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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Fannie Lou Hamer’s Fight for First-Class Citizenship

Fannie Lou Hamer’s Fight for First-Class Citizenship

Over the past couple years, in fits and starts, I’ve been making my way through Taylor Branch’s celebrated three-volume account of Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement. (I’ve now finished the first two entries in the series, all of which are long and densely packed with blow-by-blow reconstructions of historic events and behind-the-scenes deliberations.)

One stray impression I’ve had throughout—and this is in no way to diminish the violence and repression visited upon activists and Black Americans elsewhere in the South—is that the scenes set in Mississippi have an especially ominous vibe. As a reader, you feel a rising sense of dread, nervously awaiting the next white-supremacist mob assembling outside a county courthouse or the next brutal assault on some dark country road.

Horrors like these had a profound influence on Fannie Lou Hamer, the daughter of sharecroppers who, despite her humble beginnings, achieved renown as a courageous campaigner for justice, equality, and voting rights in her native Mississippi and beyond. Hamer is the subject of a new biography, Walk with Me, from Kate Clifford Larson. Carolyn Renée Dupont, professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University and author of Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1975, reviewed the book for the September issue of CT.

“Accessible and moving, Larson’s account offers history’s best gifts—context and complexity—to readers who want a better grasp of the trajectory of voting rights in our nation’s past,” writes Dupont.

“America’s civil rights story often reads as the tale of great leaders, extraordinary unity, and heroic corrective legislation. But Hamer’s story demands that we rethink these narratives. Her life highlights the role of sharecroppers, women, students, and poor people who wanted, in her words, ‘to live as decent human beings.’ Rather than marching together in unity, they struggled through deep and ongoing disagreements about the best way to achieve their goals, and they endured unspeakable danger and harassment. As for corrective legislation, Larson’s account demonstrates how new federal measures required unrelenting follow-up at the local level.

“Born to Mississippi sharecroppers in 1917, Hamer seemed destined for a life that differed little from that of her parents. With only a sixth-grade education, she worked as a timekeeper on a cotton plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Inspired by young people working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hamer took the first courageous steps on a new trajectory when she and other Sunflower County Blacks tried unsuccessfully to register to vote in the summer of 1962.

“That simple and innocent effort exacted a high cost—she lost her job and her home. Hamer’s actions also set off reprisals against all Sunflower County Blacks who shared her vision of first-class citizenship and a better life. But intimidation only strengthened Hamer’s resolve to fight.”

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