Change country:

Why Fannie Lou Hamer’s definition of “freedom” still matters

Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville, Mississippi in 1969. | Al Clayton/Getty Images

The human rights activist and former sharecropper once said that “you are not free whether you are white or black, until I am free.” Historian and biographer Keisha Blain joins Vox Conversations to discuss how Hamer’s message resonates in our America

We hear the term “freedom” bandied about rather loosely in this country. It’s one of those things people say they love, but are we really free? In many instances, “freedom” feels more like America’s consumer brand than one of its core principles — mostly because we see those principles violated with regularity.

The late Fannie Lou Hamer understood this all too well. The youngest of 20 children and born to Mississippi sharecroppers, Hamer didn’t begin her human-rights activism until her forties. After picking cotton for most of her years, Hamer was fired from her sharecropping job in 1962 for trying to register to vote. The following year, even after passing a discriminatory “literacy test,” she was still denied access to the ballot. And later in 1963, after attempting to register some of her fellow Mississippians, she was beaten by police and left with a limp, a blood clot behind her eye, and permanent kidney damage.

With those injuries, Hamer gave what became a landmark speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hamer, who had served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, cofounded the Freedom Democratic Party in order to spotlight the denial of the very freedoms that were supposed to be guaranteed to African Americans then and now. She was there to push for her party’s Mississippi delegation to be seated in place of the Democratic Party’s all-white one, which included segregationists.

In her remarks, Hamer addressed her abuse at the hands of police.

”When a man told me I was under arrest, [the police officer] kicked me. I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room,” Hamer told the convention crowd. “And he said, ‘We going to make you wish you was dead.’ I began to scream, and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.

“All of this is on account of we want to register to become first-class citizens.”

This speech was one of the many reasons I wanted to talk with Hamer’s most recent biographer, Keisha Blain, PhD. A historian at the University of Pittsburgh, Blain is the author of Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. In the book — which is partly a contemporary social commentary — Blain describes how Hamer was accustomed to seeing rights and freedoms technically guaranteed to her as an American discarded because she was a Black woman.

Hamer urged those listening to understand that denying her rights was, in fact, a refutation of American ideals.

This speech was Hamer’s introduction to the American mainstream. That included President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who — fearing the retribution of Southern Democrats — said he “couldn’t sleep” knowing what Hamer might say at the podium. He even called a sudden press conference of his own, attempting to keep national networks from airing her speech.

The endurance of her message in present times is evidence of his failure. But how did she end up there in the first place?

This is what I wanted to ask Blain: Where exactly did Fannie Lou Hamer come from, and why have her ideas remained important in today’s America? How did a Black woman in her 40s, who had little formal education, and was living amidst Jim Crow in Mississippi end up giving this speech, one which we are still talking about today?

Blain and I spoke on the latest episode of Vox Conversations, which you can listen to here, or below, in full.

What follows is an edited excerpt from that conversation.

Jamil Smith

Where did she come from? And why is that important?

Keisha Blain

Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper. She was born into a sharecropping family and did not have much formal education. In fact, according to Hamer, it’s not until August 1962 that she even learned she had a constitutional right to vote as a citizen of the United States.

She also joined the movement fairly late in life. She was 44 years old when she joined SNCC, compared to many of the activists with whom she collaborated, who were much younger, many of them college students at the time. And Hamer did not have the experience as a political organizer at the time that she joined SNCC.

So, quite frankly, this is an ordinary Black woman. She was a disabled activist, walked with a limp, and she immediately became a force. Immediately, learned as much as she could learn, and then took that information to others.

Jamil Smith

Fighting for rights that we supposedly have already been granted, I feel, is kinda the story of Black folks in America, particularly after enslavement.

In that light, I wanted to make sure that our audience understands what sharecropping is. And that’s important to how Fannie Lou Hamer developed, well, into Fannie Lou Hamer.

Keisha Blain

This is a system that developed in the aftermath of slavery, and it’s important to emphasize that it was designed by white landowners. The idea was that Black people, following emancipation, would be able to continue working on the plantations. In fact, many people remained on the very same plantations where their families had been, under the institution of slavery.

With the sharecropping system, one would continue to develop, to grow the crops, but not own anything, and would only receive a share of the crops at the end of the season. And so this was a system of exploitation. It was a system that was meant to keep Black people in debt, and certainly in dependency. And Fannie Lou Hamer’s family was among so many other families, not only in Mississippi, but across the South, working in this exploitative system.

