Mississippi civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) is often remembered for the bold speech she delivered at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where she resisted gender, racial and class discrimination to ensure she was heard. Hamer, whose life was scarred by struggle, injustice and abuse, remained steadfast in her political activism partly because she believed no one in America would be free until African Americans were free to pursue the liberties granted to them by God and the U.S. Constitution.
Prior to that convention, Hamer had worked with SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) to “create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which defied the White power structure,” historian Dr. Kate Clifford Larson told Faithfully Magazine.
The all-White Democratic state delegation from Mississippi was infuriated that Hamer was even allowed to speak.
“To go to the convention and plead with the Democratic Party to let them sit and represent Mississippi, they were very brave,” Larson said. “Hamer and her delegation could’ve been killed on their way back home. But they wanted the world to know what was going on there, that it was real. Black people in Mississippi were being killed for wanting to exercise their right to vote.”
Larson spent three years researching Hamer’s life and work for her latest book, Walk With Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer. An in-depth examination of Hamer’s life, speeches, and pivotal civil rights struggle, Walk With Me puts the outspoken Black Christian activist—who was determined to make that little light of hers shine—in context. Larson, a women’s studies research scholar at Brandeis University, specializes in 19th and 20th century Women’s and African American history. She also authored Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero.
In a phone interview with Faithfully Magazine, the award-winning historian spotlights the singular life of Fannie Lou Hamer and how her Christian faith sustained her amid violent responses to her work as a civil rights activist. The transcript has been lightly edited for length.
Fannie Lou Hamer grew up in the Mississippi Delta, during the post reconstruction era. Can you explain the sharecropping system prevalent then?
It’s hard for some today to imagine such a system that perpetuated poverty. Sharecropping was a system where predominantly White landowners would carve up their farms, typically former plantations. White and Black farmers would work those plots of land that have been carved up, farming it with food crops—or cotton, as in the Mississippi Delta. At the end of the season, they would share the profits of that crop with the landowner. The landowner often would deduct from their profits such things as the costs of feed, any equipment that was used, and every little item that the landowner could charge. People were tied to these contracts that kept them locked into that land. While it was profitable for landowners, it was persistent low-wage living for people who had no other skills or opportunities to get out of it.
In terms of the conditions Hamer’s family lived with on that sharecropping farm, what sort of inequities did they face at a personal level?
There’s racism that a lot of people recognize: when Black people get paid less and they’re treated poorly and they don’t have access to resources that White families do—all of which she faced. But sometimes it comes down to simple things, like the home that the Marlows owned while they ‘provided’ the family a small sharecropper house.
Fannie Lou Hamer worked for the Marlows, cleaning their house. That White family’s dog had its own dedicated bathroom, which Fannie Lou was made to clean. But the Marlows wouldn’t even fix the bathroom in her family’s sharecropper house. Mr. Marlow said, “You don’t need it, there’s an outhouse for your kind.” For the Marlows, they didn’t expect White people to live that way. But it was just their world that it’s okay for Black people to live that way. Why make the effort to make life comfortable for ‘the help?’ They felt: “If we gave them this, what else are they going to ask for?” It reflected this insidious, systemic racism that permeated Black and White life in Mississippi.
Even in her younger years, are there examples of how Hamer would resist being deemed as ‘less than?’
She would find ways to take something for herself that she felt had been denied her. Sometimes she would eat some of the Marlows’ food when they weren’t looking. Or she would take a bath in their bathtub, making sure to try out all the soaps and perfumes. In a way, it was her personal way of mocking the Marlows, but also something to bring pleasure for herself. It was this secret power that she felt that she had. She would do these little seemingly harmless things, which would offend them greatly if they knew. But it was her way of exacting some measure of justice and equality.
Similarly, she righted wrongs done on that farm where she worked. All over the South, the pea weights used to measure harvested crops were altered—so it would be unfair to the sharecroppers. But Fannie Lou watched and knew what was going on. When they weren’t looking, she switched out that weighted pea to one that was accurate. She fooled those bosses and made a difference for every sharecropper on that farm.
As she began to volunteer as a civil rights activist, an incident occurred in a small town in central Mississippi that she still recounted years later. What happened?
Fannie Lou Hamer had been with a group of SNCC and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) workers at a training program in Georgia. Returning home on a bus, they stopped in Winona, Mississippi, to go to the bathroom and get something to eat. They tried to integrate the bus station, which legally should have been integrated because a federal court had mandated that for all interstate bus stations. But that particular bus station was not—so the activists were pushed out of the station.
The police arrested the small group that Hamer was with; Hamer didn’t even go in, but they arrested her, too. She was the oldest of the group. When they got in the jail, the police started brutally beating them according to multiple sources. One of the girls was 15-year-old June Johnson, and they beat Annell Ponder, terribly assaulted her. Then they started beating Hamer, and they sexually assaulted her as well.
She received injuries that disabled her for the rest of her life due to that beating. Her kidneys were severely damaged. She suffered injury to her left eye. But Hamer held on to her faith, praying with the other women in the jail cell and singing that song, “Walk with Me, [Lord].” And so she survived.
Six months later in central Mississippi, the prison guards and police officers who beat her up were on trial. But it was a mockery of justice. The jury was out maybe an hour, came back, and said that the men were not guilty. Hamer and the rest of them endured the trial, but they knew what was going to happen. They knew the men would never be held accountable for the abuse and violence perpetrated on them.
