I attend the Mississippi Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement annual conference at Tougaloo College last spring. We spent a full day visiting Mrs. Hamer's Memorial Garden and gravesite, and the Fannie Lou Hamer Library. We also went to her church.
In anticipation of Mrs. Hamer's Centennial I propose that we create a "Fannie Lou Hamer: In Remembrance" page. I think it will be a good way to immortalize recollections of her by those who knew or had an association with her. In remembering this warrior woman whose place in history is alongside that of Ida B. Wells Barnett and others, please feel free to write about her legacy as well.
Please write a statement about Mrs. Hamer. The people of Ruleville are celebrating her Birthday on Friday (October 6 2017). I hope I can get there.
Our Mrs. Hamer
Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer's life and contribution to the Freedom Movement — both in Mississippi as well as throughout the South and nation — is of course much larger than SNCC. But we veterans of that organization claim a special relationship with her. First, and it is the only possible starting point, she loved us and we loved her. There is hardly room here to explore and develop in detail the why of this basic fact, but she said once that we were the first group of people to ever ask her what she thought, and who listened to what she thought.
For our part, on the first day our relationship with her began — August 31, 1962 — when we stood with her and 17 other men and women at the Sunflower County courthouse in Indianola, she manifested a courage that taught us that the real force for change would come from ordinary people finding their voices and daring to take action even at the risk of their lives.
Mrs. Hamer became SNCC's oldest field secretary. Her leadership role in COFO and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) not only challenged white supremacy, but pointed a way out of no way to Black people. And for all of the problems than remain in Black life — indeed, in American life — we live better because she raised her voice. As for the SNCC part of her continuing Movement life, she kept us on track. It was not difficult for a group of young people, like we were then, to sometimes stumble off course; she kept us focused on doing what was right. She commanded our respect as well as our love.
She passed away far too young from breast cancer and perhaps too because her body was greatly weakened because of injuries from a brutal beating in the Winona jail. But she only passed away from this earth. She remains here with us in our hearts, minds, and soul.
The SNCC Legacy Project
A Memory of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer
I first met Mrs. Hamer in June of 1964 at the Oxford, Ohio training session for the first wave of volunteers for the Mississippi Summer Project. I was one of the white volunteers, 23 years old. Having spent the previous two years as a teacher at a progressive private school in western Massachusetts, I was to be a coordinator at one of the Freedom Schools the project was establishing.
As things turned out, I was assigned to the Freedom School being set up in Shaw, Miss. For logistical reasons, however, we could not move into the town for a couple of weeks, so we stayed in Ruleville, Mrs. Hamer's hometown. We were put up with families who were involved in the Movement, and since I was to be the Coordinator of the Shaw Freedom School, Mrs. Hamer invited me to stay at her house on Lafayette Street.
On our second or third night in Ruleville several of Mrs. Hamer's friends fixed a fried chicken dinner for those of us who were staying in the homes in Mrs. Hamer's neighborhood. We ate at Mrs. Hamer's house, though neither she nor her husband, Pap, were there. It was a delicious dinner. Afterwards, people drifted away, leaving me alone in the house. My mother and father had taught me to show appreciation when someone did me a kindness, so I started washing the dishes.
As I was finishing up, Pap came home, and when he saw me at the sink, he said angrily, "What you doin' women's work for?" I started to explain, but he turned his back and left.
A while later Mrs. Hamer came in, and when I explained what had happened, she said, "That's all right. Pap don't have many ways left of bein' a man."
I was simply stunned at the enormity of what she had said. At that instant, all the abstractions about racism, prejudice, and bigotry were crystallized in a real person whose life was being destroyed by this kind of hatred. It was the beginning of my gut level understanding of the degradation and psychological destruction that must be the inevitable consequence of racism. But it was also a moment when I realized that here was another life that had been at least equally brutalized by the same system, yet Mrs. Hamer had triumphed over the anger and rage that surely had threatened to control her spirit and life. It was an epiphany for me, a moment that changed my life forever.
We moved to Shaw the following week, and I never saw Mrs. Hamer again in person, but I feel like I carry a little bit of her spirit with me. Freedom is a constant struggle. Make a joyful noise.
©Wallace Roberts 2003
I met Mrs. Hamer before she became famous, before SNCC came to the Delta. As a young girl she attended a country school where my grandmother taught. I think it was near Brooks Plantation, "Down on Brooks," they used to say.
