Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America By Keisha N. Blain • Beacon Press • 2021 • 322 pages • $27.95
Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer By Kate Clifford Larson • Oxford University Press • 2021 • 322 pages • $33.95
Like many heroes and martyrs of the Black Freedom Struggle, Fannie Lou Hamer seems to be forever imprisoned in a single historical moment. On August 22, 1964, the 47-year-old sharecropper and Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist bravely spoke her truth. She had done it before, but this time she was in a nationally televised meeting of the Democratic National Convention’s Credentials Committee, as she and the Mississippi Freedom Democrats sought to displace a state delegation chosen by, and exclusively made up of, whites.
Hamer’s nationally televised testimony in that sweltering Atlantic City hotel ballroom was electrifying. She spoke in detail about the lethal violence that ordinary white citizens, police, and state officials perpetrated to prevent Black voter registration. She spoke of her own brutal beating in the Winona County jail, an assault so severe that she never walked without pain again.
“Is this America?” Hamer asked. “The land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” In that moment, Hamer briefly became the moral face of her movement.
An inspirational figure whose face adorns murals and whose words grace tee shirts, Hamer has not been lost. She co-authored an autobiography; there is a volume of her speeches and a record of her rich voice singing the freedom songs that gave comfort to activists who often did not know that they would live through the night. She has had four prior biographers, and several children’s books tell her story.
Yet synthetic histories of the civil rights movement may have obscured her central role in the Black Freedom Struggle. Historian Keisha N. Blain had never heard of Hamer when she first encountered her in a college history class. “I was blown away by what I read,” Blain writes in the introduction to Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America, “and I couldn’t help but wonder why it had taken me so long to encounter this fearless and extraordinary Black woman.”
A partial answer to that question might be that Hamer, while a powerful leader in her own community, was not only working class, but remained working class. Unlike middle-class activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, or Stokely Carmichael, she grew up, and remained, a sharecropper until her activism caused her to be expelled from the plantation where she was employed. Numerous activists, like future Congressman John R. Lewis, were also born into sharecropping, but clawed their way into colleges where they became middle class and were radicalized by the movement.
Both of these new books do a powerful job of showing how politically, class, and gender diverse the civil rights movement was. If many organizers, like Lewis, went into politics, the grassroots strategies developed in Mississippi by working-class women like Hamer planted the seed for what would become the Movement for Black Lives. Hamer, Blain argues, is a central figure for understanding that long historical arc from a movement focused solely on civil rights to a contemporary racial justice movement that puts ending anti-Black violence at the center. Blain and Larson are differently persuasive that today’s systemic assaults on Black people by agents of the state, and by white citizens who believe they are defending their communities, need to begin with a realistic understanding of how far white people were willing to go to maintain supremacy, and what a very recent past it still is.
Blain seeks to link two struggles, 50 years apart, directly. Until I Am Free is less a biography than a series of thematic essays, each beginning with a recent news hook: the deaths of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor; Black Lives Matter activist Ayo• Tometi’s testimony before the United Nations General Assembly; and the Poor People’s Campaign, relaunched by pastors William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis in 2017. Each moment, Blain reminds us, has a history, and that history leads us back to Fannie Lou Hamer.
Larson, on the other hand, has written a conventional, chronological biography. It is filled with rich detail about Hamer’s personal life drawn from her own writings and civil rights archives. Larson also provides deeply researched context about what kind of place the Delta was, how landowners successfully immiserated Black workers for so long, and how sharecroppers survived poverty. In Walk with Me, a phrase drawn from a Freedom song, Larson invites the reader to walk with Hamer metaphorically, experiencing not just the oppression and violence that shaped her life, but its joys: dancing, faith, the power of church community, and her growing empowerment as she fights back. Like Blain, Larson also imagines her book as useful: “Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and work will be recognizable to many of today’s activists,” she writes.
Hamer’s radicalization occurred relatively late, she remained poor, and she died young, at 59, after only 15 years in politics. Born on October 6, 1917, in central Mississippi, she was the last of Jim and Ella Townsend’s 13 children, six of whom died before Hamer was born. As Kate Clifford Larson observes in Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer, Hamer’s parents “taught their children to trust in God’s will and not hate anybody, in spite of relentless racism and discrimination they faced every day.” This grounding, and the hardship of a sharecropping life, made Hamer into what Blain calls a “practical theologian, living out her faiths and beliefs through concrete steps and actions.”
Hamer was also blessed with self-confidence. Here, Ella—who carried a gun to the fields and successfully defended others by standing up to white violence—was a formative model. But as a child, Hamer was also well known in the community for her intelligence and accomplishments. “An avid reader,” Larson writes, Hamer’s musicality was locally famous. In addition, she “won spelling bees, and her poetry recitals and Bible recitations at church were the pride of the community.”
