This Little Light of Mine (1917)
As Susan B. Anthony lay dying, she spoke to her fellow suffragettes, “With women such as you, failure is impossible.” A year after her passing, in 1920, women were allowed into the polling station, an act that had oncce led to Anthony’s arrest. However, in the Deep South, despite the 15th Amendment, Jim Crow prevented the disenfranchised from voting, determined to keep poor blacks in their place-the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Fannie Lou was the youngest of 20 children-sixteen boys and four girls- born to Jim and Lou Ella Townsend, sharecroppers on a Montgomery County plantation. When she was 2 the family relocated to Sunflower County, 60 miles to the west. Despite the positive connotation of its name, life was a never-ending struggle for its African-American residents. Fannie worked the fields from age 6; school was only secondary and attendance permitted only after they had picked their share of cotton. Some never attend classes so they could work full time. The little girl, like her mother and father, and her slave ancestors, had looked on the long rows of cotton as the only future white Mississippi would afford black folks. This status quo suited the KKK and other white supremacy groups who looked with nostalgia on the antebellum South as ‘the good ole’ days.’
Jim was resourceful and hard-working, but in the Delta these virtues did not translate to a better life. He rented land and purchased mules and a cultivator. His subsequent success threatened the established social hierarchy and its proponents poisoned his livestock. However, in the segregationist state in the first half of the 20th century, there was no legal recourse. The Townsends were obliged to return to work as sharecroppers; this entailed splitting the profits with the land-owner, but the cost for everything came from the workers, which made life a Sisyphean, never-ending economic struggle.
Fannie’s formal education in the one-room schoolhouse ended at grade six. She dropped out because her parents were elderly and her mother had a bad eye, an injury she had sustained at work. An object had struck her eye as she was swinging an ax and, unable to afford medical attention, eventually went blind. Hunger stalked their home and shoes were a luxury she did not enjoy for many years. Her mother tied rags around the children’s feet with string during the winter months.
As an adult, Fannie did not become one of those white-gloved, soft-spoken, Southern ladies who drank tea and sported a wide-brimmed hat. She was short and stocky, with a booming voice, and refused to ‘know her place.’
In 1944, at age 27 she married Perry “Pap” Hamer, a young man who plowed the cotton fields, and the couple moved to Ruleville, Mississippi, where they labored as sharecroppers on the Marlow plantation. Fannie envisioned becoming a mother to a large number of children but this collapsed after her first two pregnancies ended with still-births. When she went to the hospital to have a tumor removed, the doctor, a proponent of eugenics on poor blacks, performed a hysterectomy, which he said he did out of kindness. This form of sterilization was so commonplace it was known as ‘Mississippi appendectomy.’ Enraged, Hamer attended a civil rights rally at a Ruleville Baptist Church where civil rights workers from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee told Hamer something she had never heard before: black people had the right to vote. They had chosen Sunflower County as it was the epitome of southern segregation and felt if they could make progress there, it would send a seismic shock throughout the Delta. Ms. Hammer had known something was rotten-and not just in the state of Denmark- in the world she had inherited, yet she had never before heard of civil rights. The rebel had found her cause. She recalled, “When they asked for those to raise their hands who’d go down to the courthouse the next day, I raised mine. Had it up as high as I could get it. I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a-been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing the whites could do was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.” She devoured the words of the speakers who said that those gathered at the church-dirt-poor sharecroppers, field hands and domestics-could force from office the hateful politicians and sheriffs who controlled the oppressive old order.
In the evening of August, 1962, Fannie and 17 others boarded a yellow, weather-beaten bus and rode the 30 miles to the county seat of Indianola. In the sobering light of the day, most of the euphoria from the meeting dissipated and they were afraid to disembark. Then Mrs. Hamer stepped off the bus while the others followed silently behind as she led the way to the registration desk in the courthouse. However, there was another hurdle to jump through-the literacy test-designed to keep the uneducated blacks from voting. Fannie was given questions concerning de facto laws of which she said, “I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day.” Another form of intimidation was the application required place of employment, a chill inducing question. They understood there would be immediate retaliation, namely, their termination once they were branded as rabble-rousers. Just as frightening was the blank space that asked for place of residence; it was implicit that the Ku Klux Klan would have this information and they would return home to a burning cross.
On the ride back to Ruleville, a highway patrolman arrested the driver on the charge of operating a vehicle that too closely resembled a school-bus. To lift flagging spirits, Fannie, in a loud voice, sang Gospel songs such as, “Go Tell it on the Mountain” to which the others lent their voices.
Fannie lost her home and job but had discovered her passion. She told an infuriated Marlow, “I didn’t go down there to register for you. I went down to register for myself.” The first place Ms. Hamer went was her Baptist Church and told the congregation about her eviction. They sang freedom songs and played the piano in a bid to comfort. However, she looked at it in a positive light and said she had been set free. “It’s the best thing that could have happened. Now I can work for my people.” Hamer was willing to become a modern Moses, determine to lead her people to the promised land of freedom.