From 1950 forward we made annual summer trips to Mississippi — 3rd week in July — and on an early trip, Mrs Hamer visited my grandmother at my uncle's house in Drew. This became a pattern for some years.
I'm lucky to remember this — but my mother made sure. In later years, when Mrs. Hamer was mentioned on TV, my mother would ask, "Do you remember her, Philippa? She's the woman who used to call Mama (my grandmother) 'Mama Janie.'" I am so proud that Mrs. Hamer was fond of my grandmother. On her "Songs my Mother taught Me" Mrs. Hamer sings a refrain, "Go to sleep-y little ba-a-aby." My grandmother put me to bed with that same melody. I've not heard it anywhere except on that tape and from my grandmother's lips.
Heather Booth and Mrs. Hamer in Ruleville MS 1964
|Ms. Hamer had a moral center to her that not only guided her
actions, but gave greater moral clarity to many of those around her.
When I arrived in Mississippi, our first stop was in Ruleville with Ms. Hamer. She gave a sense of her moral vision at every level of her life.
Certainly it was in the visible public impact--speaking at mass meetings, churches, MFDP gatherings or at the Democratic Convention. But it was also in the daily aspects of life--how she treated the volunteers, her neighbors, the other people in her life. While I was a very young volunteer, and so inexperienced in the reality of Mississippi, she treated me and the other volunteers on an equal footing — neither above nor below her in respect. And by doing so, modeled how we each can treat each other. And showed us how to center ourselves in morality to do the right thing.
(Thanks for collecting these comments. Though I did not know Ms. Hamer for very long, she left a lasting and very important impression on me that has helped to guide my actions ever since.)
This conversation is so good that I have to tell a little story about Mrs. Hamer. Carl and Ann Braden had just made a tour of Mississippi including Ruleville where Mrs. Hamer lived, doing workshops on first amendment rights. After they left a Jackson Newspaper had printed an article that said Ann and Carl were communists and were down in Mississippi teaching us poor weak Negros how to be comminists. Now most of us in Mississippi knew nothing about communism and some of us hadn't even heard the word. At a mass meeting in Ruleville shortly after the article Mrs. Hamer stood up and said, "the newspaper said Ann and Carl are communist and were teaching us how to be communist, well I don't know what communism is but I know white folk don't like it so it must be good".
During the Waveland conference some people, including Miz Hamer, went over to New Orleans to see a (probably Free Southern Theater) production of Purlie Victorious. Miz Hamer was among them. Upon return, she exploded into the "parlor", laughing uproariously, full of enthusiasm about the play, and proceeded to do a one-woman paraphrase version of it for us. It is still my favorite performance of that delightful work, a well-loved tape of the movie Purliewith Ruby, Ossie, the wonderful Bea Richards and Godfrey Cambridge and a young Alan Alda notwithstanding. She especially could not get enough of the memory ol' Cochapee: "He died standing up! Standing up! He died standing up!!!"
In late August of 1962 Mrs. Hamer and 17 or 18 others from Sunflower County, Mississippi boarded an old bus in Ruleville to go to the county seat in Indianola to make an attempt at registering to vote. Charles McLaurin, Bob Moses, Dorie Ladner, Landy McNair, maybe Dave Dennis and myself accompanied them. After allowing people in the group to enter his office one-by-one the circuit clerk finally closed his office.
By then it was late afternoon a time in Mississippi, I often say, when even the shadows seem dangerous. Fortunately nothing much had happened at the courthouse a few whites shouted curses. One white man threw liquid from a cup at us. I remember fearing that it was acid Indianola, after all, was the birthplace of the White Citizens Council.
The bus headed out of town followed by police. Just as we crossed the bridge on the edge of town the bus was stopped. The driver was placed under arrest for "driving a bus of the wrong color." The cop said the bright yellow bus usually used for hauling day workers to cotton fields could be confused with a school bus. The fine, he said, would be $100 which we did not have.
Sunset was near. Who could drive the bus without getting arrested? Who wanted to be on that road at dark? We us organizers didn't have good answers for the growing fear. Then from the back of the bus this powerful voice broke out in song. I remember hearing "this little light of mine" and "ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'roun." Bob Moses told me years later that it seemed to him that the person singing knew every church song there was. It was Mrs. Hamer, until then, just one of 17 or 18 people. That voice, of course, would be powerful enough for President Lyndon Johnson, fearful of its impact, to interrupt her testimony before the Credentials Committee at the Atlantic City Democratic Convention two years later.
