Learning from Fannie Lou Hamer

I recently began listening to The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones on Audible, and although this wasn’t an intentional choice to coordinate with the start of Black History Month, I’m coming to realize that it is a perfect choice! As Jones notes in her introduction, as a child she was surprised to learn that the first Africans to step foot in America were over 20 enslaved people sold to colonists in Virginia. This little known history was indicative of the left out (mis)information and white-washed history we tend to learn in the U.S. school system.

Beyond shedding light on this history and that of Black Americans and African Americans, Jones emphasizes that Black history is far more than the great violence white people inflicted upon Black people in the U.S. through slavery, Jim Crow, and the prison industrial complex, for example. It is a history of strength, ingenuity, and brilliance. As Jones further notes, America, and the democracy we hold dear, we owe in large part to Black/African Americans.

Fannie Lou Hamer

With that precursor, I want to begin celebrating Black History Month by focusing on Fannie Lou Hamer. I’ll share a bit of background about Hamer and then draw on her profound words from which we can all be inspired and strengthened.

Born in 1917 to sharecroppers in Mississippi, Hamer, the youngest of 20 children, grew up in poverty. Sharecropping has been described by some as quasi-enslavement. Black sharecroppers would farm a leased piece of land from white land owners, many of whom were former slaveholders. Sharecroppers were paid so little that they were often kept indebted or living in scarcity, beholden to the white landowners.

Fannie Lou Hamer continued as a sharecropper, and because she was able to read and write, she also served as the plantation timekeeper for the white land owner on whose land Hamer’s family worked. In her 20s, Hamer was a victim of the eugenics movement, which sterilized at least 60,000 women, disproportionately women of color. Unbeknownst to Hamer, she was given a hysterectomy by a white doctor when she went in for another procedure. This experience made Hamer a staunch opponent of eugenics and its targeting.

Hamer became a civil rights activist, and an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1963, Hamer was arrested as she organized with the SNCC and severely beaten while imprisoned. Hamer’s injuries affected her for the rest of her life.

Hamer was a powerful organizer and speaker, so much so that when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention, President Lyndon B. Johnson held a press conference at the same time to keep people from hearing Hamer’s testimony related to the racist violence she and others had experienced.

Near the end of her life, Hamer began an organization to provide livestock and land to Black people, which would allow them financial independence and stability. Organizations that she led developed entrepreneurial businesses and provided housing for the Black community in Ruleville, Mississippi where she lived.

As I reviewed Fannie Lou Hamer’s speeches, some quotes jumped out:

“We are not fighting against these people because we hate them, but we are fighting these people because we love them and we’re the only thing can save them now. We are fighting to save these people from their hate and from all the things that would be so bad against them. We want them to see the right way.”

“I don’t want to hear you say, ‘Honey, I’m behind you.’ Well, move, I don’t want you back there. Because you could be two hundred miles behind. I want you to say, ‘I’m with you.’ And we’ll go up this freedom road together.”

“For three hundred years, we’ve given them time. And I’ve been tired so long, now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change.”

Hamer’s messages are profound, resonating with love, solidarity, and strength and are as important today as they were when she shared them in 1964.

Happy Black History Month! Please join us for the amazing Black History Month events at CSU!