Doing Something: On Keisha N. Blain’s “Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America”

November 19, 2021   •   By Elwood Watson

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America

Keisha N. Blain

AS WHITE CONSERVATIVE backlash grows in the United States, Keisha N. Blain’s new biography of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer stands out for its relevance. Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America is a deft, eloquent, and deeply engaging narrative of one of the fiercest and most formidable Black female activists of the 20th century.

While several works have discussed Hamer’s life, most notably Chana Kai Lee’s For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer and Kay Mills’s This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, Blain’s book differs in that each chapter identifies the work of present-day activists and draws parallels to the battles that Hamer herself joined.

Hamer grew up as the youngest in a family of 20 children in racist Mississippi where daily indignities, abject poverty, and violence were the norm for Black people. Life was adversarial. She acquired a degree of reading proficiency, obtained a job as a timekeeper, and set out to assist other Black people who suffered social inequities, inspiring innumerable cohorts to challenge the injustices they were forced to endure. In 1964, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City as a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her iconic speech — just a year after enduring a jail beating — grabbed headlines.

Hamer had little patience for other Black people who were reluctant to acknowledge the blatant injustices that confronted them. The murders of Medgar Evers and other Black Mississippians compelled her to reach out to other individuals such as Ella Baker and Floyd McKissick and organizations like SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP. Drawing adept comparisons, Blain describes how the nation witnessed similar grassroots activism in 2020 with the groundswell of support for Louisville EMT Breonna Taylor, despite the minimal attention that mainstream media and some Black organizations had previously given her case.

In 1962, one of Hamer’s contemporaries, Black radical Malcolm X, stated that the most “abused, neglected, ignored, disrespected” person in the United States was the Black woman. Despite their public proclamations of justice and equality for all, the reality was that many Black men, including clergy and activists, like their White male counterparts, harbored sexist attitudes. Coupled with such a regressive mindset was the incautious tendency to hold Black women accountable for the social ills plaguing the Black community.

Not much has changed. In 2020, rapper and songwriter Megan Thee Stallion authored a dynamic op-ed in The New York Times, titled “Why I Speak Up for Black Women.” The essay was written a few weeks after Megan had been shot by a male acquaintance. Shockingly, some engaged in a sinister form of “blaming the victim,” questioning whether the entertainer played a part in her own attack. Megan rightly fought back, introducing many readers, including some Black women, to the politics of intersectionality — a term formalized by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe how social categorizations such as race, class, and gender interact and cannot be taken independently when seeking to understand a lived experience. Likewise, in her day and time, Hamer did not hesitate to blast New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other White male policymakers, as well as fellow Black male cohorts, for their sexism as they scapegoated Black women for the problems and social ills facing the larger Black community. Blain compares how both Megan Thee Stallion and Hamer have advocated on behalf of their Black sisters while making it abundantly clear that they still viewed many of their Black brothers as comrades in arms.

Blain describes how Hamer’s views on camaraderie were influenced by her visit to Africa during the mid-1960s with prominent Black politicians and spokespeople. There she met with African leaders and witnessed firsthand the dynamics of pan-African politics. Such a revelatory experience prompted Hamer to embrace a global perspective. A similar perspective informs the Black Lives Matter movement, which was founded by three Black women, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia Garza. With fellow activists, they have pushed for people of African descent to incorporate transnational strategies as part of their overall work to improve the quality of life for their people.

Blain also draws connections between Hamer and the Reverend Doctors William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis. In 2017, Barber and Theoharis announced a campaign to combat poverty in the United States called “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.” Barber and Theoharis worked tirelessly by marching, penning reflective op-eds in major newspapers, appearing on major networks, and speaking at national conferences to spread their altruistic message to the masses. In the chapter “Try to Do Something,” Blain demonstrates how Hamer aggressively worked to combat poverty in Mississippi and abroad during the late 1960s and early ’70s. The Freedom Farm Cooperative established in 1969 was one such effort.

Central to her activism was Hamer’s open criticism of class divisions within the Black community and the seeming indifference — and to some degree, contempt — that the Black elite demonstrated toward their less prosperous brethren. She decried the respectability politics that many Black elite embraced. NAACP President Roy Wilkins was embarrassed by Hamer’s imperfect diction and what he viewed as her rough-around-the-edges persona. He felt that such characteristics reflected negatively on the race. In her characteristically combative, unapologetic spirit, Hamer called Wilkins out and told him that the NAACP stood for “National Association for the Advancement of Certain People.”

The latter years of Hamer’s life were marred by illness, financial struggles, and depression. She didn’t have enough funds to adequately support herself and relied on the assistance of friends and others. On March 14, 1977, Hamer died. She had devoted her life to securing civil and human rights for others, often sacrificing her own economic, and at times physical, welfare in the process and personifying the Christianity that shaped her life. An iconoclastic voice had been silenced, but Blain shows how her message continues to ring out. Until I Am Free is a deft examination of Fannie Lou Hamer, one of our nation’s greatest civil rights heroines, who unfailingly spoke truth to power.

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Elwood Watson, PhD is a professor of history, African American studies, gender and sexuality studies, and popular culture. His book Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America was published by University of Chicago Press in 2019.