A Marker Recognizing Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi is a Step Toward JusticeRoundup
tags: racism, violence, African American history, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer
Keisha N. Blain is a professor of Africana studies and history at Brown University. She is the author of Until I am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America and co-editor of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019.
On June 9, 1963, civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer endured a life-altering beating in a jail cell in Winona, Miss. The painful experience left Hamer with kidney damage, a blood clot in her eye and an injury that worsened a childhood limp, which she would carry for the rest of her life.
Now, for the first time, the city of Winona has officially acknowledged this incident by making June 9 “Fannie Lou Hamer Day” and unveiling a Mississippi State Historical Marker to recognize the violence Hamer and other activists endured in 1963. Both acts were made possible through the efforts of local organizer Vickie Roberts-Ratliff, historian Davis W. Houck and others in Land Literacy and Legacy — a nonprofit organization based in Oxford, Miss.
These developments represent symbolic yet significant steps in a broader effort among public officials in recent years to reckon with past racism. Indeed, the declaration of “Fannie Lou Hamer Day” and the designated marker follow a string of similar developments including the recent decision in Louisiana to pardon Homer Plessy — the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson.
At a moment when many conservative lawmakers are working to ban the teaching of sensitive topics, including the history of systemic racism in the United States, the recent developments in Winona serve as a reminder that acknowledging past harms is a necessary first step in the fight for social justice. Winona’s recognition of the physical and emotional trauma inflicted upon Hamer and her associates may not absolve the past, but it is an effort to reckon with it — one that compels all Americans to confront, rather than evade, the shameful aspects of United States history.
Born in the Mississippi Delta in 1917, Fannie Lou Hamer was the youngest of 20 children in a sharecropping family. She joined the civil rights movement in August 1962 at the age of 44 after attending a mass meeting organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at a local church in Sunflower County, Miss. At the time of the gathering, only 5 percent of the 450,000 Black residents in the state were registered to vote because of widespread voter suppression tactics, including discriminatory literacy tests and sheer violence. The speakers at the mass meeting emphasized how ordinary citizens could transform American society with the vote, a message that resonated deeply with Hamer. She soon became a field secretary for SNCC, beginning her lifelong work to expand Black political rights in Mississippi and beyond.