(RNS) – Fannie Lou Hamer was an advocate for African Americans, women and the poor – and for many who were all three.
She lost her job as a sharecropper and her house when she registered to vote. She suffered physical and sexual assault when she was jailed for her activism. And stories of his struggles reached the floor of the 1964 Democratic Convention – and the nation – when his moving speech was broadcast on television.
Historian Kate Clifford Larson has written a new book, “Walk With Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer,” which reveals details about the faith and life of Hamer, born 104 years ago on Wednesday (October 6) and died in 1977..
Inspired by the young workers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who preached biblical passages about liberation in her church in Ruleville, Mississippi, in 1962, Hamer became a singer and speaker for equal rights and human rights.
“She has worked her way through extraordinarily difficult circumstances to make her voice heard for the nation,” Larson told Religion News Service. “And she knew she represented so many people who weren’t heard.”
Larson spoke to RNS about Hamer’s faith, his favorite spiritualities, and how music helped the activist survive.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to write a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer and how would you describe her as a woman of faith?
I published a book on (Harriet) Tubman and Hamer is so similar to Harriet Tubman only 100 years later. I decided to start looking into his life and thinking that I should do a biography of Hamer. I just got hooked. There were so many similarities and things that I could see in Hamer that I just thought, we have to get up to date on Fannie Lou Hamer and the strength of her character and how she survived such incredible adversity and found the same kind of reassurance that Harriet Tubman gave – in her faith, in her family and in the community – to go on and fight and try to make the world a better place.
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She appears to be relatively unknown in many circles despite the credit civil rights veterans give her for her work.
It is curious that she is not very well known. And I hope that will change, because I think sometimes we have to look back to see how far we’ve come. And with Hamer, the things that happened to her – she faced the world facing this trauma and this violence, without hatred. And the only way for her to do that was by her faith, and talk to God and say, Where are you, what’s going on here, give me the strength to carry this weight and move on. And she did. She knew that hate could really destroy her – that feeling of hating people who tried to kill and subjugate her. She managed to rise above because she had a greater mission ahead of her.
Why did you call the book “Walk With Me”?
The title is taken from the song “Walk With Me, Lord”. She was brutally beaten, almost killed, in Winona, Mississippi jail in June 1963. As she lay in her prison cell, bleeding and bruised and entering and exiting consciousness, she struggled to hold on and her cellmate, Euvester Simpson, a teenage civil rights activist, was there with her. She asked Euvester to sing with her because she needed to find strength and she needed God to be with her. So she sang this song “Walk With Me, Lord”. She needed to feel that there was something bigger that would help her survive those times when it was not so clear that she would survive. And I found it so powerful that she would do that. She survived that night and was able to get up and walk the next morning.
What other spiritual and gospel songs were particularly important to Hamer as she fought for the right to vote and other causes of social justice?
One of his favorites is “This Little Light of Mine”. She sang it everywhere, all the time. It’s kind of his hymn. There were a few other spirituals, but really, most of the ones she sang a lot during the move were those crossed folk songs, rooted in Christian spirituals, like “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. She not only grew up in a very strong church environment, the Baptist Church, but she grew up in the fields of Mississippi where there were field work songs, call and answer songs. Where she grew up is actually the birthplace of Delta blues music.
She also quoted the Bible to people she disagreed with. Were there any special Bible lessons that Hamer applied to his fight to help his black compatriots in Mississippi?
She used the Bible in different ways. She used it to shame her white oppressors who also claimed to be Christians, following the path of Christ. She used the Bible and said: Do you follow this path by what you do to me, to my colleagues in the community and to my family members? And she used the Bible passages to remind Christian ministers: This is your job, and what are you doing on top of this pulpit? You tell people to be patient. Now, in the Bible it says to rise up and bring the people out of Egypt.
You mentioned William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, Hamer’s congregation, throughout the book. What happened there, over the years, when the Nonviolent Student Coordinating Committee and other groups used it as a venue for meetings, classes, and gatherings?
The church, the ministers participated in the movement and held meetings in this church at great risk to themselves and to the church, and in fact the church was bombed several times even though the fires were extinguished. , fortunately, very quickly. There were residents of the community who committed suicide and put them in danger. They were at great risk of going to these meetings, leading these meetings, going out and doing voter registration campaigns. It was all about the community of the church because it was really the only community building in a lot of these places where people could meet to have these discussions.
You said Hamer was at a crossroads when she first listened to those SNCC (pronounced “snick”) activists who were looking for more people to join their cause.
She suffered a trauma and she was sterilized against her will – she didn’t give permission – and she went through this very deep depression, and it tested her faith. It put her understanding of the world to the test, and she got out of there and went to that reunion in Ruleville in 1962 and when she heard these young people and their passion and their willingness to risk their lives for her, she them. considered to be the “New Kingdom”. So it was more than a crossroads for her. It was a time when she could see the future of these young people, and she called them the “New Kingdom (here) on earth”. If they were willing to stand up and risk their lives, she might, at 45 or 46, stand up on her own. It was a crossroads. She made this choice to stand up, publicly, and move forward.
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