Above: Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964
Image Source = Library of Congress
Photographer = Warren K. Leffler
Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-ppmsc-01267
FANNIE LOU TOWNSEND HAMER (OCTOBER 6, 1917-MARCH 14, 1977)
Prophet of Freedom
I’m never sure anymore when I leave home whether I’ll get back or not. Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today 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 that and no one will have to cover the ground I walk as far as freedom is concerned.
–Fannie Lou Hamer, quoted by Danny Duncan Collum in Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday, Cloud of Witnesses (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), page 109
Christianity is being concerned about your fellow man, not building a million-dollar church while people are starving right around the corner. Christ was a revolutionary person, out there where it is happening. That’s what God is all about, and that’s where I get my strength.
–Fannie Lou Hamer, quoted in Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), page 118
Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints (1997), lists Fannie Lou Hamer as the saint for March 14 and describes her as a “Prophet of Freedom.” That is an accurate description.
Fannie Lou Townsend, born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, on October 6, 1917, was always poor. She was the youngest of 20 children born to sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, the poorest region of a state (infamous for its open, institutional racism and reactionary politics) that has long been the butt of jokes about poor states.
Thank God for Mississippi!
has long been the exclamation of citizens of other impoverished states grateful that their states are Forty-Ninth or Forty-Eighth–but not Fiftieth–in the prevention of scabies or some other disease, or in certain educational attainment statistics, et cetera. As an old joke says, we know that the inventor of the toothbrush hailed from Mississippi because, if he had come from any other state, it would be a teethbrush.
Above: Northwestern Mississippi
Scanned from Hammond’s Complete World Atlas (1951)
Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor
Our saint, who suffered from childhood polio, had a fourth-grade education and also became a sharecropper. In 1945 she married Perry “Pap” Hamer, a tractor driver on a nearby plantation. The Hamers adopted two daughters, Dorothy and Virgie, and worked on plantations in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Our saint knew both hard work and little reward for it:
Sometimes I be working in the fields and I get so tired, I say to the people picking cotton with us, “Hard as we have to work for nothing, there must be some way we can change this.
–Quoted by Danny Duncan Collum in Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday, Cloud of Witnesses (2005), page 103
Hamer also knew the injustice of forced sterilization. In 1961, while she was having surgery for the removal of a tumor, the surgeon sterilized her as part of a state program targeting poor African-American women.
In August 1962, at the age of 44 years, Hamer became politically active. She attended a voter registration rally sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Immediately she began to attempt to register to vote–a right the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) to the Constitution of the United States theoretically prevented anyone from denying her on the basis of her race. She succeeded in January 1963. By then, however, the Hamers’ landlord had evicted the family and confiscated their possessions in repayment for alleged debts. These were acts in retaliation for her registering to vote. Our saint became a field secretary for SNCC. Her work was to encourage African Americans to register to vote and to communicate the plight of Southern African Americans to Northern whites. There were consequences. She received death threats. The State Sovereignty Commission kept the family under surveillance. Also, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Council (now the Conservative Citizens’ Council), and J. Edgar Hoover‘s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) harassed the Hamers.
In 1963, when Hamer and some other civil rights workers were returning from Charleston, South Carolina, police in Winona, Montgomery County, Mississippi, arrested them and incarcerated them for several days. Officers presided over beatings of these activists. Our saint suffered the effects of the beatings for the rest of her life; a blood clot in her left eye impaired her vision. She also suffered kidney damage. Hamer might have died shortly, for she overheard officers plotting to kill the activists and dispose of their bodies. Fortunately, local activists and the federal Department of Justice arranged for their release.
From 1964 to 1968 Hamer was active the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which she helped to form and in which she exercised leadership. She sought unsuccessfully to unseat the state Democratic Party’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1964. She also ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965. Hamer did succeed, however, in influencing the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She also served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and opposed the Vietnam War, which she understood in the context of human rights for poor people. In addition, she helped to organize the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. All of her actions stemmed from her Christian faith.
Other actions that stemmed from Hamer’s Christian faith were local in nature; she sought to improve conditions in Ruleville and Sunflower County. Our saint helped to bring the Head Start program to the area, raised funds for building 200 low-income housing units, helped to found a day care center, and was instrumental in bringing a garment factory to town. Our saint also organized the Freedom Farm Cooperative (ultimately 680 acres), to acquire land for agricultural workers forced off the land they had been farming due to the mechanization of agriculture.
Hamer suffered from a variety of health issues at the end of her life. She had diabetes. Also, the effects of juvenile polio and the beatings in Winona in 1963 remained with her. Furthermore, she had breast cancer. Hamer died at Mound Bayou Community Hospital, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, on March 14, 1977. She was 59 years old.
Hamer understood herself to be engaged in a struggle against forces of spiritual darkness. She was correct. How else should one categorize Jim Crow laws, a state program of forced sterilization, government surveillance of peaceful activists, and official and unofficial intimidation of them? And how else should one label consent of these foul deeds? It has happened here. Much has changed, but much has also remained the same. Certain state governments have, in recent years, instituted programs to suppress minority voting. They have been careful to avoid using openly racist language while doing so, but their actions have targeted minorities. If Hamer were alive today, she would have much work to do and much opposition to overcome.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JANUARY 20, 2017 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT FABIAN, BISHOP OF ROME AND MARTYR
THE FEAST OF SAINTS DEICOLA AND GALL, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONKS; AND OTHMAR, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT AT SAINT GALLEN
THE FEAST OF SAINTS EUTHYMIUS THE GREAT AND THEOCRISTUS, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOTS
THE FEAST OF HARRIET AUBER, ANGLICAN HYMN WRITER
O God, your Son came among us to serve and not to be served, and to give his life for the life of the world.
Lead us by his love to serve all those to whom the world offers no comfort and little help.
Through us give hope to the hopeless,
love to the unloved,
peace to the troubled,
and rest to the weary,
through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
—Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60