Reviewed by Todd Moye
Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring 2000
>Chana Kai Lee. For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Fannie Lou Hamer emerged from deep poverty and anonymity in the Mississippi Delta to become easily the most recognizable and influential poor person of her time. Her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged an all-white Democratic state party delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention and forced the national party to confront its historical exclusion of African Americans from the democratic process. It is not an exaggeration to say that Hamer forced Americans to reconsider the notion of democracy itself.
Hamer told a national television audience at the 1964 convention about the trials she had endured because she wanted to exercise her rights as a citizen. She concluded her address by asking, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our phones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” Mrs. Hamer later lectured Lyndon Johnson, “If this is a great society, I’d hate to see a bad one.” By then she had become the conscience of the civil rights movement. She shamed white liberals in the Democratic party who could not make room for the participation of free-thinking African Americans, but saved the worst of her wrath for elite blacks who supported what she called the “National Association for the Advancement of Certain People.”
Hamer’s message was powerful. She had few peers in Mississippi as a grass-roots organizer, or outside of the state as a fund-raiser for civil rights causes. Thousands of Americans from Boston to Seattle crowded into auditoriums in the late 1960s and early 1970s to hear Mrs. Hamer sing freedom songs, recount her harrowing experiences as a Black woman in the Deep South, and demand that America do more to extend its promises to all of its people. When she died in 1977 a United States congressman, an assistant secretary of state, a United Nations ambassador, and a who’s who list of civil rights figures made the pilgrimage to Hamer’s hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. Dan Rather covered the funeral for CBS News.
But Fannie Lou Hamer is the American hero about whom most Americans know nothing. Few Americans at the turn of the twenty-first century would be able to place her name. Kay Mills’ popular 1993 biography, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, did much to correct this problem by introducing Hamer to a relatively wide reading audience. Chana Kai Lee, a professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Georgia, builds on our traditional understanding of Hamer in a new, highly thoughtful and deeply analytical treatment of Hamer’s life. Lee recasts Hamer’s activism, and her book may change the way we look at the personal lives of political activists.
Lee focuses on the importance of pain–physical, emotional, and spiritual–in Hamer’s life, and her analysis is persuasive. The long list of physical abuses that Hamer was forced to endure because she was an African-American woman who was determined to live as a free and equal citizen in a racist, misogynist society is staggering. In 1961 she entered North Sunflower County Hospital to have a stomach cyst removed, and subsequently learn that doctors had also performed an unauthorized hysterectomy. On August 31, 1962 she tried to register to vote; that night she was told to rescind her application or leave the Marlow plantation on which she and her husband Perry sharecropped. She left the plantation, and two weeks later someone fired shots into a friend’s home where she had been staying. In 1963, on her way back from Septima Clark’s voter education workshop in South Carolina, Hamer and several co-workers were arrested in Winona, Mississippi, after some of the women attempted to desegregate a lunch counter. Hamer was beaten mercilessly inside the Winona jail. Blinded in one eye, kidneys permanently damaged, and left with a limp for the rest of
her life, she would later remember, “Every day of my life I pay with the misery of this beatin’.”
There are countless other examples, but Lee’s contribution is not her chronicle of these abuses. Rather, the importance of Lee’s work lies in her examination of the role the attacks on Hamer as a person played in Hamer’s life as an activist, and how the abuses themselves were symptomatic of a violently racist society. Lee argues, for instance, that the unauthorized sterilization “robbed [Hamer] of an important aspect of her creative capacity, and this must have affected her view of self, especially her gendered, sexual self.” She constantly reminds us that Fannie Lou Hamer was above all a poor rural woman with attitudes and ideas–and obstacles to overcome–that reflected this background.