But Hamer left school after only six years, even though she might have continued through the eighth grade. Yet, as Larson notes, there was no high school in the county and she could not have gone further than that. Most importantly, her family was barely making ends meet and needed her labor. First recruited into the fields at the age of six with promises of candy and treats, as a teenager Hamer became an outstanding picker, entertaining and inspiring other workers with her songs and shouts.
It was a hard life, and it is impossible to read Larson’s vividly written book and not come to terms with how thoroughly the rules and practices that sustained racial slavery were reinstituted in the rural South after Reconstruction. Unlike their forebears, white plantation owners could not buy and sell labor. But they could brutalize and steal from their workers, enforcing poverty and dependence. Hamer’s family managed to scrimp and save to acquire a few head of livestock, only to find one day that the animals had been poisoned, an act of unexpected violence that Blain likens to a lynching, keeping “an aspiring Black family ‘in their place’ by crippling their finances.”
Little is known about Hamer’s first marriage in 1938, to sharecropper Charlie Lee Gray. It lasted less than five years, and it is unclear whether the two ever lived together. But Gray lived and worked in Ruleville, which brought Hamer into proximity with Perry “Pap” Hamer, a slightly older friend of the Townsend family. The pair married in 1944, although Gray’s divorce filing, on the grounds of adultery, suggests that the relationship began earlier than that. Although the marriage was troubled by his philandering, Hamer remained devoted to Pap, and he to her. The two moved to the Marlow plantation where, because of her advanced literacy, Fannie Lou was promoted to being a timekeeper, and made responsible for recording the weight of cotton each worker picked daily.
Pap—a mechanic, who owned his own truck—and Fannie Lou, who became the plantation bookkeeper and recorder, became marginally more prosperous as wage earners, rather than sharecroppers. They acquired a better house, better wages, and were allowed to grow their own food. And Hamer used her position, as her mother had, to help others. Realizing that Marlow was cheating workers by using an altered scale, when white supervisors were not around, Hamer would swap in one that worked correctly. “Her boldness earned her respect,” Larson writes. But Hamer did more, arguing up the price per pound, which arbitrarily changed depending on how damp, and heavy, the cotton was. She became “a tough negotiator, dickering with the bosses to get the best per-pound rate for everyone.”
It was undoubtedly this accumulated status in the community that caused SNCC organizer Robert Moses, who believed in identifying community leaders rather than imposing them from outside, to choose Hamer as a lead Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer in Ruleville in 1962. On August 28 of that year, Hamer, now 44, attended a meeting convened by her pastor where SNCC executive secretary James Forman urged the crowd to register to vote. All sources agree that Hamer claimed to have known nothing about voting prior to that meeting, a gap in consciousness that Blain attributes to the all-consuming nature of poverty and “the lengths to which white supremacists went to keep Black people shut out of the former political process.”
Yet legendary activists often tell partially true stories that emphasize a before and after: These moments dramatize a change in consciousness when taking action becomes imperative. Voting was surely a low priority for overworked, underpaid agricultural laborers and, as SNCC workers discovered, some were unaware that voting occurred, much less that it could change their lives. But not Hamer. She was an intelligent, literate, and sophisticated woman, while both she and Pap had significant interactions with whites. It is hard to believe that Hamer had never thought about voting, never seen a campaign flyer or poster, and did not understand that white supremacy in Mississippi was maintained by a political system entirely controlled by whites.
If Hamer did not already know these things, she was a quick learner, and was soon at the center of Ruleville’s civil rights community. But Larson argues that Hamer may have been propelled into activism by a more private form of violence, one that she might have been reluctant to discuss in the same breath as her political conversion. In 1961, childless in her early forties and suffering pelvic pain, Hamer was referred for a medical procedure to remove uterine and fibroid tumors. Instead, the surgeon performed a hysterectomy.
The cruelty of this then-widespread practice is unthinkable, but Blain reminds us that the logic of anti-Black violence is complex and went well beyond social and political subordination. “White medical professionals and staff stood to financially profit when completing forced sterilizations,” she reminds us. Removing fibroids was a $250 operation billed to the public health department; it became far more profitable if a physician did a full hysterectomy that could be billed at $800.
While Hamer did open her home to children, and at least one that Pap had fathered outside their marriage, she never bore one. That “Mississippi appendectomy,” as local women bitterly nicknamed all abdominal procedures that became opportunities to sterilize them, tapped into a deep well of rage. “The experience transformed her,” Larson writes, and “she vowed never to be silenced again.”
In 1962, Hamer lost her job when the Marlows learned that she had tried to register to vote. They fired her and ordered her off their land. She moved to Greenwood and became a full-time organizer. Then, after losing her job and her home, forced to live apart from her husband and children, the next year, Hamer almost lost her life. Returning from a two-week workshop with a group of volunteers, the bus they were on stopped 30 miles away in Winona, where several activists tried to integrate the lunch counter. The group was arrested, jailed, and subjected to systematic beatings and sexual assaults for three days.