After she was assaulted in the Winona jail, it’s like she was born again. No matter what anybody else did, she was going to plow ahead knowing it was the right thing to do. She was going to take the risks and consequences, no matter what.
Some of Hamer’s family members were not pleased with her activism. What were the nature of those tensions?
Not everybody was willing and able to confront the power structure. When Fannie Lou Hamer joined the Civil Rights Movement through SNCC and CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality), some locals including members of her family were not keen on that. They had every right to be afraid. As a result of her work, more violence, threats, and repercussions rained down on that community. Many of them were not willing to accept those consequences in order to get rights that they were owed as American citizens.
But Fannie Lou was not going to take it anymore. After she was assaulted in the Winona jail, it’s like she was born again. No matter what anybody else did, she was going to plow ahead knowing it was the right thing to do. She was going to take the risks and consequences, no matter what. Some people in the community really disliked her because of that, and a few even worked to thwart the efforts of civil rights activists.
In Walk With Me, you recount how some people appealed to her faith—arguing that politics was of the devil. Yet, it seems her Christian beliefs are what inspired her to take a stand. It’s interesting how faith arguments were made on both sides.
As I researched her speeches, I was shocked by how Fannie Lou Hamer would ridicule Black ministers quite frequently. She was incensed because the sermons of the ones that she criticized—not all of them did this—were echoes from the days of slavery. They discouraged activism and said, “Be patient, your reward will come.” Well, Hamer was tired. She knew that her reward was due her now, and that God meant for her to be free and for Black people to be equal.
She wasn’t going to wait for it. The only way it was going to happen is if she worked for it. She believed her faith was that powerful, that God would protect her and she was doing the right thing. Those SNCC workers—I call them kids, they were so young—she talked about them as the new kingdom on earth. She felt they had been sent by God to come to Mississippi and help them fight for their rights, which she viewed as a biblical message. Fannie Lou saw their work as the vehicle for societal change to happen.
Many historical sketches remember Hamer solely for her 1964 Democratic National Convention speech. When that moment is recounted in the popular imagination, how do they sometimes miss the full story?
Not only did Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party defy the all-White Democratic Party of Mississippi in 1964, and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration who refused to listen to her. You also have the powerful Black politicians and civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins, Ralph Abernathy, and even Martin Luther King [Jr]. Sophisticated and well-educated, these top leaders are trying to negotiate with the Democratic Party to get the civil rights legislation that they want.
They view the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party as these upstarts. Some of them really looked down on her as a sharecropper who was middle-aged and not well-dressed. Her delegation had to not only deal with the White Mississippi folks who did not want them represented, but also with these powerful Black men who were jockeying for their own power and control to push their agenda forward. We all know Dr. King as this great orator. In this case, sitting at a table in front of the credentials committee, he’s reading his speech. The passion isn’t there.
Over the past three years, as I was researching and writing this book, it became clear how some of these laws were specifically targeted at limiting the right to vote. I can’t ignore that today. And I think Hamer would recognize some of these state laws as another way to silence voters and keep them from voting, which they want and need to do.
Fannie Lou Hamer gets up and speaks, and it’s stunning. She really shook the crowd. People were crying. Even though it was the best thing in the world that happened for civil rights, some of those leaders were angry. Now she didn’t get the results that she wanted. They were denied being seated at the convention to be able to represent their state. But the power of her voice and story really changed the party moving forward.
In a recent op-ed, you draw a direct line from Hamer’s activism regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to recent election-related U.S. state laws which “renew suppressive voter laws,” in your words. As some would disagree with that view, can you expand on that?
Even eight years ago, I might not have drawn such a direct line—though if I was an African-American person living in Georgia eight years ago, I probably would have. Today, it has become obvious. Over the past three years, as I was researching and writing this book, it became clear how some of these laws were specifically targeted at limiting the right to vote. I can’t ignore that today. And I think Hamer would recognize some of these state laws as another way to silence voters and keep them from voting, which they want and need to do. So, yes, I have heard pushback on this view, but I have no qualms about drawing a direct line.
Following her well-known DNC speech, it seems like Hamer was sidelined by the Civil Rights Movement and the Democratic Party. Why did that occur?
One reason is that the movement itself was shifting and changing. The Vietnam War was heating up and splitting the nation at the same time. Young people in SNCC were getting impatient. They wanted change faster as a more radical group, the Black Panthers, was gaining visibility—pulling resources and young energy into their orbit. There were power struggles going on within SNCC and SCLC. Women still were struggling for leadership positions. Even though they were doing a tremendous amount of work, they still were not getting those lead roles.
Hamer was aging out of groups like SNCC. We see a fracturing going on. Hamer and other folks had built this foundation in the South, and now young well-educated leaders took control of groups like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. They had more resources, but they sidelined Hamer because she confronted everybody with their own prejudices and foibles. She demanded a lot of herself, and she expected the same from everybody else. Many decided, “Well, I don’t need to listen to her anymore. She’s old, she’s cranky, and I’m going to do it my way.” And they did.
The other factor is that Hamer was very sick and didn’t have the energy. After the beating in Winona, she never really, truly recovered. She couldn’t do the things she had done even four years before. As she aged through the 1960s, she got sicker and contracted cancer—which made her even more ill. She didn’t have access to health care in a timely manner that would have helped prolong her life. She ended up dying at age 59, basically alone and in great debt because of not being able to pay the bills. People had moved on and left her behind. The movement had moved on past her.
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