Jamil Smith

How did her tactics and strategies differ from those of other civil rights leaders at the time? I’m curious to know more specifically about the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which I didn’t really know a whole lot about before I read your book.

Keisha Blain

This is such a powerful example of how Fannie Lou Hamer tried to make Mississippi better, how she tried to make the nation better. Despite the fact that she had limited material resources, she devised this idea of opening up a farm, and this was in the late 1960s, which would provide a space for people to grow their own crops.

Hamer allowed anyone to be a part of Freedom Farm. It did not matter, your race or ethnicity. All she cared about was if you had a need, if you were living in poverty, and you could benefit from Freedom Farm, then the doors were open to you. You could come, your family could be there. It was a space that provided housing, educational opportunities, even job opportunities. And more importantly, it was a place where you could grow your own crops. There was a pig bank, which allowed people...

Jamil Smith

Okay, for those of us uneducated in that regard, what is a pig bank?

Keisha Blain

Oh, right, right. As part of the Freedom Farm, she had several people donate pigs, uh, and the idea was to rear the pigs and to work toward multiplying the pigs, so that families on the farm could have food to eat.

This was a grassroots, community-based economic program that was supported widely. She reached out to all kinds of groups, and she traveled across the country to raise funds for Freedom Farm. This was just was, I think, a genius kind of approach to addressing poverty and hunger in Mississippi.

And it also had a broad reach beyond the region, because one of the things that Hamer would do is, for families that had left the Mississippi Delta, and had traveled to northern cities, she would send crops and so on. She would actually ship food out to various cities. So this was one way that she tried to tackle poverty, despite the fact that she did not have much.


Jamil Smith

She definitely seemed to view the struggle of Black people here as part of a more global struggle. You wrote later in the book that, “Like many Black internationalists before and after her, Hamer refused to divorce developments taking place in the United States from global movements abroad.” How did she integrate her thinking and her action with others who were working for justice abroad?

Keisha Blain

So, one of the things that I talk about in the book is that Hamer takes a trip toward the end of September 1964, along with several activists in SNCC, to the African continent. She travels specifically to Guinea, and this was, I argue, a transformative moment for her. It was a moment where she began to really understand that the challenges that Black people were facing in the United States could not be divorced from the challenges that Black people were enduring in other parts of the globe, and even more broadly, that people of color, other marginalized groups, were facing globally.

I think when Hamer returned to the United States after that trip, she just started making those connections, and you could see it in her speeches. So, for example, she would talk about what was happening in Mississippi. She would condemn white supremacy in Mississippi and then she would draw a connection to the Congo. She would talk about the way that all of these other countries were trying to limit Black people’s autonomy, and even though she recognized that Mississippi was not the Congo, she saw the connections and, in doing so, she saw the importance of forming solidarities.

She saw the importance of these transnational networks, and she was really, I think, open to collaborating with all kinds of people as long they were committed to the cause. And there’s a moment in her life where she just openly says, “Listen. I’m no longer really fighting for civil rights. I’m fighting for human rights.”

Jamil Smith

That brings me to that quote that seems to have inspired your book title, which is, of course, “We have a long fight and this fight is not mine alone. But you are not free, whether you are white or black, until I am free.” And that not just encapsulates the universality of justice and accountability here in the States but abroad.

Keisha Blain

We are often talking about our lives as somewhat disconnected. Right? And this is true whenever we talk about racism, as an example. I’m always struck by conversations about racism that quickly turn into these personal narratives and then someone will say, “Well, I haven’t experienced that.” Or, “You know, that doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t believe it because no police officer has stopped me and asked me those questions.”

What Hamer did, and why it’s so powerful, even in the current moment to reflect on, is she said, “Listen. It’s not just about you. We have to think in the collective way. We’re all members of the American polity.” That means that if someone is hurting, it does affect you. If someone is in chains, you are not free, even if you think you are. Right?

We may come from different backgrounds, you know, different socioeconomic status, or different races, ethnicities, and so on, but because we are all in this nation, we are connected. And the future of the nation depends on all of us. And she would emphasize that regardless of who you were you have to be concerned about the person next to you.

As we know, not everyone will immediately embrace that notion, but she constantly tried to get people to see that they needed to be concerned about the next person. Because if the next person experiences liberation, you too can benefit. And if another person is in chains, you can’t truly enjoy freedom.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here. Then, please be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts — and leave us a five-star rating, if you’d be so kind.

