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Opinion

Democracy Works: Fannie Lou Hamer's fight continues today

Keisha N. Blain
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Keisha N. Blain

In her book "Until I Am Free," Keisha N. Blain situates Fannie Lou Hamer as a key political thinker alongside leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks and demonstrates how her ideas remain salient for a new generation of activists committed to dismantling systems of oppression in the United States and across the globe.

Despite her limited material resources and the myriad challenges she endured as a Black woman living in poverty in Mississippi, Hamer committed herself to making a difference in the lives of others and improving American democracy for everyone. She refused to be sidelined in the movement and refused to be intimidated by those of higher social status and with better jobs and education. As she saw it, no one was free until everyone was free.

Blain is an award-winning historian of the 20th century United States with broad interests and specializations in African American history, the modern African diaspora, and women’s and gender studies. She is an associate professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is currently a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. She is also a columnist for MSNBC, covering race, gender, and politics in historical and contemporary perspectives

Episode Transcript

Chris Beem
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy in Penn State University, I'm Chris Beem,

Candis Watts Smith 
I'm Candis Watts Smith.

Jenna Spinelle
I'm Jenna Spinelle and welcome to Democracy Works. This week, we are talking with Keisha N. Blain who is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, and author of the book "Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America."

Candis Watts Smith 
I'm really glad that we took the time to focus on this book and on Fannie Lou Hamer. She was, you know, like he said, the child of sharecroppers and a sharecropper herself with a sixth grade education. And ultimately, what we learn is that she learned pretty late in life, that she has a right to vote. And she spends the rest of her life trying to expand democracy, not only through voting, but also to ensure that more people stepped up and ran for office, she was focused on questions of poverty, she was focused on questions of gender equality. So again, I think what we have here is a very inspirational, but also like a constructive story of the kind of average person's and and I don't want to be careful like to say like, Fannie Lou was extraordinary and her conviction, and in the way that she strategized around these questions, but she was also just a person who felt the need to push democracy forward.

Chris Beem
I think there's at least one way in which you can call this woman extraordinary. And that is just in terms of, you know, something you already referenced it just in terms of how much she had to overcome, in order to find her voice and to enter the public argument. I mean, every thing in her life was set up to ensure that she would not find that voice, right.

Candis Watts Smith 
Yeah. One thing that stands out to me about Fannie Lou Hamer is how she read and cherish the Constitution. And today, I think there's kind of a lot of talk about the Constitution and the way it's set up, it's producing all of these problems, but she really focused on the words on the page, rather than how, you know, the Supreme Court was interpreting it at the time to diminish black folks rights or how state and local politicians disregarded core components of the Constitution. But she kind of looked at it through a moral perspective to kind of really say, like, look, we have rights already given to us, and that we can use this document to uplift not just black people, but all people, right. I mean, that's the whole basis of the title of the book until I'm free, right? It's like, you're not free until I'm free. Right. And so what I think is really special to keep in mind, I think what's really important to keep in mind is that a lot of times you talk about kind of racial discrimination, as something that inhibits black people, or inhibits Latinos, or inhibits people of color, generally speaking, but I think it's also important. And I think what she's saying is that when we have these injustices, it negatively diminishes all of our citizenship, and it diminishes our democracy, all of us together collectively.

Chris Beem
Yeah, that is similar in my mind to some of the things that Desmond Meade said when he was here. I just want before we go to the interview, can we talk a little bit about 1964 and the convention because that's really not just a pivotal moment in her life, but also in American history and took in the civil rights movement. And Fannie Lou Hamer got a moment in front of the entire convention, to talk about her experience as a black woman in Mississippi trying to register and how they would only let them in two at a time, and they find the bus because it was too yellow. And I mean, just all these and then they had to interpret some clause in the Constitution it was it was clearly set up to discourage and to undermine this effort. And then when she got back home, the landlord, the person for whom they sharecroppers said, If you don't go down and unregistered, I'm taking you off the land. And so she had to leave. And so she's just literally recounting this story.

Candis Watts Smith 
Well, let me just say this that she didn't have to leave because what she could have done was unregistered.

