Keisha N. Blain on Fannie Lou Hamer’s Fight for Civil Rights and Her Message for TodayHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, African American history, womens history, Fannie Lou Hamer, Keisha N. Blain
Hamer’s powerful oratory arose from a remarkable life that historian Keisha N. Blain covers in her latest book, Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. Although Hamer came to be defined by her speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, it was only one episode in a larger career in which she faced persecution and terror for her faith-inspired activism defending human rights.
Born on October 6, 1917, Hamer was the youngest of twenty children and was only six years olds when she began working in cotton fields. As an adult, through an encounter with activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she learned about the power of voting rights to effect change in the structural barriers that families like hers faced. Because of her views about Black Americans’ constitutional rights, Hamer experienced several harrowing attacks, including a drive-by shooting at a friend’s home and a brutal beating at the hands of police officers in Winona, Mississippi. On March 14, 1977, at the age of fifty-nine, Hamer died of health complications after continuing to face financial struggles and mounting medical debt.
Daniel José Camacho: You’ve said that your intellectual encounter with Fannie Lou Hamer in your early twenties changed the course of your life. How so?
Keisha N. Blain: I first encountered Fannie Lou Hamer as an undergraduate student at Binghamton University. I was deeply inspired by her words and activism. Her ability to speak truth to power, the strength of her faith, and her unwavering commitment to civil and human rights are all traits that stood out to me then—as now. As a Black woman and first-generation college student attending a predominantly white institution, I often struggled with self-doubt. It was difficult then—and even later when I attended graduate school—to navigate spaces where so many others viewed me as an outsider. Reading about Fannie Lou Hamer resonated with me as student because I could relate in many ways.
As a Black disabled woman who had limited formal education and endured poverty during her life, Hamer did not fit the mold of what many expected a civil rights leader to look—and sound—like. Yet she never allowed others’ expectations to define her or cause her to doubt her calling. Her story lit a fire within me, and I remain encouraged—and deeply motivated—by the example she set. Learning about Hamer’s story helped me put aside my own self-doubt when I decided to embark on the journey to become a historian of the Black past. Her example has also guided my activist work. Like Hamer, I try to focus less on the seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead and instead try to come up with practical steps and solutions to make a difference in my own spheres of influence.
DJC: In researching and writing this book on Hamer, what surprised you the most about her?
KB: I was surprised by her consistency on the matter of leadership—even in the face of resistance. She had an expansive view of leadership and held fast to the belief that everyone had the potential to make a difference in their communities, regardless of their social background or education. As a result, Hamer rejected the charismatic leadership model that often dominates Black political organizations, and she always looked for ways to empower others to become leaders.
It’s not easy to stand by your convictions especially when you’re facing hell for holding those views. And it’s so difficult to hold fast to certain perspectives when others around you don’t take you seriously. There’s something really remarkable about how Hamer was able to push aside the criticisms and even the disdain from some of her colleagues and keep pushing ahead.
DJC: Right now, Republicans across the United States are passing or attempting to pass new voting restrictions at the state level. How does Hamer’s fight against the voting restrictions of her day relate to what we’re seeing today?
KB: Republicans are currently attempting to enshrine minority rule by limiting the pool of voters, and this is exactly what Hamer was fighting against in Mississippi during the 1960s. When she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) in 1962, she recognized the illegitimacy of elections that denied the majority of residents a chance to participate. By passing voter restrictions—and placing more power into the hands of state legislatures—Republicans today are trying to guarantee their control over government, and in the process, they are undermining the will of the people. Voter suppression tactics ultimately oppress those who are already marginalized in American society, including Black and Latinx people. These practices are much like the kinds of strategies that were employed during the Jim Crow era. Hamer fought during her lifetime to expand voting rights for all and today we have already seen those efforts undermined through developments such as the 2013 Shelby decision.