Read full article on:
Students call on SUNY Chancellor to resign
The New York College Democratic and Republican clubs called for SUNY Chancellor James Malatras to resign for smearing Lindsey Boylan, the first woman to publicly accuse ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo of harassment.
Waukesha Christmas parade suspect: I'm being treated like a 'monster'
In an interview with FOX News, Waukesha Christmas parade suspect Darrell Brooks Jr., says he is being treated like a "monster."
The UN Secretary General said widespread travel bans imposed on southern African countries over fears of the Omicron variant were 'unacceptable'
Boris Johnson faces grilling over alleged 'boozy' Christmas parties last year
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a grilling during the Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the UK Parliament after a British newspaper reported claims that he and aides held Christmas parties last year at 10 Downing Street, despite the Covid-19 restrictions at the time. CNN's Bianca Nobilo reports.
Mother, boyfriend charged in 3-yo's beating death
Ingraham: Supreme Court could 'finally put Roe to rest', rips 'twisted logic' of Sotomayor
In her "Ingraham Angle" commentary, host Laura Ingraham said there is a decent potential for the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court to finally "put Roe to rest" and reserve the legality of abortion to the states.
Peng Shuai's Case Is a Turning Point for China
Ms. Peng’s celebrity certainly has driven interest in her case. But her allegations also are groundbreaking.
How Éric Zemmour Became the New Face of France’s Far Right
It doesn’t take much to see the roots of his ideology. The irony is that this time, its proponent is Jewish.
What to watch on Thursday: ‘Annie Live!’ premieres on NBC
Thursday, December 2, 2021 | The season finale of “The Great Christmas Light Fight” on ABC
Why was Drake at a seemingly random Thunder-Rockets game in Oklahoma City?
Drake surprised players and fans when he sat courtside in Oklahoma City for the second half of Wednesday's Thunder-Rockets game.
Dad Charged With Felony Neglect For Death of 2-Year-Old Girl Found in River's Debris Field
Jeremy Sweet was also charged with unlawful possession of a syringe and being a habitual offender, Bartholomew County Sheriff Matthew Myers said.
1 h
U.S. defense chief slams China’s drive for hypersonic weapons
Lloyd Austin said the U.S. is concerned about China’s military capability.
1 h
Disney Elects Susan Arnold as Its First Woman Chair in 98-Year History
The upcoming chair has been a member of Disney's board for 14 years.
1 h
In Surprising Move, Canada Rules Boeing Out of Finalists to Build New Fighter Planes
The finalists, Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth fighter and Saab's Gripen, surprised many as American aerospace giant Boeing's Super Hornet was left out.
1 h
Alabama shooting leaves retired deputy and suspect dead: reports
A shooting in Alabama on Wednesday resulted in the deaths of a retired sheriff’s deputy who was working as a process server, and of the suspect, according to reports.
1 h
Amari Bailey returns for Sierra Canyon, scores 23 points during win over West Ranch
UCLA-bound Amari Bailey gives Sierra Canyon a boost during a 100-72 win over West Ranch on Wednesday.
1 h
Giants’ Logan Ryan details how he spent his stint on COVID-19 list
The time on the COVID-19 list was excruciating wait for Logan Ryan, who watched from his New Jersey home as the Giants lost to the Buccaneers in Tampa and, six days later, came home and beat the Eagles.
1 h
Facing Olympic boycott calls, China presses U.S. companies to speak up in its defense
The campaign comes as the Women’s Tennis Association suspended tournaments in the country over the treatment of player Peng Shuai.
1 h
Major League Baseball lockout begins as players and owners fail to reach a new bargaining agreement
The collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the players' union expired at 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, leading to the first official work stoppage in professional baseball since the 1994-95 seasons.
1 h
Former Planned Parenthood director drags Supreme Court liberals for ‘idiotic’ comments during abortion hearing
Former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson joins 'Tucker Carlson Tonight' to discuss the Supreme Court's hearing regarding Dobbs v. Jackson Women's health abortion case
1 h
Restaurant going against grain, requests vaccine
1 h
The nation's top doctor and other experts joined CNN for a town hall the day the first US case of the Omicron variant was identified in California
1 h
Arrest made in mysterious killing of 14-year-old boy in Florida
Florida police on Wednesday made an arrest in the killing of a 14-year-old boy who was found dead after going for a bike ride last month, a report said.
1 h
Fiji reopens to tourism
Fiji reopened its border to international travelers for the first time in nearly two years on Wednesday, December 1 as the Pacific Island country seeks to revive its dominant tourism industry.
