More than forty years since her death in 1977, Fannie Lou Hamer’s words still speak truth to power, laying bare the faults in American society and offering valuable insights on how we might yet continue the fight to help the nation live up to its core ideals of “equality and justice for all.” In Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America, Award-winning historian and New York Times best-selling author Dr. Keisha N. Blain situates 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.
Dr. Blain gave a keynote address about her this year at the twenty-third annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Virtual Holiday Observance and Sunrise Celebration. Hosted by the American Library Association, the event commemorates Dr. King’s legacy and recognizes the connection between his life’s work and the library world. This year’s theme focuses on Dr. King’s 1957 speech, “Give Us the Ballot—We Will Transform the South.” Dr. Blain’s address illustrates how Hamer embodied Dr. King’s vision of courageous Black leadership.
In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech on the power of voting. King argued that access to the ballot would allow Black Americans to remake society without having to wait for federal support. He argued that voting was a solution for the many challenges Black Americans faced. King’s speech also addressed the 1954 Brown Decision. In the aftermath of Brown, local school districts and politicians continued to resist the attempts to desegregate schools nationwide. These delays frustrated Civil Rights activists across the nation who organized the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. King used his speech at the event to advocate for expanding Black political rights. He emphasized the need for strong leadership to emerge from several groups, including from within Black communities. King called for courageous Black leaders to emerge. He stated that these leaders must meet hate with love.
King’s vision would soon be realized as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and later, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, spread throughout the South. SNCC recruited local Black leaders to organize their communities. These leaders were essential to achieving the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, and perhaps none more so than Fannie Lou Hamer.
Fannie Lou Hamer was the embodiment of King’s vision, a courageous leader who answered the call to expand Black political rights. Hamer deeply believed in the power of voting. Although King and Hamer did not always see eye-to-eye, she shared his commitment that the politics of love could overcome the politics of hate.
Born in Mississippi in 1917, Hamer was a working poor and disabled Black sharecropper who joined the Civil Rights Movement at the age of forty-four. In 1962, her life changed dramatically after attending a mass meeting at a local church. The gathering had been organized by activists in SNCC. The speakers that night highlighted how ordinary citizens could transform American society with the right to vote, a message that resonated with Hamer. She went on to become a field secretary for SNCC and assisted Black people in Mississippi and beyond with voter registration.
This was dangerous work. In June 1963, Hamer was returning from South Carolina with a group of other activists. They stopped in Wynona to grab a bite to eat. Hamer’s colleagues encountered resistance from the owners of the café who made it clear that Black people were not welcome. The police arrived. And when Hamer exited the bus, an officer grabbed her and started kicking her. After Hamer and her colleagues were arrested, they received brutal beatings from the police officers who also instructed prisoners to do the same. Hamer’s injuries left her with kidney damage, a blood clot in her eye, and worsened a physical limp that she would carry for the rest of her life. However, Hamer was undeterred and continued her efforts to expand Black political rights.
This was no small matter. Despite the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, Black people in the South were still shut out of the formal political process. During the early 1960s, only an estimated five percent of Mississippi’s 450,000 Black residents were registered to vote. Hamer was determined to change this. In April 1964, she joined forces with several other activists to establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the MFDP. The group challenged the Mississippi all-white Democratic party. In August of 1964, only months after the establishment of the MFDP, Hamer and others traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to attend the Democratic National Convention. The group arrived in Atlantic City hoping to compel the state and national party to give up seats to the MFDP delegation rather than suffering the embarrassment of exposing the lack of equal representation before a national audience. They also hoped to raise awareness to the broader struggles Black people in Mississippi face as they attempted to exercise their right to vote. They wanted people to know about the resistance Civil Rights activists encountered while organizing in the state.
The experience in Atlantic City transformed Hamer. Although she encountered resistance, she persisted and delivered the most well-known speech of her political career before the Credentials Committee at the Convention. Hamer used her speech to describe the acts of racist violence Black people faced on a daily basis in the Jim Crow South. She told the stories of shots being fired at the homes of those who supported voting rights, and she told the story of what happened to her in Wynona. As she reflected on the painful experiences that Black people face in the South, Hamer could not help but to question America. In her words, is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings in America?
These crucial words shook the nation to its core. The United States could not claim to be a democracy while withholding the voting rights from millions of its citizens. Hamer had asked an urgent question that all Americans were forced to ponder. Is this America?
Watch Dr. Blain’s full keynote.
About the Author
Keisha N. Blain is a historian of the 20th-century United States specializing in African American history, the modern African diaspora, and women’s and gender studies. She is the author of the multi-prize-winning book Set the World on Fire, Until I Am Free, and co-editor, with Ibram X. Kendi, of the #1 New York Times bestseller Four Hundred Souls. She is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, president of the African American Intellectual History Society, and a columnist for MSNBC. Follow her at keishablain.com, on Twitter (@keishablain), and on Instagram (@keishanblain).