Chris Beem
Right? That's right. But she didn't do that. She didn't go ahead. Fair enough. And so she left. And this is a story that she recounted to the national audience, and it clearly had an issue pact. And it created this huge conflict within the Democratic Party and within the African American representatives who were present at that convention, including Martin Luther King. And the kind of standard people of power proposal or strategy was, look, we need to get Lyndon Johnson reelected. We don't want Barry Goldwater. And so in order to do that, we're going to quiet down these issues of race and injustice in the south, because we don't want to lose the south. And Fannie Lou Hamer was having none of it. This is a lie. What you're saying is just not true. I'm not gonna be quiet in the face of that lie. And and that was a big moment in American political history.

Candis Watts Smith 
I would encourage anybody to just go on YouTube and watch this eight minute speech. She does it with no notes. And in that speech, what we hear just like you're recounting is the kind of political inequalities, economic inequality, gender inequality, all in one speech. And so, I guess then to say like, for now, we should hear what Keisha Blaine has to say about it.

Jenna Spinelle
So I will do two things. I'll put a link to the speech in the show notes. And I'll also pull a clip from it as well, just to give a taste of what it was like. So let's go now to the interview with Keisha blank.

Fannie Lou Hamer 
We continued on through bill and Robin just gonna carry with me for my the rule as to why I had worked as a time people and sharecropper for 18 years. I was met there by my children. That told me the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down, tried to register. After they told him my husband came and said the plantation owner was raising cane because I had tried to register. And before he quit talking, the plantation owner changed and said, Fannie Lou, do you know that pap tell you what I said? And I said, Yes, sir. He said, Well, I mean, that said, if you don't go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave. That then if you go down and withdrawal that you feel might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi.

Jenna Spinelle
Keisha Blain, welcome to Democracy Works. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Keisha Blain
Thank you so much for having me.

Jenna Spinelle
Excited to talk with you about Fannie Lou Hamer, and all of the work she did on democracy and human rights and what we can take from her legacy and the work that she's left us with. But before we get into some of the democracy aspects, can you just tell us a little bit about Fannie Lou's life as I understand it, she was in her 40s when she joined snick. And so what was her life like during those first four decades before she got involved in the Civil Rights Movement?

Keisha N. Blain
Well, Fannie Lou Hamer was born on October, the sixth 1917, in Mississippi, and she was born into a sharecropping family. She was actually the youngest of 20 children, so a very large family. And I think it's important to understand how her early life was shaped by sharecropping, which as we know, was a system of exploitation. And Fannie Lou Hamer shared so many times about how at the age of six, she was lured into a life of sharecropping, essentially, the white land owner, encouraged her to play cotton and said to her that if she picked cotton, he would give her candy from the store. And at the tender age of six, that sounded like a nice proposition. And so she began to pick on but it was, in fact, a trick. And it was meant to ensure that the white landowner would have one more person, this this young child to contribute to building his wealth, his fortunes. And so Fannie Lou Hamer started picking cotton at the age of six. She did have the opportunity to attend school, but it was inconsistent. And as I explained in the book, she had a sixth grade education. And it was not until August of 1962 that her life radically changed when she attended a meeting that had been organized by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also known as snick. And this interracial civil rights organization, that was a grassroots organization, led primarily by students, by college students ended up coming into Hamer's community and sharing information about black political rights that Hamer later described was just empowering for her. And she described that particular moment as a sort of political awakening. And it was also religious awakening to because in that meeting, she realized that it was God's calling for her to join the movement and be part of this fight for black civil rights, certainly in for human rights.

Jenna Spinelle
Right. And as I recall reading in the book, she hadn't even really heard about the civil rights movement before she attended this meeting, can you just kind of set the stage a little bit for what her media consumption or perhaps lack thereof was like, I think in today's environment, it seems almost incomprehensible that someone would not know that, that something like this was going on.