With the power of her voice alone Mrs. Hamer shored up everybody on the bus. We got off the bus and explained to the policeman that since we didn't have $100 he'd better take us all to jail. And he backed down (no, I don't know why?) and reduced the fine to $30 which we did have. We paid and left town.
I have several memories of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi. I hope I don't duplicate stories that Dottie may send in because we experienced some of these together with Mrs. Hamer.
She was always "Mrs. Hamer." I never heard a SNCC person call her anything else. She was a giant the essence of the soul of SNCC, and she was adopted by Rose and Ralph Fishman in Boston.
Dottie was head of the New England SNCC office with offices in the basement of the Epworth Methodist Church, which was situated on the Harvard Law School campus. The church was progressive and had been pastored by Rev. Dan Whitset, a fellow dissident and friend of my father's, who had been "run out" of Alabama on account of his views on race.
Dottie often arranged for Mrs. Hamer to stay with the Fishman's because Rose adored her and would cluck over Mrs. Hamer like a mother hen, making sure she had enough to eat and was warm at night. Rose loved to shop for bargains and got clothes for Mrs. Hamer and James Forman who stayed there sometimes too. (One time Rose got Ralph to hide Jim's old raggedy shoes so he would be forced to let her buy him some new ones.)
One morning Rose asked Mrs. Hamer if she would like some peanut butter on her toast and she said she would. Next morning Rose asked the same question and Mrs. Hamer, looking all innocent like, allowed as how she would like some peanut butter. When Rose reached for the jar in the cupboard, it was empty.
"That's funny," Rose remembered saying, "I thought that jar was full yesterday."
"It was," said Mrs. Hamer sheepishly, "I ate it."
Rose was a sentimental sort. She cried when she learned Mrs. Hamer had never, in her whole life, had all the peanut butter she wanted. Mrs. Hamer said she was sorry she took advantage of Rose's good nature and had eaten up all her peanut butter.
Dottie and Maggie Knowland (Donovan) arrived at the Fishman household about that time to take Mrs. Hamer to see Cardinal Cushing on some important SNCC matter. The two and Rose and Mrs. Hamer had a quick workshop on the proper protocol to observe when meeting the Cardinal. Here are two Jewish mothers trying to tell a Black Mississippi sharecropper SNCC organizer how to act in front of a Catholic Prince of the Church. Luckily Maggie grew up Irish Catholic in Boston.
"First you curtsey, then you kiss his ring and say, 'Pleased to meet you, Your Imminence.'"
"I can't do all that," Mrs. Hamer said.
"Why not?" Maggie asked.
"Well in the first place," giving them each a baleful stare, "What is a "curtsy?"
"A curtsy," Dottie explained patiently, "Is when you put one foot back, bend both knees, and bow your head at the same time while holding your skirt up with both hands."
"Hold up my what? Kiss his what? Now that's a good example of what I'm talking about when I told you all I can't do all that stuff."
"Why not, Mrs. Hamer? Rose pleaded.
"Well first of all, can't you see, if I do that... what you call 'courtesy' and get down like you all said, I'll never be able to get up off the floor to kiss his...ring. Even if I do I'll never be able to remember what to call him. I'm afraid I'll call him 'Your enema.'"
With great relief Dottie, Maggie, and Rose reported that the meeting went well, in spite of the fact that the Cardinal claimed he couldn't help. When asked to convince President Johnson to provide more protection for civil rights workers and Black citizens attempting to register to vote, he said, "My president is dead."
Fannie Lou Hamer probably influenced me at least as much as any woman in my life. If only I could have been mature enough and wise enough to have soaked up more of her wisdom when it could have done me some good.
She came up to Brooklyn NY on one of her frequent fundraising trips, and I was living in Brooklyn at the time. She made sure I got notified of the event so I went even though I was just starting to recover from Hepatitis A. She was just recovering from a very serious illness, so when I got to the affair they sent me into a back room where Ms Hamer lying down watching TV. She was watching All In the Family (the "Archie Bunker" show)!!! "Is that the best show you can find?" I asked. "I try to never miss it," she told me. "It's the only TV show that tells it like it really is!" So we sat and watched America's professional racist do his thing, and oh how she could laugh at it.
For more information:
Fannie Lou Hamer Project
Fannie Lou Hamer Web Links
Books About Fannie Lou Hamer