing tenants, welfare recipients, domestics and household workers, low-wage factory laborers, or agricultural workers, they all experience precarity even as they become sources of profit—ideological and monetary—for others

It is in this context of obscurity, that deliberate moves to silence are so palpable.

Part historical biography, part political exegesis, part current events primer, Until I Am Free narrates the grounded realities and spiritual faith that gave rise to Hamer’s activist conviction and political philosophy. A sharecropper since the age of six who became politically active in her mid-40s, Hamer suffered economic exploitation, beatings-by-white police officers (and the Black male prisoners commanded by them), and sterilization-by-white medical professionals. She contended with retribution for trying to exercise her right to vote, which she saw as a tool in service of something greater—economic justice. From 1962 until her death from heart failure in 1977, Hamer struggled to secure civil rights, economic self-sufficiency (“a pig and a garden”), and community wellness.

Poor and working-class Black women like Hamer have been publicly and habitually demonized and ill-treated. Indeed, caricatures of poor Black women, which render them mute even while advancing political agendas of, for instance, urban renewal, welfare reform, and “predatory inclusion,” have openly rationalized systems of inequalities, as well as shrouded mechanisms of power. And these mechanisms of power are in operation whether the targets are poor Black women themselves or, as Blain shows, other Black women across the class spectrum.

So, there is that, and this: Black women have, as individuals and a collective, experienced disregard and violence not only in white society, but also in Black society. This has been so in Black families, households, neighborhoods, communities, organizations, and liberation movements. As Blain observes, Hamer faced disrespect from other civil rights leaders “whose conception of leadership did not include an impoverished and disabled Black woman with a sixth-grade education.” (48) This disregard has also shaped poorer Black women and their inclusion (or lack thereof) in narrations of Black liberation struggles.

Again, these acts of narration are no abstract matter. They are replicative forms of condescension and hostility born of, and steeped in, global capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. It is about power, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot makes so clear in Silencing the Past. “What is at stake in pastness,” as Hazel V. Carby writes in the book’s Foreword, “is the future, the process of becoming.”1

Narratives reveal and shape our historical memories, attitudes, and politics. Narratives reveal and shape our consciousness, imaginings, and visions, Narratives guide the spirit and future of possibilities. The act of silencing is a narrative of power, and as Carby insists—and Blain does—“we need to make silences speak.”2 Remembering Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor.

Echo 2—Haunting: Disfiguring Acts

In liberating silences (of suppressed voices and enduring messages), there is emergent clarity that exposes disfiguring matrixes of power that continue to be wielded and thus prophecy a tenacious callousness, particularly if we are not engaged in reckoning and rallying for change. Hamer contributed to this legacy of reckoning and rallying. The invocation, “Tell It Like It Is,” as a chapter title is one of Hamer’s ever so timely enduring messages (as are all the chapter titles). Indeed, the dominant culture’s preservation of hierarchies of humanity and, by extension, inequalities continue to fuel the entreaties of Black women liberationists, who themselves are contesting disfiguring acts.

In Until I Am Free, the here-and-now narratively frames the past, while the past helps us diagnose the here-and-now. And the truth is, this now-time (2022)—indeed the last half-decade—is rife with historical disfigurement. Of poor and working-class Black women. Of radical Black women. Of radical women of color.

We are in a moment when history has yet again (though when has it not) been politicized. When primarily conservative white politicians, white-led school boards, and white parents (among others) are engaged in campaigns to bury the history of racism and white supremacist power, invalidate the stories of marginalized peoples, and diminish understandings of wealth inequality by transmogrifying, for instance, critical race theory into a bogey while disfiguring its premises and (indirectly) its thinkers, including Black feminist legal scholars such as Patricia J. Williams and Kimberlé Crenhsaw. We are in a vortex of all manner of feverish and anti-democratic assaults. And, as Blain reminds us, Hamer struggled vigorously to make democracy real.

These contemporary assaults (and their past kin) involve the undermining of Black (and brown) voting rights, a rise in hate crimes, the disregarding of white mob violence (and treasonous insurrection), and the active derision of truths that expose anti-Blackness, gender oppression, exploitation, police violence, and people-of-color immigrant xenophobia. In dialogue with Hamer in Until I Am Free are the lives and deaths of Bland and Taylor, the intra-racial domestic violence experienced by a Megan Thee Stallion, and the struggles against racism and xenophobia of an Opal Tometi, all of which serve as reminders of Black women’s special plights and beckons us to wade in the waters of their “boldness and radical honesty.” (xiii)

The work of making the past—its legacies and messages—legible in the present remains a critical antidote (not to be conflated with panacea) to the 21st-century projects of silencing—banning books, spinning news, and just making up stuff. There is no debating the need for clear and impassioned truth-telling. Hamer used “the power of public testimony” (32) to contest state-sanctioned violence before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. And Blain, uses the power of narrative to convey the stakes of buying into romanticized apparitions of the past that dismiss an enduring message of Black women’s struggles: “Until I am free … you are not either.”

Echo 3—Hopeful: Volition & Living in Wellness

In all these echoes, there is a nod to collective intimacy and wellness. This is where I’d like to end—with some contemplations on both. For Hamer’s collectivist vision serves as inspiration for investigating not only materiality and interrelations of oppressive power, but also the psychic, volitional aspects of freedom.

