The Local Politics of Fannie Lou Hamer

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

Fannie Lou Hamer sign in Ruleville, Missisippi (Wikimedia Commons)

By age 44, most people are figuring out how to live and die peacefully. That was certainly not the case with sharecropper and shero Fannie Lou Hamer. Exactly a year and day before the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, she made the decision to confront racism and face almost certain death by registering to vote. Likely, most Americans have never heard of Hamer or know little about her if they have. That is not entirely surprising. In the sanitized version of history, there is no respectable place for large, dark-skinned, disabled Black women who chose not to be quiet about oppression. America has preferred women with those traits to be behind aprons or rearing someone else’s children. In Until I Am Free, award-winning scholar and professor Keisha N. Blain admirably situates Hamer in the pantheon of the most fearless and effective freedom fighters of the Black Freedom Movement.

In 1962, when Hamer joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Sunflower County, Mississippi, people who had the nerve to believe they deserved the freedom rights that the U.S. Constitution enumerated took their lives into their own hands. Hamer quickly learned the rules of white supremacist suppression when not only government officials but her employer coalesced to stifle her right to the franchise. After registering to vote, she lost her job as a sharecropper, where she had been exploited for her labor for almost two decades. Hamer later faced debilitating physical violence for committing the unforgivable sin of encouraging Americans (who happened to be Black) to participate in democracy. Until I Am Free reveals the depths of courage found in Hamer, an unlikely protagonist.

There have been several book-length treatments covering the lives of SNCC activists like Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Bob Moses, and Diane Nash. Although journalists, scholars, and activists have written biographies of Hamer, Blain’s work is unique in that it is as prescriptive and forward facing as it is a history. More than biography; Until I Am Free is a call to action. By examining speeches from Hamer, Blain draws clear links between past and present racist atrocities. Hamer’s life demonstrates what is possible when one dedicates oneself to justice in spite of the circumstances. The author refers to recent tragedies like the police involved deaths of Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and George Floyd as part and parcel of a history of racial repression that included Hamer and her contemporaries.

Until I Am Free fits nicely in Blain’s larger catalogue that highlights the efforts of Black women challenging racism and sexism at the roots. This includes Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom as well as countless articles capturing the fierceness of unrecognized figures. Blain recently edited Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 (2021), where she continued in her noble mission to hold Black women history-makers aloft. A major strength of Until I Am Free is the length is perfect for readers of all levels.  It is especially right for young people who are currently in the movement. Although Blain has focused on an individual freedom fighter, the book is just as much about the power of organizing. SNCC introduced Hamer to the concept of voting, and yet SNCC had not sought the permission of any established civil rights leaders to create a base of operations in the South. The young college students and activists, knowing the difference between right and wrong, pressed the action and changed the nation from the bottom up. The methods SNCC adopted and its approach to leadership greatly appealed to Hamer. Participatory democracy and their insistence on living, eating, suffering, and celebrating with the people to empower them to act on their own behalf attracted Hamer who had always used community to survive in the rural South.

With this new and welcomed scholarly treatment of Hamer, Blain shows that the Mississippi mother of the movement was the embodiment of the organizing method that Ella Baker envisioned. Early in the text, Blain emphasizes the fact that Hamer, like Baker, respected the male ministers who led recognizable organizations but did not find it prudent or practical to rely on one figure to lead movements. Hamer carried forward the torch of justice that Baker lit. If freedom was to be had in Mississippi, it would not be because of one messianic figure but rather the organizing efforts of the people, according to Hamer. She rejected the notion that outside leadership “who don’t know nothing about the problems” and only been around for a few weeks could save her. “They not leading us. And that’s the truth,” Hamer exclaimed (46). That is instructive. Blain uses Hamer’s work and words to illustrate possibilities for today’s activists for Black Lives. With her courage to act and insistence on grassroots activism, Blain argues that Hamer is the model for progressive leadership.  Blain’s new book is in the same vein as that of eminent scholar Barbara Ransby, who revitalized the memory of SNCC progenitor Ella Baker with the essential volume, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Vision (2005).

It becomes clear that in some ways, Hamer was both the converse and the perfect complement of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. King maintained a diplomatic posture as a national figure while Hamer agitated without name recognition. To be sure, Hamer and King were both certifiably brave and beloved, as they dedicated their lives to the people. As Blain is keen to point out, however, the two leaders agreed on the need for freedom but differed on approaches to the movement. Where King grew up in a southern city in a Black middle-class home, Hamer experienced rural poverty very early on in her life. Hamer was undereducated and destitute as a child while King enrolled in a private college—Morehouse—at age 15 to pursue the ministerial trade of his father and grandfather. Hamer’s family did not own the land on which it worked while King’s family had stable housing. Hamer did, however, know the country roads well, and most notably, she spoke the language of her fellow sharecroppers.