Keisha N. Blain
One of the things that I think is so important to emphasize in this particular moment, in the early 1960s, in the state of Mississippi, only 5% of black residents were registered to vote, we're talking about a state with approximately 450,000 black residents at the time. And that's a startling statistic. And it's reflective certainly have many strategies to keep black people from the ballot box. But one of those strategies was, in fact, limiting access to information, it was ensuring that those who are working primarily individuals like like Hamer, working on a plantation, quite frankly, all day, you know, from sunup to sundown, as I explained in the book, this was a system that closely mirrored slavery, it consumed people's lives, she found herself in a situation where apart from working constantly on the plantation, there was really little opportunity to necessarily be involved in in doing other things. And of course, she was a person of faith, she went to church, which is exactly why the church ended up becoming a crucial space for her to learn about her rights to vote as a citizen of the United States. And so I think when you know, in order to understand how that was possible, it is recognizing the lengths to which white supremacist would go to block people from having information, because once you know what your rights are, then of course, you're going to fight for those rights, you're going to insist that you exercise the rights that you already have. And so keeping people from information was one thing, but also recognizing, and hammer spoke about this, that she was in a remote area, she was not aware of a lot of the organizing that was taking place, across the state and even across the nation. She certainly had a thirst for knowledge. And I was eager to learn more. Which is exactly why once she found out about her constitutional right to vote, she was eager to tell every single person is one of the reasons why she wanted to volunteer to do these voter registration workshops to go around the country and talk about it. Because she understood that if she didn't know about these things, that meant many other people like her did not know either.

Jenna Spinelle
You mentioned that getting involved with snick was both a political awakening and a religious awakening. And as you said, those were the two sort of guiding principles. How did she square those two things? Or, you know, how did she think about the ways that faith and democracy intersect?

Keisha N. Blain
This is so important, particularly for hammer because one of the things that I've often asked myself in the process of writing the book and doing research on her life, I think many people would probably ask, how is it that Hamer had the motivation to keep going, she experienced a lot of pain, a lot of violence, a lot of resistance for her activism. And one of the reasons that she was able to keep pushing forward was because she believed that all of her efforts were divinely ordained. She saw herself as someone called to bring light into a world of darkness for Hamer. That meant being part of an effort to dismantle Jim Crow being part of an effort to challenge racism and white supremacy. And she would also often criticize religious leaders, for example, who might talk about life after death. And they might talk about the possibility of a better spiritual future that that would come outside of this world. And Hamer would say, no part of her calling, she believed was to make this place better. She was not interested in talking about what could come later, she was interested in creating on Earth, a space where black people would have full rights and recognition and respect as citizens of the United States. And she often drew parallels, she would often, for example, she would quote from the New Testament, these verses that ultimately spoke about Jesus as being called to set the Capitol tree. And she will use that analogy in her own life, believing that it was her mission to set people free from the sins of racism and white supremacy. So this was definitely I think, a lens of Christianity that perhaps can be best understood through liberation theology, you know, that we can talk about it in this context. But I think it just helped tamer in the fight for black political rights, because she didn't answer to people. It's not that she didn't care what people thought. It's not that she didn't listen to people, she respected people. But when people criticized her when people even attacked her when they try to harm her, she had a sense of confidence, that because it was divinely ordained that she would do that work, that God would be the one to protect her, and he'd be the one to carry her through. So here you see through her life, how face, and politics really, I think, connected in a powerful way.

Jenna Spinelle
Part of Hamer's passion and divine inspiration for this work, as I read it in your book also led to a frustration with incremental ism and the slow pace of change that was part of the civil rights movement and adopted by other leaders in the civil rights movement. Can you talk about those frustrations that she had and how she managed or perhaps did not manage some of those complex and those tensions about how quickly things should change?

Keisha N. Blain
So I think this is actually a recurring theme, which comes up throughout the history. In hammers case, there were so many others who would say to her, you simply need to wait, you can't push for change to quickly you're going to intimidate people, or you're going to scare people, quite frankly, we have heard the same critiques, I would say, we can hear them today, we put on the TV, right? There are always these moments where people suggest that if you just keep pushing, people are going to retreat. And so it's best to take a gradual approach. But hammers response was an interesting one. And the one that I actually appreciate, you know, as a historian, because she would say, we have been waiting very long. And every time people would send this message of the importance of gradualism, she would go right back to the Reconstruction amendments, and she would say to them, let's pay attention here. The 13th amendment abolished slavery, legal slavery in the United States. And this took place in 1865. She would say, since then, the passage of the 14th Amendment with birthright citizenship, the passage of the 15th Amendment, which granted the right to vote, particularly for black men, or she would say, all of these developments took place in the 19th century, when we are asking now in the 1960s, for an expansion of black political rights, we're actually asking for things that technically, we should have had for decades. And so this notion that the answer simply has to be gradualism, she would say, we have been gradual, right, we have been patient. And in fact, that's all the evidence who need that we have to be assertive in this moment, because we've waited so long. And clearly there are people who still maintained that the approach needed to be a slower one, but I think hammers ability to take this long view, her ability to look to history, particularly to the Constitution to look at these developments, was a way for her to get people to think in a more expansive way. to not just talk about what has to happen, or what is happening in the context of the 60s, but to recognize that all of these demands in the 60s were part of a larger struggle, which quite frankly, one could argue, began in 1619 or earlier. Right. And so that I think, was hammers way of pushing beyond those who made the critiques, and who tried to insist on a gradual approach.

Jenna Spinelle
And so you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, hammer, has a sixth grade education, roughly, she doesn't have the sort of pedigree that we think about when we think about perhaps some other civil rights organizer, she's not polished, she's not professional. So how does she gain legitimacy both within the movement and as she's she's doing work to bring new people into the fold and you know, kind of raise awareness about the issues that the movement was was highlighting.

Keisha N. Blain
One of the things that I think is so important when it comes to hammer story, is the recognition that a lot of people simply had to come around, right it that it took time. I think about this through the context of the 1964 Democratic National Convention Hamer encountered so many critics, she faced other civil rights activists, who did not necessarily agree with her approach. The fact is, there were some people who were simply uncomfortable and humorous presence because she spoke directly. She did not mince words, she did not subscribe to the politics of respectability, because of her background, as someone who had been a sharecropper as someone who had a sixth grade education, as someone who really spent her whole life fighting for the rights of those around her and fighting to make Mississippi better and to make the nation better. She didn't have time for playing games, she didn't have time for political maneuvers, she just wanted to be clear about the demands. And she was not interested in this notion of compromising. And the reality is, some people only, I think, came to the place where they, one might say accepted, or at least, came to the place to respect Hamer Because there was no other choice. She in 1964, at the DNC gave a fiery speech, it was clear to every single person present that this was not an ordinary individual. This was someone who, when she spoke, she moved people, and she moved people to act when she stood up, and she shared her testimony. Quite frankly, it didn't matter what anyone said afterward, you would always remember what Fannie Lou Hamer said, and I think she commanded, certainly attention, but respect above all else. So it's not to suggest that it wasn't a difficult process to get there. There are people who really criticized her, you know, I talked about in the book, you know, Roy Wilkins, for example. And NAACP called her an ignorant woman, you know, there are people who were very clear about where they stood, and not liking certain things about her. But she didn't let that faze her, obviously, she was not thrilled about these kinds of comments be made about her. But the point is, she understood her purpose, and she stood tall. And then they were eventually I think, moved by that, and they saw the impact. You know, to this very day, if you talk to anyone who attended the DNC in August 1964, or anyone who might have heard the testimony that was later televised, without question, everything that people will talk to you about will connect right back to him or it was as though no one else spoke at that convention. That's how impactful Hamer was. She truly captivated everyone's attention, speaking truthfully, and honestly about the challenges that black people are facing in Mississippi and across the self.

Jenna Spinelle
And I think her her vision of liberation also ties back to the notion of democracy and self government. She she talked a lot about the grassroots and making sure that communities were governed by the people who lived in those communities and that the representative government looked like the people whom they were governing. Talk more about her her vision of the grassroots and and how she kind of square that with her other ideas also being somebody who had studied the Constitution deeply and also knew that aspect of government, it seems like there's, we often think about them separately today. There's grassroots over here. And then there's like liberalism and institutions over here, how did hammer put all those things together? In her mind?

Keisha N. Blain
This is something that I saw admire about hammer, because I think it's very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there's only one particular approach or perhaps, you know, the best approach to building a more inclusive democracy. You know, one might say, the answer is, is through electoral politics, through voting through running for office like these are the ways that we might affect change. Hamer understood that you absolutely needed that. But she believed that you could not affect change solely through one particular approach. You also needed, grassroots mobilizing, grassroots organizing, and she was actively involved in both. And so here you have this disabled black woman who joined some movement in 1962. And very quickly, you know, by 1964, even before she gets to the Democratic National Convention, Hamer runs for office. I mean, she's running for Congress, and she knows that it's unlikely she would win, given the realities of the situation in the state of Mississippi. But she's running because she wants other people to see that a black woman from Mississippi can in fact, do this. And she says, so when people ask, you know, why you're running, you know, you don't have the funds, you know, you're not going to when the odds are against you. But she says, This is why I'm doing it. And she does it again, when she tries again, and she's on successfully every time she runs. The irony is that she's wildly successful in motivating other people, she's successful and compelling them to also run for office. So she plays a crucial role in inspiring other people, even when, when her own efforts are not successful in in running for office. And then at the same time that this is happening, she is very much right part of this movement at the grassroots level. She's a field organizer, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And she's moving from from place to place, she's leading these voter registration workshops, she's speaking across the country, she's on college campuses, she's talking to students trying to encourage them to get involved in the movement. And so she's doing an array of things all at once, in order to send the message that in the struggle for black political rights, but even broadly, in this struggle to build this inclusive democracy to make real, what has been articulated on paper, it requires all of these approaches. I mean, her entire life, I think, provides a model for how to bring all of these things together.

Jenna Spinelle
And so as we just just bring things to a close here, I know you end the book talking about Kamala Harris evoking hammer during a speech in in the spring of 2020. How has hammers legacy carried on today? I, I know you you say at the very end of the book that it offers this path forward for all of us in the work of creating and inclusive democracy is yet unfinished. But how are you seeing that spirits continue to play out today?

Keisha N. Blain
Well, I think we are at a particular moment where, once again, we are having these conversations about voting rights and more specifically, voter suppression since 2013, with the Shelby decision, I think it has been made very clear to everyone across the nation, that the Voting Rights Act is under attack. It has been under attack for quite some time. And part of what I think has to happen in this moment. And it really ties back to Hamer is is understanding how the Voting Rights was even possible in the first place to to know hemorrhage journey to know all that she went through, as well as so many others to ensure that the people would have access As to the vote, and I think it's important to continue to protect those rights, continue fighting for those rights. And so I hope Hamer's story is one that compels people. And more broadly, which takes us right back to the title of the book, I hope that people will be thinking about how we can work collectively, to ensure that all of us have a better future that all of us can not only live here in this nation, but that all of us can thrive in this nation. And that means recognizing that if someone is struggling, that means all of us are affected. And so it goes right back to hammers notion that whether you are black or white, until I'm free, you are not free. I think if we all had this collective vision, we'd be able to tackle so many challenges in our society.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, thank you for bringing Hamer's vision out into the world through this book, we will link to it in the show notes and hope that our listeners will pick it up and follow along on this journey with you. And with hammer. Keisha, thank you so much for joining us today.

Keisha N. Blain
Thank you so much for having me.

Chris Beem
I want to do is just start by going back to this moment in 1964. And just talk about hammers kind of argument with some of the, you know, most important figures in African American politics, including Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, Martin Luther King, Adam, Clayton Powell, who was I think, for a long time, he was the only African American in Congress. Right? And, and he was from Harlem, and and all these men, educated men, who were part of the political elite, we're telling her, you got to knock it off, right. And the other thing that she mentions in the book is that Lyndon Johnson held a press conference at the very same moment that hammer was speaking, in order to kind of divert attention. And you know, I mean, it is absolutely fair to ask whether that is a product of racism or sexism. But I don't want to lose sight of the fact that it was political, right? Their judgement was that if you alienate white people from the South, we're not going to win the south. And if we don't win the South, we may not win the presidency. And I think that's an interesting and important example of this kind of forever, thus kind of argument about, you know, on the progressive side, right. And for that matter, you see it on the right to anybody who really wants to change things. You have some people who just think the only way is a radical break, and some people would think you need to use the institution's you have,

