One hundred six years ago this week, Fannie Lou Hamer was born in rural Mississippi. Though she spent less than 60 years on this earth before her death in 1977, she left a legacy that will last for years to come.
Many people remember Hamer for her testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention (DNC). Speaking as a delegate of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to protest the fact that Black people in Mississippi had been completely excluded from participating in the state’s Democratic Party, Hamer testified about the brutality she faced for simply trying to register to vote.
She described being kicked off the land where she worked as a sharecropper because she refused to withdraw her voter registration application. She described how the friend’s home where she was staying was shot into 16 times in an attempt to intimidate her. She described how she was jailed and beaten so severely that she was left with permanent damage.
Her testimony was so visceral that as she spoke, President Lyndon Johnson called an impromptu press conference because he feared losing the votes of southern Democrats. When the testimony was later re-broadcast on primetime news shows and all across the country, people tuned in to hear her story.
On this occasion — and on many others — Hamer refused to be silent. She never shied away from telling her story: She spoke about the police brutality she endured, about the forced sterilization she was subjected to, and about the harm that was inflicted upon her as a result of being disenfranchised and deprived of her human rights.
A poor, Black, disabled woman, she showed people the power that comes from telling their stories and forcing the U.S. to take a look at itself. From poverty, to systemic racism, to police abuse, many of the systems Hamer was battling in her lifetime are still alive today — and there is still a need for impacted people to force the U.S. to take a look at itself.
In this exclusive interview with Truthout, historian Keisha N. Blain, the author of the highly acclaimed 2021 biography of Hamer, Until I Am Free, reflects on Hamer’s life and the lessons that Hamer continues to teach us about how to fight against systemic oppression today.
Blain, a 2022 Guggenheim fellow, is an award-winning historian of the 20th century United States with broad interests and specializations in African American history, the modern African diaspora, and women’s and gender studies. She completed a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University and is now a professor of Africana studies and history at Brown University. In addition to Until I Am Free, Blain is also the author of the 2018 book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, and the coeditor of four collections. Her next volume, Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy, will be published by W.W. Norton in February 2024.
Rebekah Barber: You often talk about how you first learned about Hamer as a college student and how learning about her story resonated with you and inspired you. How are you holding space for her as you reflect on her life and legacy?
Keisha N. Blain: I spent considerable time with Mrs. Hamer when I was writing Until I Am Free. In addition to reading her speeches and letters, I also spent a lot of time listening to her voice (including her singing). I drew inspiration from her words and have been trying to live out her legacy in many ways. Her statement — “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free” — is constantly on my mind. It compels me to think about the challenges that others are facing and to always remember to take a holistic approach to social justice, one that accounts for the intersections of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other social categories.
In addition to holding space for her in my daily life, I’ve also organized an annual gathering that commemorates her birthday. Here, I am joining a wider community who similarly commemorate her birthday in Mississippi and other parts of the country. Last year, I collaborated with Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation to organize a gathering in Hamer’s honor in New York City. We invited scholars, activists, journalists, public officials and religious leaders to reflect on Hamer’s life and legacy. Several close friends and relatives of Mrs. Hamer also participated, sharing personal stories and photos that helped to capture her passion and grace. This year’s celebration is in Washington, D.C., and I’m collaborating with the Southern Poverty Law Center. The gathering is an opportunity to reflect on her life and legacy. And perhaps more importantly, it’s an opportunity for attendees to recommit themselves to the work of social justice.
It’s easy to get discouraged or to lose focus with everything going on right now. But Hamer’s story is inspirational — despite the many challenges she endured, she was unwavering in the fight to build a more just and equitable society.
Hamer’s legacy stretches far beyond her time on Earth. Still, in many ways, her life was cut short because of the systemic injustices she faced — from police brutality, to medical abuse, to racism, to sexism, to classism. How do we best celebrate Hamer while fully acknowledging the harm that she faced?
When Hamer delivered speeches across the country during the 1960s, she would often warn audiences that she intended to “tell it like it is.” It was one of her most used phrases and it underscored her commitment to peeling back the layers of obfuscation and helping others face the unadulterated truth they might have otherwise tried to avoid.