Hamer worked with her hands and led with her heart. While King received international accolades in the early to mid-1960s, Hamer (in Mississippi) sought a path out of a system designed to destroy her morale and keep her working forever. Because she navigated the treacherous path of racial capitalism in its most entangled forms, she became, as Blain most ably demonstrates, one of the finest field generals of the movement. The contrast of methodologies and principles came to a head in 1964 when Hamer and King parted ways over the two “at-large” non-voting seats that the national Democratic Party offered the upstart Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Hamer, who intimately had felt the pain of anti-Black racist representation in Mississippi, refused to compromise what she said was “supposed to be mine three hundred years ago” (55). Hamer later supported King’s Poor People’s Campaign, but she stood her ground when it came to the representative politics of the 1964 elections. Blain does not pit Hamer against King and other leaders but rather explores Hamer’s distinctive style in a movement that allowed for nuance.

Often, historians freeze significant figures in time; such is not the case with Blain in Until I Am Free. Perhaps inadvertently, some scholars focus so intently on where the subjects were at a particular moment that they neglect the concept that history-makers evolve to play equally valuable and substantial roles in other parts of their lives. Blain, however, allows the reader to see beyond the moment when Fannie Lou Hamer testified before members of Congress or spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. For Hamer, life after the 1960s was equally harrowing and fulfilling. Blain captures Hamer in the various stages of the activist’s life. The historian not only extracts the rawness of laboring in the cotton fields of the Delta but also the deep affection Hamer had for her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer. As Fannie Lou Hamer grew in stature as an organizer, the traditional boundaries of gender roles inside and outside the home necessarily stretched. Determined to stay together, the couple accommodated to life in the movement.

Blain reminds the reader that whether meeting with President Sékou Touré, Malcolm X, or the members of the Freedom Farm Cooperative that she started, Hamer maintained the same spirit of indefatigable hope. She asserted that Black people around the world deserved the opportunity to make a decent living and chart the course of their lives. Although she earned respect from people throughout the world, she made Mississippi the headquarters for her freedom fight. This differentiates her from many of the great leaders of the movement like Baker and Rosa Parks, who eventually left the South.

There, deep in the Delta, Hamer understood that it was not just the lack of voting rights that disempowered Black people; the lack of quality healthcare, safe housing, and the unfair treatment of law enforcement was fatal. Blain astutely notes that violence was a major and constant theme in Hamer’s life. She was not just a victim of state violence when she was brutally beaten for pursuing the franchise, but Hamer also experienced medical violence firsthand. Like too many Black women throughout the South, Hamer was sterilized. A racist white physician performed an unauthorized hysterectomy on Hamer, dashing all hopes of carrying children. Anti-Black racism was critically invasive in the life of Mississippians from voting to healthcare to the economy. Blain emphasizes the severity of fear and pain these circumstances caused.

In spite of the deep trauma she knew in Mississippi, Hamer never left her home state for long. She spent her entire life in Mississippi cultivating land and freedom campaigns. Unfortunately, there seem to be no glorious ends for the most righteous of rebels. Even after undergoing a mastectomy, Hamer died of cancer while suffering from type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease along with other ailments. It was fitting that Hamer joined the ancestors in Mound Bayou, a town in Mississippi that Black people founded in the 1880s. The hope it took to build something like that for the people is that for which Hamer lived and died.

This generation is fortunate to have Blain’s tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi mother of the movement. Hamer more than deserves the acknowledgment and praise. As Blain illustrates, Hamer was the personal shero and inspiration of the movement makers of the past. Until I Am Free boldly reifies the fearless freedom fighter’s place in the historical narrative and provides contemporary agitators with a viable model of a journey to justice.

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Stefan Bradley

Stefan M. Bradley is currently the Charles Hamilton Houston 1915 Professor of Black Studies and History at Amherst College. Previously, he was the inaugural associate dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts and Professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University. Prior to that, he spent many years supporting the students and community of St. Louis as Director of the African American Studies Program and Associate Professor of History at Saint Louis University. An educator at heart, Bradley’s life ambition is to personally teach, mentor, and inspire the young people who change the world for the better. Bradley’s publications include his newest book, Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League, which is a finalist for the PROSE Book Award; Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s that won the Phillis Wheatley Book Prize; and, Alpha Phi Alpha: A Legacy of Greatness, The Demands of Transcendence. His articles have been featured in the Journal of African American History, the Journal of Civil and Human Rights, and American Studies. To discuss his research, he has appeared on C-Span BookTV; NPR; PRI, as well as at universities and colleges throughout the nation. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSBradley.