Why Fannie Lou Hamer’s definition of “freedom” still matters

By Jamil Smith

Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville, Mississippi, in 1969.
Al Clayton/Getty Images

We hear the term “freedom” bandied about rather loosely in this country. It’s one of those things people say they love, but are we really free? In many instances, “freedom” feels more like America’s consumer brand than one of its core principles — mostly because we see those principles violated with regularity.

The late Fannie Lou Hamer understood this all too well. The youngest of 20 children and born to Mississippi sharecroppers, Hamer didn’t begin her human-rights activism until her 40s. After picking cotton for most of her years, Hamer was fired from her sharecropping job in 1962 for trying to register to vote. The following year, even after passing a discriminatory “literacy test,” she was still denied access to the ballot. And later in 1963, after attempting to register some of her fellow Mississippians, she was beaten by police and left with a limp, a blood clot behind her eye, and permanent kidney damage.

With those injuries, Hamer gave what became a landmark speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hamer, who had served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), co-founded the Freedom Democratic Party in order to spotlight the denial of the very freedoms that were supposed to be guaranteed to African Americans then and now. She was there to push for her party’s Mississippi delegation to be seated in place of the Democratic Party’s all-white one, which included segregationists.

In her remarks, Hamer addressed her abuse at the hands of police.

”When a man told me I was under arrest, [the police officer] kicked me. I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room,” Hamer told the convention crowd. “And he said, ‘We going to make you wish you was dead.’ I began to scream, and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.

“All of this is on account of we want to register to become first-class citizens.”

This speech was one of the many reasons I wanted to talk with Hamer’s most recent biographer, Keisha Blain, PhD. A historian at the University of Pittsburgh, Blain is the author of Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. In the book — which is partly a contemporary social commentary — Blain describes how Hamer was accustomed to seeing rights and freedoms technically guaranteed to her as an American discarded because she was a Black woman.

Hamer urged those listening to understand that denying her rights was, in fact, a refutation of American ideals.

This speech was Hamer’s introduction to the American mainstream. That included President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who — fearing the retribution of Southern Democrats — said he “couldn’t sleep” knowing what Hamer might say at the podium. He even called a sudden press conference of his own, attempting to keep national networks from airing her speech.

The endurance of her message in present times is evidence of his failure. But how did she end up there in the first place?

This is what I wanted to ask Blain: Where exactly did Fannie Lou Hamer come from, and why have her ideas remained important in today’s America? How did a Black woman in her 40s, who had little formal education and was living amid Jim Crow in Mississippi, end up giving this speech, one we are still talking about today?

Blain and I spoke on the latest episode of Vox Conversations, which you can listen to here or below, in full. An edited excerpt follows.

Jamil Smith

Where did she come from? And why is that important?

Keisha Blain

Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper. She was born into a sharecropping family and did not have much formal education. In fact, according to Hamer, it’s not until August 1962 that she even learned she had a constitutional right to vote as a citizen of the United States.

She also joined the movement fairly late in life. She was 44 years old when she joined SNCC, compared to many of the activists with whom she collaborated, who were much younger, many of them college students at the time. And Hamer did not have the experience as a political organizer at the time that she joined SNCC.

So, quite frankly, this is an ordinary Black woman. She was a disabled activist, walked with a limp, and she immediately became a force. Immediately, learned as much as she could learn, and then took that information to others.

Jamil Smith

Fighting for rights that we supposedly have already been granted, I feel, is kinda the story of Black folks in America, particularly after enslavement.

In that light, I wanted to make sure that our audience understands what sharecropping is. And that’s important to how Fannie Lou Hamer developed, well, into Fannie Lou Hamer.

Keisha Blain

This is a system that developed in the aftermath of slavery, and it’s important to emphasize that it was designed by white landowners. The idea was that Black people, following emancipation, would be able to continue working on the plantations. In fact, many people remained on the very same plantations where their families had been, under the institution of slavery.

With the sharecropping system, one would continue to develop, to grow the crops, but not own anything, and would only receive a share of the crops at the end of the season. And so this was a system of exploitation. It was a system that was meant to keep Black people in debt, and certainly in dependency. And Fannie Lou Hamer’s family was among so many other families, not only in Mississippi, but across the South, working in this exploitative system.

Jamil Smith

How did her tactics and strategies differ from those of other civil rights leaders at the time? I’m curious to know more specifically about the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which I didn’t really know a whole lot about before I read your book.

Keisha Blain

This is such a powerful example of how Fannie Lou Hamer tried to make Mississippi better, how she tried to make the nation better. Despite the fact that she had limited material resources, she devised this idea of opening up a farm, and this was in the late 1960s, which would provide a space for people to grow their own crops.

Hamer allowed anyone to be a part of Freedom Farm. It did not matter, your race or ethnicity. All she cared about was if you had a need, if you were living in poverty, and you could benefit from Freedom Farm, then the doors were open to you. You could come, your family could be there. It was a space that provided housing, educational opportunities, even job opportunities. And more importantly, it was a place where you could grow your own crops. There was a pig bank, which allowed people ...

Jamil Smith

Okay, for those of us uneducated in that regard, what is a pig bank?

Keisha Blain

Oh, right, right. As part of the Freedom Farm, she had several people donate pigs, uh, and the idea was to rear the pigs and to work toward multiplying the pigs, so that families on the farm could have food to eat.

This was a grassroots, community-based economic program that was supported widely. She reached out to all kinds of groups, and she traveled across the country to raise funds for Freedom Farm. This was just, I think, a genius kind of approach to addressing poverty and hunger in Mississippi.

And it also had a broad reach beyond the region, because one of the things that Hamer would do is, for families that had left the Mississippi Delta and had traveled to northern cities, she would send crops and so on. She would actually ship food out to various cities. So this was one way that she tried to tackle poverty, despite the fact that she did not have much.

***

Jamil Smith

She definitely seemed to view the struggle of Black people here as part of a more global struggle. You wrote later in the book that, “Like many Black internationalists before and after her, Hamer refused to divorce developments taking place in the United States from global movements abroad.” How did she integrate her thinking and her action with others who were working for justice abroad?

Keisha Blain

So, one of the things that I talk about in the book is that Hamer takes a trip toward the end of September 1964, along with several activists in SNCC, to the African continent. She travels specifically to Guinea, and this was, I argue, a transformative moment for her. It was a moment where she began to really understand that the challenges that Black people were facing in the United States could not be divorced from the challenges that Black people were enduring in other parts of the globe, and even more broadly, that people of color, other marginalized groups, were facing globally.

I think when Hamer returned to the United States after that trip, she just started making those connections, and you could see it in her speeches. So, for example, she would talk about what was happening in Mississippi. She would condemn white supremacy in Mississippi and then she would draw a connection to the Congo. She would talk about the way that all of these other countries were trying to limit Black people’s autonomy, and even though she recognized that Mississippi was not the Congo, she saw the connections and, in doing so, she saw the importance of forming solidarities.

She saw the importance of these transnational networks, and she was really, I think, open to collaborating with all kinds of people as long they were committed to the cause. And there’s a moment in her life where she just openly says, “Listen. I’m no longer really fighting for civil rights. I’m fighting for human rights.”

Jamil Smith

That brings me to that quote that seems to have inspired your book title, which is, of course, “We have a long fight and this fight is not mine alone. But you are not free, whether you are white or black, until I am free.” And that not just encapsulates the universality of justice and accountability here in the States but abroad.

Keisha Blain

We are often talking about our lives as somewhat disconnected. Right? And this is true whenever we talk about racism, as an example. I’m always struck by conversations about racism that quickly turn into these personal narratives and then someone will say, “Well, I haven’t experienced that.” Or, “You know, that doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t believe it because no police officer has stopped me and asked me those questions.”

What Hamer did, and why it’s so powerful, even in the current moment to reflect on, is she said, “Listen. It’s not just about you. We have to think in the collective way. We’re all members of the American polity.” That means that if someone is hurting, it does affect you. If someone is in chains, you are not free, even if you think you are. Right?

We may come from different backgrounds, you know, different socioeconomic status, or different races, ethnicities, and so on, but because we are all in this nation, we are connected. And the future of the nation depends on all of us. And she would emphasize that regardless of who you were you have to be concerned about the person next to you.

As we know, not everyone will immediately embrace that notion, but she constantly tried to get people to see that they needed to be concerned about the next person. Because if the next person experiences liberation, you too can benefit. And if another person is in chains, you can’t truly enjoy freedom.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here. Then, please be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts — and leave us a five-star rating, if you’d be so kind.