Lee places these attitudes and ideas at the center of Hamer’s activism. It is not hard to explain why Hamer placed so much trust in the vote after she had endured so much to achieve it. But Lee uses this lens to examine the whole of Hamer’s political life; the focus on Hamer’s personal life illuminates her political life in the best sense of the old feminist canard, “the personal is political.” By placing pain at the center of Hamer’s personal/political life, Lee is better able to explain why Hamer felt so bitterly disappointed both by the middle-class Blacks whom she said had forgotten their people and the poor rural folk who were often times too terrified to stand up for themselves.
The movement message that emerges in this portrait of Hamer bears less resemblance to the traditionally defined civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century than to a human rights movement. Hamer fought less for equality than for justice, which she measured in terms of equal voting rights but also in terms of adequate housing, minimum income, guaranteed health care, and a decent diet. (These last concerns became especially important to Hamer in 1967, when her adopted daughter Dorothy Jean died from the effects of malnutrition.) It was not enough for Hamer and her followers to fight for inclusion in American society; they fought also to transform and improve American society.
Hamer, of course, did not live to see that transformation completed. She was abandoned by the members of her beloved Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. She despaired in 1966 that many of her dear movement friends had turned “cold and unloving”–the creation of a “beloved community” was a very real goal for Hamer, and when the civil rights coalition that had nurtured her earlier activism disintegrated, she took it personally. That same year, after Hamer fought vainly a SNCC proposal to exclude whites, separatists in the organization determined that Fannie Lou Hamer was “no longer relevant.”
Hamer turned her attention to fighting poverty. After a bitter, internecine struggle for federal War on Poverty dollars divided Hamer’s civil rights community in Sunflower County, Hamer changed course and founded Freedom Farm, a co-operative venture that offered membership to any local farmer. With the support of donations from Hamer’s extensive national fund-raising network, Freedom Farm produced thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables and meat for the African-American farmworkers of Sunflower County who were being displaced by mechanization (in 1969, 32 percent of the county’s Blacks were on welfare, 70 percent lived in deteriorating homes, and 60 percent lacked indoor plumbing). Between 1969 and 1973 Freedom Farm successfully channeled federal money into the construction of seventy houses, and the institution helped dozens of farm families obtain federal welfare assistance and social security. Hamer’s work literally saved people from starving to death.
But fighting poverty in Sunflower County, Mississippi,
was an uphill battle, to say the least. Freedom Farm, Inc. was plagued by financial problems from its inception, and the co-op went bankrupt in 1976. As her civil rights coalition deteriorated and Freedom Farm foundered, Hamer became increasingly bitter and depressed. At the same time, her physical health faltered. Hamer died in 1977 after bouts with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and breast cancer.
It is far from enjoyable to read about Hamer’s myriad painful experiences, but this book will be meaningful for many readers inside and outside of academia. Lee balances the detailed accounts of the terrible things that happened to Hamer with the wonderful things she was able to accomplish in her lifetime. In her hands, Fannie Lou Hamer’s story is not one of “complete triumph over all odds,” but neither is it one of “complete victimization or defeat.”
A school of thought among historians of the civil rights movement has argued for years that the struggle involved much more than the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the litigation of the NAACP, and that the literature of the movement should reflect this complexity. We now have two first-rate biographies of Hamer, the grass-roots organizer who in this context might be thought of as the anti-King, to add to the spate of recent studies of the civil rights movement on the local and statewide levels. Surely by now the grass roots camp has won this historiographical battle.
Lee’s biography is far from a “me-too” hagiography meant to lift Hamer into the pantheon of civil rights heroes, however. She cautions against depicting Hamer as a type, as a “strong black woman.” There are many reasons to consider Hamer heroic; indeed, it is impossible to read this book and conclude that Hamer the political activist was anything but. But it is also important to examine Hamer’s life as a daughter, wife, mother and friend who both endured and inflicted hardships in her personal life and, as Lee puts it, to reflect on “the meaning of Hamer’s life for Hamer.” This is a different sort of biography, but it introduces an approach that should bear even more fruit in the future.
Todd Moye is a postdoctoral fellow at the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture in Charleston, South Carolina. He is working on a book about the civil rights movement in Sunflower County, Mississippi.