On February 22 the wonderful documentary Fannie Lou Hamer’s America received its broadcast premiere on PBS. Mrs. Hamer’s grandniece Monica Land, one of the film’s producers, began with the idea of creating a documentary that would highlight the personal and family side of her “Aunt Fannie Lou.” But as she and her colleagues started their official research they realized they were finding a treasure trove of rare photographs, news footage of public speeches, original television interviews, and recordings of Mrs. Hamer singing that hadn’t been collected before and in some cases had not yet been digitized or formally preserved. The rich archival materials were a revelation and steered the project in a new direction—and the finished documentary now tells Mrs. Hamer’s extraordinary life story using her own powerful voice.
The premiere was a fitting end to Black History Month and the documentary will now be rebroadcast and streamed throughout Women’s History Month. It allows a new generation to hear firsthand the courageous witness and words of one of our nation’s civil rights sheroes and one of my own great lanterns and role models from the dog days of struggle in Mississippi. Mrs. Hamer, the twentieth child born of poor Mississippi sharecroppers, once asked her mother why they weren’t white. She internalized and lived her mother’s answer: “You must respect yourself as a little child, a little Black child. And as you grow older, respect yourself as a Black woman. Then one day, other people will respect you.” And we did respect Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer as a Black woman. And we loved her. I loved her.
Her indomitable spirit and self-respect famously led her to co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and challenge the discriminatory Mississippi Democratic Party’s segregated slate of delegates on the floor of the 1964 Democratic Convention. Her testimony on the intimidation, arrest, and brutal jailhouse beating she had experienced trying to register to vote in Mississippi was nationally televised, despite President Lyndon Johnson’s last minute attempts to push her off the air to avoid alienating white Southern voters. When potential vice presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey was ordered by President Johnson to stop “that illiterate woman” and urged Mrs. Hamer to accept an unjust compromise, offering the MFDP two at-large seats instead of the opportunity to replace the segregated delegation, she refused. She wanted to sit at the Democratic Party table and not be thrown a few Democratic Party crumbs over the side.
Mrs. Hamer had come by her early political education the long and hard way. She was 44 and working on a plantation when civil rights workers arrived in Sunflower County. Mrs. Hamer went to hear them when they spoke about voter registration, and when they asked if anyone was willing to try to register to vote, she raised her hand. Soon afterwards she led a group of volunteers from a bus into the circuit clerk’s office. The clerk told all but two to leave and only Mrs. Hamer was allowed to stay for the voter test. When she failed to interpret a section of the state constitution she was unable to register (“It was the first time I realized Mississippi had a constitution!” she said). The police arrested and fined the bus driver (allegedly because the bus was “too yellow”). When the others who had come with Mrs. Hamer became frightened, she started singing, and they managed to scramble together enough money to pay the fine so the bus driver could take them home.
When Mrs. Hamer arrived home, the owner of the plantation told her that if she wanted to stay she shouldn’t try to register to vote. She answered him with her truth: “I didn’t go down there to register for you. I went down to register for myself.” He told her to pack her family’s things and leave, and when he relented the next day, she refused his offer to allow her to return. Fearing for her safety, her husband “Pap” took her to live with relatives in another county. But she didn’t stay there. Returning to town she said, “Well, killing or no killing, I’m going to stick with civil rights.”
For the rest of her life, as the documentary shows, that is exactly what she did. She let nothing turn her back although as she once said, “I’m never sure anymore when I leave home whether I’ll get back or not. Sometimes it seem like to tell the truth is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”
I respected and loved her for her wit that used to make us double over with laughter as she used it to teach us serious lessons about tolerance and decency towards the very whites who oppressed her when she sought the vote for Blacks and the poor. I respected and loved her for her faithful practice of the hard message of Christianity which kept us from hating when we wanted to hate. She gave everything for Jesus, freedom, and justice. I was so proud when she came to visit me in Washington to participate in the dedication of my first child Joshua Robert to God. May her spirit of grit, love, and courage infuse his life and all my and our children’s lives. I still try to be half as strong and half as good as Mrs. Hamer.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.