Until I Am Free: Teaching Fannie Lou Hamer Past and Present


Fannie Lou Hamer Garden, Mississippi Freedom Trial (Flickr)

What we don’t know about the real life of the civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer could fill a book. Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America provides a fresh perspective on an exhaustive body of literature about Hamer’s spectacular role in the civil rights movement. Academic approaches to this civil rights icon have not paid sufficient attention to Hamer as a Black woman, who suffered the consequences of her convictions, yet still mustered the courage to be true to them no matter the personal cost. The content of this deficiency can and should be taught in the university classroom. Dr. Blain’s latest book provides a compelling road map to these teachable moments. What gives her book such pedagogical strength is its ability to make coherent connections between significant movements and issues of the present and the struggles and events of the past. For example, in addition to the book’s poignant analysis of the state of voting rights in America since the 1960s, Blain examines the ever-looming threat of white violence against Black bodies, the state of Black leadership, and the scourge of Black Southern poverty. Carefully chosen sources expose the connections between these issues in Hamer’s day and ours. They also serve as teaching tools – here’s how to use them. 

The reason I would rather go to Mound Bayou if I take sick, is that women go up to that hospital [the white hospital in Ruleville] and be sterilized, without signing anything. And to be perfectly honest, see, I can give you proof: It happened to me. And it happened to so many others. This is nothing beautiful to say, but I want people to know what’s going on. They [Black women] be sterilized without knowing it…

This excerpt from a New York Times article entitled “Mississippi ‘Black Home’: A Sweet and Bitter Bluesong” by June Jordan, is an excellent way to begin a seminar on reproductive rights for many reasons. Written in 1970, it offers the historical grounding for a discussion on reproductive freedom. Historically,  Black women’s struggle with forced sterilization has been sidelined to the concerns of mainstream reproductive rights agenda, particularly concerning abortion rights. Black reproductive autonomy has been denied in favor of economic interests in times of slavery through Black female sterilization policy during the 1960s and 1970s and state-run sterilization programs throughout the 20th century and across the United States, that resulted in more than 60,000 sterilizations of those with mental disorders, physical disabilities, and in Black and Brown women considered to be “feeble-minded.” Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: Race Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty views the violation of Black women’s reproductive autonomy as an iteration of white supremacy. I would use this secondary source to make larger claims about sterilization and race in America.

Additionally, the above excerpt made by Fannie Lou Hamer herself, speaks to the real struggles of the woman behind the myth, her very personal experience of medical violence, and her courage in refusing to be silent about it. I would have my students read an extract from Blain’s book, specifically “Why Had He Done That To Me” (pp 34 – 39), which gives an in depth account of her forced sterilization. Finally, using a more recent New York Times article: “You Just Feel Like Nothing’: California to Pay Sterilization Victims,” by Amanda Morris (July 11, 2021), I would lead a discussion about Hamer’s experience compared to the recent reparations victory for 20,000 disabled, poor, and people of color who were sterilized in California as a result of a statewide eugenics program that lasted for decades throughout the 20th century.

 While older Black voters are paralyzed by pragmatism when faced with the potential for a second term of Donald Trump, they have also been conditioned to accept the absolute least from political representatives. At the same time, young Black people are rebelling against the strangulation of the status quo. This includes a stale Black leadership that regularly fails to rise to challenges confronting this generation, which refuses to accept the symbolism of Black leadership without its professed rewards. Black elected officials have become adept at mobilizing the tropes of Black identity without any of its political content.

This excerpt from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s 2020 New York Times op-ed article “The End of Black Politics,” speaks to the generational conflict that plagued the national civil rights movement in American history. Its central thesis that “[b]lack leaders regularly fail to rise to the challenges that confront young people,” has recently played out in the nationwide protest movement in reaction to George Floyd’s murder. According to Taylor, this protest revealed two generations of protestors within the Black community: young people who took to the streets and engaged in more confrontational grassroots tactics versus the older generations of Black leadership who lethargically fumbled through their old playbooks looking for more bureaucratic and institutional solutions to 21st century problems. 

We saw the same pattern of frustration in the 1960s when the young SNCC leadership adapted more aggressive direct action politics, more confrontational rhetoric, and endorsed strategies of armed self-defense, whereas their SCLC predecessors sought more mainstream and middle-class means of protest. Although her age cohort should have given her the natural inclination to side with the old guard, Fannie Lou Hamer stood with the new generation of Black leaders.  In Chapter 3 “We Want Leaders” particularly the section entitled “Let Some of the Grassroots People Have a Chance” (pp. 43-50), Blain examines Hamer’s criteria for effective Black leadership. This section also reveals Hamer’s strong belief that leadership should come from the local communities they live in, while age, educational pedigree, and class seemed unimportant vectors of consideration. A comparative analysis between Hamer, Taylor, and your classroom’s definition of effective Black leadership would be most instructive here.

Food justice means racial justice, demanding a clear-eyed understanding of how white supremacy has shaped our food systems” and that “nutritious, affordable, and culturally relevant food is a universal human right.

This quote from the blog entry in The Conversation entitled “How urban planning and housing policy helped create ‘food apartheid’ in US cities by Professor Julian Agyeman speaks to the current problem of hunger in America which emerged from concentrated pockets of poverty in urban spaces and disproportionately impact Black and Latino communities. The section of Blain’s book entitled “Food is used as a Political Weapon,” (pp. 121-127) examines Hamer’s fight against poverty through the launch of the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969. Hamer understood how certain White political leaders weaponized poverty and hunger to prevent Black people from accessing political power. Using both these sources provides an opportunity to analyze poverty and food apartheid in urban and rural areas across the U.S. at the end of the twentieth century and in this century.

In addition to the issues of voting rights and police brutality, Until I Am Free provides opportunities to think critically about other controversial issues. This book can also be used as a catalyst for discussions about the criteria for reliable sources and where to find them. Finally, beyond these teachable moments, beyond the myth and iconization of Black civil rights leadership,  engaging with Blain’s work creates a forum to discuss other issues of race in America past and present and to re-visit the civil rights era to understand both the pain and the beauty that shaped Hamer’s life story.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


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.

Comments on “Until I Am Free: Teaching Fannie Lou Hamer Past and Present

  • Avatar

    Another unsung hero exposed. It is so informative and disturbing to read this and think about what is going on today with all the book banning efforts within our school system. Some things done to a race if people during slavery and even today needs to be brought forward and presented especially today! Some are trying to rewrite history but we must continue to expose, write and remind others that this did happen and we don’t need to let it happen again! Very well done.

Comments are closed.