Given her commitment to “telling it like it is,” I think we would be remiss to celebrate Hamer without considering both the triumphs of her life as well as the challenges. Part of celebrating Hamer’s life, especially on the occasion of her birthday, should focus on mapping out concrete steps to combat the discrimination, violence and persecution she faced, which continue to persist in American society. More than 60 years after Hamer was brutally beaten in a Winona jail cell, police violence and brutality persist in Black and Brown communities. And more than 60 years after Hamer’s forced sterilization, medical racism continues to shape the lives of Black and Brown people through the vast disparities in maternal mortality rates and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities.
It’s imperative to address these and other concerns when commemorating Hamer’s life and legacy. We can celebrate her victories, including when she spoke truth to power at the 1964 Democratic Convention. But we must grapple with the painful reality that she was also subjected to myriad injustices in her lifetime. By recognizing a fuller picture of Hamer — and other civil rights icons — we have a better chance of learning from their example as we fight similar battles against white supremacy and inequality that persist in the United States and across the globe.
One reason Hamer’s story continues to resonate with so many is because so many issues she was fighting against are still prevalent today. As a historian who intentionally brings a contemporary perspective to history, what lessons do you think Fannie Lou Hamer teaches about how to fight against systemic oppression in the present day?
There are so many lessons we can learn from Hamer. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to write Until I Am Free — to spell out some of those lessons for students and activists today. One lesson I have been reflecting on lately is Hamer’s emphasis on the importance of grassroots leadership in the fight against systemic oppression. It’s easy to fall into the trap of something akin to the savior complex. Be wary of being an outsider and thinking you know the best solutions to help a particular community. The theory may be sound, but Hamer warned about this way of leading. She knew that progress required listening to local voices and encouraged the practice of supporting and empowering leaders from within the community. In other words, it is best not to assume you have the answers but instead offer the help and resources to empower people on the grassroots level. This is one lesson that I think we learn from Hamer, which is very much connected to the work of Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi.
Another lesson that Hamer teaches is the importance of thinking transnationally. Ironically, this is perhaps one of the least discussed aspects of Hamer’s life and legacy. As I address in Until I Am Free, Hamer was a civil rights activist in Mississippi and deeply committed to the work of social justice in her home state. But I would encourage us to remember that after her trip to Guinea in 1964, she came to an understanding that the problems facing Black Americans in Mississippi and beyond were very much a part and parcel of a larger problem. Hamer emphasized the need to recognize how the specific concerns of local communities and national campaigns were connected to global forces. Part of a holistic approach to social justice is knowing how to think beyond the nation-state and therefore act accordingly — by forging the kinds of transnational collaborations that can bolster political movements.
In 1965, Hamer told a journalist that she was no longer just fighting for equal rights — she wanted “human rights.” I reflect on this statement a lot because it gets to the heart of her approach to fighting systemic oppression. The fight against white supremacy exists on a local, national and global level.
When you talked about how traveling to Guinea allowed Hamer to more fully understand that Black people in the U.S. were not isolated in their fight for human rights, it reminded me of the James Baldwin quote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” Today, there are attempts to shield students from learning about how present-day struggles in the U.S. connect to struggles in the past and ongoing struggles in other countries. How do we combat this?
This reminds me of Hamer’s commitment to telling her audiences the truth — even when it challenged their preconceived notions. We need this same type of honesty in our classrooms. Shielding students from difficult topics is not about protecting them — it is about safeguarding the status quo. The attempt to create a fictionalized history of the United States is meant to keep students from learning to identify the inequality and injustice within society. And it is an attempt to prevent the teaching of a useful history — one that provides lessons on resistance and struggle. We have seen this with the teaching of the civil rights movement, for example. Curriculums try to marginalize radical figures like Fannie Lou Hamer while promoting sanitized versions of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a man who only delivered that one speech or Rosa Parks as a woman who was simply “tired” on a Montgomery bus. To counter these forces, we need to remember the fuller picture, and it is the role of political leaders, scholars, activists, parents and students to push back against these distorted narratives.