2 h
Hannity: Biden administration takes responsibility for nothing
Fox News host Sean Hannity revealed the full extent of the Biden administration's failures in his opening monologue Wednesday night.
2 h
Gabby Petito’s family converts social accounts into missing persons pages
Gabby Petito's stepdad, Jim Schmidt, announced an updated Facebook page dedicated to finding missing people called "Gabby - Find The Missing."
2 h
FCC's 'Equal Time' Rules Prompt Stations to Take The 'Dr. Oz Show' Off The Air
TV stations that air in and around Pennsylvania announced Wednesday they would stop airing Dr. Oz's show in an effort to avoid violating the campaign rule.
2 h
MLB lockout is on after collective bargaining agreement expires, owners agree to freeze out players
MLB and union officials met multiple times this week, but as expected, little progress was made, and owners voted to lock out players.      
2 h
'That's not what's happening:' Biden tries to rebut news coverage about empty store shelves
A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter.
2 h
MLB lockout official as CBA expiration brings baseball to halt
As midnight hit Thursday morning, a Major League Baseball owners’ lockout of the players became a reality.
2 h
This Platform Stripped 'Jeopardy!' Champ Matt Amodio of His Checkmark: What Is Twitter?
"I never thought trying to fight cancer would be what gets me canceled," Amodio tweeted.
2 h
Tucker Carlson: Tyranny is coming unless someone stops Democrats' COVID power grab
Tucker Carlson analyzes Democrats' and the media's reaction to the new omicron COVID variant.
2 h
Colorado Panel Says Erratic Behavior Not a Reason to Use Ketamine as Restraint
The panel was announced last year, saying it would review the state's ketamine waiver, which allows workers to use the drug outsides of hospitals.
2 h
Tyger Campbell provides boost to lead No. 5 UCLA over Colorado in Pac-12 opener
Tyger Campbell scored 21 points as No. 5 UCLA defeated Colorado 73-61 in their Pac-12 opener on Wednesday at Pauley Pavilion.
2 h
The demonization of Dr. Fauci is just one sign of this insanity
2 h
Ed McClanahan, Kentucky author and 'Merry Prankster,' dies at 89: 'A pillar in the community'
Ed McClanahan, a Kentucky author and teacher died Saturday at his home in Lexington, according to his wife. He was 89.       
2 h
‘Playoffs’ start now as struggling Islanders return to face Sharks
The Islanders will be back on the ice Thursday night against the Sharks, carrying a sense of urgency with them.
2 h
MLB on verge of first work stoppage in 26 years as CBA expires without new agreement
The collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Assn. expired without a new agreement in place, setting the stage for a lockout.
2 h
MLB work stoppage looms after CBA expires with owners and players still at odds
As drastic as a lockout may feel, the expectation in the industry is that it will not affect the start of spring training or the 2022 season.
2 h
OPEC's power was waning. Soon it may have more sway than ever
The year before Covid-19 hit, the United States became a net exporter of energy for the first time since 1952, sending a strong message to the rest of the world: The country would not be beholden to foreign oil producers.
2 h
Biden's path out of the pandemic meets a Republican blockade
The entrenched Republican opposition to public health measures like vaccine and mask mandates has become one of the most difficult challenges facing President Joe Biden as he tries to fulfill his campaign promise to shut down the Covid-19 pandemic.
2 h
The latest on the Omicron coronavirus variant
Scientists are racing to determine the Omicron coronavirus variant's severity, transmissibility and whether it evades current vaccines. Follow here for the latest news.
2 h
N.F.L. Week 13 Predictions: Our Picks Against the Spread
The Cowboys hope to get back on track, Kansas City looks to gain separation in the tight A.F.C. West, and the Bills will try to retake the A.F.C. East from the Patriots.
2 h
India formally repeals controversial farm laws after year of protests
India has formally repealed three contentious farm laws that sparked more than a year of protests, nearly two weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi was pushed into a rare policy reversal that saw the legislation withdrawn.
2 h
Carolyn Hax: A job, a toddler, no child care and so much tone-deaf advice
A working parent with no child care grows increasingly frustrated as "usually wise confidants" offer unrealistic advice.
2 h
M.L.B.’s Collective Bargaining Agreement Expires With Lockout to Follow
Players and owners continued to negotiate until the final day, but with no deadline deal, baseball is about to have its first work stoppage since the 1994-95 strike.
2 h
Ask Amy: I’m a stay-at-home mom. Lately, I feel like quitting.
Reader is overwhelmed by being a stay-at-home mom, and she’s not sure what to do.
2 h
Hints From Heloise: Fire safety tips to keep in mind over the holidays
Fire safety hints that everyone should know about.
2 h