Candis Watts Smith 
I find this story actually very deja vu ish, insofar as the way that Democrats work sometimes now, right is like, well, who are we going to lose? And what should we do in order to not lose people who aren't necessarily concerned about these broader questions about rights and access to first class citizenship? Right? So we can kind of look back at the story and say, like, well, then what you know, like, isn't this is it that who's right, who's wrong? But I think that what we saw here was that the Democratic Party was willing to throw this group under the bus in order to gain votes of the Mississippi basically Dixiecrats who didn't end up supporting them anyway. I think when we talk about who's right, maybe the question we should be asking is like, well, who's doing the more democratic thing? Yes, who's doing the more immoral thing? And ultimately, what they did was they got the ball rolling, right? Like the way that the Democrats picked their delegates and how the convention is run, it did change partially because of this 1964.

Chris Beem
I think that's right. If there is no Fannie Lou Hamer or someone else, in a similar position, there's no way there would have been anybody saying anything about the Mississippi delegation. And so yeah, there's there's no doubt that her raising this demand had an impact and had an impact that also was part of the legislative success of the civil rights movement.

Candis Watts Smith 
So I mean, I think the question of compromise also has to do with perspective, and from someone who's way up top of giving to non voting delegates seems like compromise, but when you are a poor black woman, sharecropper and activists that your life in the state of Mississippi, which If I'm not mistaken, have the highest proportion of enslaved people, you know, and it states population and basically kind of live through a system of exploitation. You get together, you get basically 60,000 people to vote for the delegates of your party. Right. Like you, you've suffered life. You know, I mean, people have been killed the day that she was in jail being beaten, was the day that Medgar Evers was assassinated. Yeah. So here, I guess my point is, is that the compromise from her perspective is not to non voting delegates, right? You don't go all the way you don't do all of that work, go all the way to the DNC, call out their hypocrisy, and you get basically nothing. And so I think that was the point that she's trying to make. And I think that's why she's such a key figure is that she's ultimately telegraphing messages of intersectionality. Before Kimberly Crenshaw coined the word that we have to consider the position of the most marginalized, and that is someone like herself. And if we look at the world, from someone like herself, we can see how deeply anti democratic all of these doings were, even if it were kind of like, in the hopes that better things would come.

Chris Beem
What you were just saying, Candis reminded me of something you said earlier about how young people are challenging the kind of established notions of what democracy means, and what kind of society it intends. And what you're speaking about is an argument that goes back to Isaiah Berlin and negative freedoms and positive freedoms, right, that democracy says, You have a right to be left alone, you don't necessarily have a right to food, education, shelter, health care, etc. So there's an argument that that's what, you know, the Great Society meant to establish, you know, going back even to FDR, that without a right to food, shelter, medical care, these negative Freedoms just don't mean very much. And so you see that in the arguments, especially among young people, but the left AOC Bernie Sanders says, if we want to have a great society, we have to expand this notion of rights to include things that people can demand of their society, as a part of a condition of a genuinely decent place to live.

Candis Watts Smith 
I mean, what you're describing is human rights, right? There are simply a number of human rights that are not guaranteed to Americans and Fannie Lou Hamer was well aware of that and experienced being on the backside of not having those positive rights. So I'm really glad that we are talking about Fannie Lou Hamer, in part, because there's just such a strong through line between a lot of the things that we're talking about today from our conversation with Desmond Meade. And then even today, Mississippi is at the Supreme Court, trying to diminish the time that is available to American women to make decisions about their reproductive health. Right. And so

Chris Beem
Actually, her book does case his book, there's a lot. I mean, every chapter references a very recent moment when some of these same issues come up. Yeah, I'm right there with you. I think it's an amazing human being with an amazing story, an exemplary model of being a Democrat in America, small d. Right. So, thanks to Jenna and Keisha for the interview and for terrific book and I'm Chris Beem.

Candis Watts Smith 
And I'm Candis Watts Smith. For democracy Works, thanks for listening.