Another source of inspiration should be the tradition created by Black educators. For centuries, Black teachers have fought against the misinformation within white supremacist curriculums and provided their students with access to texts and perspectives that represent the diversity of the nation — and the world. They experienced violence, intimidation and reprisals, but Black educators remained committed to teaching their students, such as when Charlotte Forten instructed her students on the Sea Islands during the Civil War about the example of Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. Or when W.E.B. Du Bois used his book Black Reconstruction in America (1935) to debunk a decades-long project by white historians to ridicule Reconstruction and dismiss the possibility of Black Americans participating as full citizens in the political process. These figures used the tools at their disposal to resist, and they can guide our fight against those seeking to keep Black history and thought out of classrooms.
In what ways do you see radical Black activists and organizers continuing the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer?
I see so many radical Black activists continuing Hamer’s legacy today. This is especially evident in the fight against voter suppression in the United States as the attacks on the Voting Rights Act continue. While many political leaders have addressed it, I think Black activists and organizers have been at the forefront of the movement to protect voting rights. We still have so many roadblocks to overcome, but I am encouraged by the work of individuals like LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright, founders of the Black Voters Matter Fund. The group leads workshops and bus tours across the country, providing educational materials for Black voters. They have played an instrumental role in raising awareness of voter suppression tactics, and they are collaborating with local groups to provide information on voter registration. Their actions mirror the kind of work Hamer — and SNCC — did in Mississippi and in other parts of the South during the 1960s.
In terms of addressing food insecurity, Black organizers across the nation are continuing Hamer’s legacy and drawing inspiration from the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which Hamer founded in the 1970s. In Jackson, Mississippi, for example, Norma Michael established the Sharing is Caring Neighborhood Block Garden. Three years ago, she purchased a lot and converted it into a garden filled with fruits and vegetables for the community. Her mission is similar to Hamer’s: to confront poverty and hunger.
These are just two brief examples and there are countless others. I am encouraged that so many Black activists and organizers find inspiration in Hamer’s story, and they are emboldened to make a difference in their spheres of influence. I think this is what matters most — that we try to make a difference and we avoid simply being spectators. Here, I am reminded of another powerful quote from Hamer: “You can pray until you faint, but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”
In addition to being a presidential election year, next year marks the 60th anniversary of Hamer’s searing testimony before the DNC. There continue to be attempts by political leaders, the media, and others in power to turn away when the most impacted people are raising their voices and expressing their pain. How can we ensure that these voices are amplified and a part of the policymaking process?
You bring up a great example with the 1964 Democratic National Convention and Hamer’s presence there. She arrived in Atlantic City that year with 67 other representatives of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an organization formed in response to Mississippi’s state Democratic Party refusing to recognize Black Mississippians as voters. So, the MFDP had organized their own slate of delegates to participate in the DNC and traveled to Atlantic City ready to testify to the violence and intimidation that Black Americans faced when they tried to register and vote — obstacles that were erected in many places by southern Democratic governors, senators, representatives, mayors and sheriffs.
These were the circumstances for Hamer’s famous speech in 1964, but we should also pay attention to what happened next. The testimony from her and other activists had embarrassed the national party to such an extent that the MFDP received an offer — two unaffiliated seats on the convention floor. Over the objections of national civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin and Roy Wilkins, Hamer and the other members of the MFDP refused this symbolic gesture. They would not accept a compromise that would remove their voice and comfort those in power. When Hubert Humphrey, the presumptive nominee for vice president, asked Hamer and the other MFDP leaders to accept the compromise, Hamer in turn asked if his “position is more important … than 400,000 Black people’s lives.” Rather than agree to a backroom deal that would create an illusion of progress, Hamer and her allies refused to be used as props.
This story resonates with me because the MFDP recognized that trading away their voice would harm the movement. Because they stood firm, we remember Hamer’s denouncement of voter suppression and not a story of how the DNC swept the protest under the rug. This story is instructive today as Black Americans continue to lead protests, and we should commit ourselves to holding out for meaningful, structural change and not silence ourselves for the veneer of progress. Even when it is hard and even when our allies try to dissuade us. We must keep raising our voices and speaking truth to power.
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