“Life’s purpose” (2), aspirations, and wellness—these are neither minor, nor self-indulgent matters, given the ever-present perils briefly touched upon thus far. As I read about Hamer and her present-day interlocutors, I returned to my own contemplations about the ways social distance undermines interconnection, the work of interfacing with ancestors, and identifying a volition that centers resistance and wellness.

Who am I? Who am I in the we? What is my political coming of age story? What drives me? What do I care about? How am I understanding the terrors of the past and the horrors of now? How do I/we take care of ourselves and each other, given the urgency, weightiness, and threat of marginalization (and death) that can come with contesting the status quo? How do I/we preserve our spirits and wholeness on this quest called liberation?

After Hamer’s terrible beating by police, Andrew Young, James Bevel, and Dorothy Cotton took her to an “urban retreat space” in Atlanta, Georgia. Mennonite House was run by Rosemarie Freeney Harding and her husband—historian, and civil rights activist Vincent Harding.3

Freeney Harding was a Black mother, teacher, social worker, civil rights activist, community-builder, social justice steward, and healer who drew on many spiritual traditions. I only learned about her a couple of years ago. I was struck by so many aspects of her story, but there is no room to discuss that here. I will mention, however, that as a child, in 1948, she moved with her family to Altgeld Gardens, a public housing complex on the outskirts of Chicago. At that time, Altgeld was still new and exciting, and it was built close to a chemical refuse dump, and it was far away from stores, so her family had to shop in a nearby white community. As a result, “the money … did not stay in that community,” she wrote. “I was starting to notice these kinds of things.”4 Her eyes were opening to racial and economic inequalities at a very early age. Her lived experience, as well as those of family, ancestors, and the other “remnants” of her life, led her onto the path of activism and healing—one infused with the desire to transform “collective trauma into empathy and acumen.”5

This spirit, volition, and hope anchored the Mennonite House—the place Hamer and other civil rights activists went to for refuge. This spirit work of creating refuge was/is an act of defiance against the cultural hegemony that harms people and deadens the soul. Having spaces of short- and long-term refuge—like Mennonite House and the church for Hamer—provided a measure of respite.

Community, spirit, and faith—these were the crucial foundations in the face of trauma that helped Hamer as well as Freeney Harding (and other Black women activists such as Ericka Huggins) survive and stay the course of their volitions. This spirit work (not to be conflated with religion) testifies to the import of wellness, even amid suffering. This spirit work also brings us full circle to the echo of hope, inviting us to take seriously not just the external conditions, but the interiors, of our lives. It invites us to ask of the past and present: How are we creating these spaces as a core aspect, not an afterthought, of being free in the world? How did, and do, Black women take care of themselves? Where are the spaces for contemplative practice, community care, play, and joy? What initiatives, like the Village of Love and Resistance in Baltimore, are trying to blend spirit, economic justice, and grassroots community-building in the 21st century? What can histories tell us about Black Love, and what can spaces like the Nap Ministry reveal about rest as resistance?

         If I may,

… conjure …

bell hooks (1952-2021).

This radical Black feminist, historian, author queried in 2017 – 40 years after Hamer died: How do we build communities of love? That is, communities that stand against racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, violence, and other forms of oppression, and for an ethics of interconnection that values Black life and all humanity. Remembering, echoing, an enduring message, an expansive vision: Until I am free … you are not either.

  1. Hazel V. Carby, Foreword, Silencing the Past, xiii.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Rosemarie Freeney Harding with Rachel Elizabeth Harding, Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering (2015).
  4. Remnants, 75.
  5. Foreword: Daughter’s Precis,” Remnants, xiii.
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Rhonda Y. Williams

Rhonda Y. Williams, the John L. Seigenthaler Chair in American History at Vanderbilt University, is a historian of low-income black women’s and marginalized people’s experiences, everyday lives, politics, and social struggles. She is the author of the award-winning The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality (2004) and Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century (2015). She is the author of numerous articles and essays, including the forthcoming book chapter titled “Women, Gender, Race, and the Welfare State” in the Oxford Handbook for Women’s and Gender History, co-edited by Lisa Materson and Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor. Williams is also the co-editor of the book series Justice, Power, and Politics at the University of North Carolina Press and is co-editor of Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement. At present, Williams is researching illicit narcotics economies in the post-1930s United States and continues to examine the history of black power politics in the United States

Comments on “Remembering Civil Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer

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    I love that is wonderful response to until I am free sends us to this wonderful quote on which I wanna ride the rest of my day:

    “How will you be useless to capitalism today?” -Bronte Velez

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    Excellent article, Dr. Rhonda. You are missed in CLE.
    I recently came across an article from 1964 in the Cleveland Call & Post that showed Ms. Hamer spoke at the opening of the Rev. Bruce Klunder House, opened by CORE. I had no idea!
    Thank you for your tireless commitment to uplifting our community and our history.

    Much love and respect, always.

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    Thank you, Dr. Rhonda for this powerful remembrance of Fannie Lou Hamer.
    I recently discovered an article about Ms. Hamer from April, 1965, where she and John Lewis spoke in Cleveland at the memorial service for Rev. Bruce Klunder. I had no idea.
    Ever grateful for your unswerving commitment to our community and our history. You are missed in CLE.

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