Fearing reprisals, Pap drove his wife and their two adopted daughters to Tallahatchie County, where they stayed with the Turner’s, rural relatives. The Klan left their calling card-they fired 16 shots into their home. The act shattered everyone’s nerves but Hamer was a strong character that this tough time in history required. Nevertheless, her strong faith taught her, “Ain’t no such thing as I can hate anybody and hope to see God’s face.”
In 1963 Fannie was returning from a meeting on voter registration in Charleston, South Carolina, when they stopped at Winona, Mississippi, and ordered food at the bus-station lunch-counter. Several police officers demanded they leave, despite the ordinance out-lawing segregated transportation facilities. They rounded up the offending party and herded them into patrol-cars. Fannie was sitting in the bus, out of view, because her left leg, crippled from a bout of childhood polio, was sore from the strenuous week. When she saw her friends arrested she joined them and was recognized as the hymn-singing trouble-maker. The officers told her, “You, bitch, we gon’ make you wish you was dead.” They took her into a room where they gave two black, male prisoners a blackjack and told them unless they used it on Hamer it would be used on them. It served as strong persuasion. She was forced onto her stomach and they whipped her until both men were exhausted. She was left with a permanently damaged kidney and a blood clot that formed over her eye and threatened her vision. After they took her back to her cell she overheard them saying, “We could put them son of bitches in Big Black River, and nobody would never find them.” Upon her release she learned that the night before Medgar Evers had been gunned down in his yard in front of his wife and three children. (Ms. Hamer-never one to be at a loss for words-yet would have been rendered speechless if she could have foreseen in 2009 the Unite States Post Office would issue a commemorative stamp of her and Medgar Evers.) At this point, after a life of prejudice, poverty, it would have been understandable for Fannie Lou Hamer to return in defeat to her small home in Rulesville, but she determined to still rise. She lamented, “We been waitin’ all our lives and still getting’ killed, still getting’ hung, still getting’ beat to death. Now we’re tired of waitin! Only God has kept the Negro sane.”
The 1968 Democratic Convention, under the Chicago 7, became a three-ring circus that left the city with a long-lasting black eye. However, four years earlier, the one in Atlantic City proved equally high theater. When Fannie and friends arrived all were aware of the storm blowing in from Mississippi. White racists controlled the state and had openly declared themselves in favor of segregation. Fannie, as a polio survivor, had a marked limp, and this as well as her nonstandard syntax made her into an authentic image of the harshness of contemporary black life. She electrified the country with a televised appearance that revealed the demeaning discrimination that crippled the souls of her people. She spoke of the terror of living as an African-American activist in Mississippi, and how this entailed sleeping with telephones taken off the hook because of nocturnal death threats. At one point, her face flaring with emotion, asked, “Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave?” She told Senator Humphrey-who had described her as “that illiterate woman-”that she was going to pray for him to Jesus. The most famous line she delivered that night, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It became the phrase heard around the country. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who would soon be campaigning and hoped to avoid controversy in the national spotlight, called a last-minute press conference to divert press coverage from Hamer’s testimony, but many networks ran her speech on the late news programs. But the damage was already done; Fannie Lou Hamer had become the Rosa Parks of voting. In the 1968 convention she was again a palpable presence and spoke out against the war in Vietnam.
Despite her national prominence, she continue to live in her three-room house in Ruleville, population 2,000, in the state immortalized in King’s speech, “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice….” Pap and Fannie were constantly harassed by local officials. One day they received a $9,000 hydro-even though the Hamer house had no running water. She explained her reason for staying to a writer, “Why should I leave Ruleville and why should I leave Mississippi? I go to the big city and with the kind of education they give us in Mississippi, I got problems. You don’t run away from problems, you just face them.”
In her last years she received dozens of honors such as when Dr. King, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech thanked “the great people like the Fannie Lou Hamers whose discipline, wise restraint, and majestic courage has led them down a nonviolent course in seeking to establish a reign of justice and a rule of love across this nation of ours.” She was the recipient of numerous awards and in 1969 spoke at the White House Conference on Hunger. The indefatigable fighter passed away at age 60 from cancer in Mount Bayon Community Hospital in Mississippi. Engraved on her tombstone in Ruleville are her famous words, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
In Washington, in 2015, septuagenarians from the era of the Civil Rights Movement slowly climbed the stairs of the Metropolitan Church. They had gathered for the opening of the March on Washington Film Festival that began with a documentary honoring Fannie Lou Hamer. When her celluloid image asked her famous question-What kind of country is America-? some in the audience wiped away tears. At the end, wrinkled hands clapped backs and the audience rose in the pews, wrapped their arms around one another and swayed to a joyous rendition of the gospel song Ms. Hammer had sang years ago on a too yellow school bus: This Little Light of Mine.