It was this story that Hamer told in Atlantic City, and Larson expertly slows her own narrative down, describing the assaults on Hamer and her fellow activists in excruciating, graphic detail. White police officers forced other Black inmates, fueled with alcohol, to whip, beat, and rape Hamer as she was kept immobilized, screaming, and pleading for her life. She suffered kidney damage, and never walked properly again.
The experience only made Hamer more determined to fight for her political and human rights, and for the freedom of all Black Mississippians. Now a movement martyr and hero, Hamer became more widely known as she traveled in regional and national activist circles telling her story. “For Hamer,” Blain reminds us, “one of the strategies for addressing the persistent problem of state-sanctioned violence was the use of public testimony as a mode of resistance and revelation.” She began to travel outside the South to tell her story, and when Freedom Summer launched in 1964, her home in Greenwood became a center for Delta-area organizing.
A drive for voting rights that would bring hundreds of white and Black volunteers, many of them college students, to Mississippi, Freedom Summer was undoubtedly timed to coincide with Johnson’s nomination to the presidency. It was a position that he already occupied, but to which he had never been elected, and could easily lose if Southern Democrats abandoned him.
This civil rights campaign was also calculated to escalate white violence, this time against the idealistic children of white, northern professional parents. Black southerners had been the objects of political violence for a half century, and two years earlier, violent harassment that ranged from traffic tickets to shootings, vandalism, arson, beatings, and murders began as soon as SNCC appeared in a community. Freedom Summer demonstrated that white supremacists would brutalize and murder other whites, as well as their Black neighbors, to stay in power. And they were right. Only days after the program launched, the disappearance and presumed murder of white activists Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and local Black activist James Cheyney, flooded the Mississippi Delta with FBI agents and national news media.
While Hamer and SNCC were able to register community members for mock elections, parallel procedures that disputed white assertions that they had no interest in voting, few Black voters were successfully registered in the Delta until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965. But because of their relentless pursuit of justice, and the publicity it generated, Hamer and her fellow activists succeeded in making the moral argument for that legislation. In addition, as journalist Bruce Watson observed in his 2010 book about Freedom Summer, Black and white activists left Mississippi more than a little traumatized but determined to make a permanent commitment to the fight for equality.
Larson and Blain also ask us to rethink something bigger about historical memory, which brings us back to Blain’s question about “why it had taken me so long to encounter this fearless and extraordinary Black woman.” When the story of the civil rights movement is told, women still take a back seat to male leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Kwame Ture, and Malcom X. Hamer and Ella Baker, two critical SNCC organizers, are too often presented as only inspirations and role models. They were that: As Blain reminds us, “Baker’s mentoring and vision of leadership played an integral part in the development of Hamer’s organizational philosophy.” Indeed, a generation of women who would become feminists came to maturity under both women’s tutelage. One of them, Marian Wright Edelman (who would go on to found the Children’s Defense Fund), as Larson notes, described Hamer as a mentor and “a moral force.”
A second factor may be that historians who applaud Hamer for her singing, her inspirational testimony, and her rock-solid moral and physical courage in the face of lethal white violence, have failed to recognize the qualities that these two authors emphasize: her intelligence, her strategic thinking, and her political savvy. As Blain argues, long before Black Lives Matter, “Fannie Lou Hamer emphasized how empowering people on the grassroots level was an important tactic for social and political change,” as was her group-centered organizing model, one she learned from Ella Baker.
We also see the roots of today’s tensions between the grassroots, locally driven approach of what is now called the Movement for Black Lives and well-established civil rights organizations committed to legislative reform. As traditional Black political organizations like the NAACP and the Democratic Party urged Hamer to modify her goals at the 1964 Democratic Convention, Hamer bluntly rebuked them. If national policies were critical to protecting civil and human rights, they had to be informed by the truth. This, Blain argues, illuminates the political philosophy that links Hamer to the contemporary Black struggle: “that local perspectives are valuable and even outweigh those of nationally visible leaders, who often know little about the local context.”
Hamer died of cancer only 13 years after she delivered those famous words in Atlantic City, but her world and vision continued to expand beyond Mississippi. A trip to the newly decolonized African nation of Guinea introduced her to the global connections between Black people. A co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Hamer peppered white feminists who did not understand the experiences and burdens of Black women with useful skepticism. And briefly, she activated a “Freedom Farm” that could help to alleviate the Delta residents’ lack of affordable, nutritious food.
In their different ways, Kate Larson and Keisha Blain have recovered Hamer’s capacious vision. She did not live to see the world she imagined transpire. None of us have yet. But perhaps today’s activists—who rekindle Hamer’s moral vision every time they return to the streets—will.