Why Fannie Lou Hamer’s definition of “freedom” still matters

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We perceive the word “freedom” bandied astir alternatively loosely successful this country. It’s 1 of those things radical accidental they love, but are we truly free? In galore instances, “freedom” feels much similar America’s user marque than 1 of its halfway principles — mostly due to the fact that we spot those principles violated with regularity.

The precocious Fannie Lou Hamer understood this each excessively well. The youngest of 20 children and calved to Mississippi sharecroppers, Hamer didn’t statesman her human-rights activism until her forties. After picking fabric for astir of her years, Hamer was fired from her sharecropping occupation successful 1962 for trying to registry to vote. The pursuing year, adjacent aft passing a discriminatory “literacy test,” she was inactive denied entree to the ballot. And aboriginal successful 1963, aft attempting to registry immoderate of her chap Mississippians, she was beaten by constabulary and near with a limp, a humor clot down her eye, and imperishable kidney damage.

With those injuries, Hamer gave what became a landmark code astatine the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hamer, who had served arsenic a tract caput for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, cofounded the Freedom Democratic Party successful bid to spotlight the denial of the precise freedoms that were expected to beryllium guaranteed to African Americans past and now. She was determination to propulsion for her party’s Mississippi delegation to beryllium seated successful spot of the Democratic Party’s all-white one, which included segregationists.

In her remarks, Hamer addressed her maltreatment astatine the hands of police.

”When a antheral told maine I was nether arrest, [the constabulary officer] kicked me. I was carried to the region jailhouse and enactment successful the booking room,” Hamer told the normal crowd. “And helium said, ‘We going to marque you privation you was dead.’ I began to scream, and 1 achromatic antheral got up and began to bushed maine successful my caput and archer maine to hush.

“All of this is connected relationship of we privation to registry to go first-class citizens.”

This code was 1 of the galore reasons I wanted to speech with Hamer’s astir caller biographer, Keisha Blain, PhD. A historiographer astatine the University of Pittsburgh, Blain is the writer of Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. In the publication — which is partially a modern societal commentary — Blain describes however Hamer was accustomed to seeing rights and freedoms technically guaranteed to her arsenic an American discarded due to the fact that she was a Black woman.

Hamer urged those listening to recognize that denying her rights was, successful fact, a refutation of American ideals.

This code was Hamer’s instauration to the American mainstream. That included President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who — fearing the retribution of Southern Democrats — said helium “couldn’t sleep” knowing what Hamer mightiness accidental astatine the podium. He adjacent called a abrupt property league of his own, attempting to support nationalist networks from airing her speech.

The endurance of her connection successful contiguous times is grounds of his failure. But however did she extremity up determination successful the archetypal place?

This is what I wanted to inquire Blain: Where precisely did Fannie Lou Hamer travel from, and wherefore person her ideas remained important successful today’s America? How did a Black pistillate successful her 40s, who had small ceremonial education, and was surviving amidst Jim Crow successful Mississippi extremity up giving this speech, 1 which we are inactive talking astir today?

Blain and I spoke connected the latest occurrence of Vox Conversations, which you tin perceive to here, oregon below, successful full. An edited excerpt follows.

Jamil Smith

Where did she travel from? And wherefore is that important?

Keisha Blain

Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper. She was calved into a sharecropping household and did not person overmuch ceremonial education. In fact, according to Hamer, it’s not until August 1962 that she adjacent learned she had a law close to ballot arsenic a national of the United States.

She besides joined the question reasonably precocious successful life. She was 44 years aged erstwhile she joined SNCC, compared to galore of the activists with whom she collaborated, who were overmuch younger, galore of them assemblage students astatine the time. And Hamer did not person the acquisition arsenic a governmental organizer astatine the clip that she joined SNCC.

So, rather frankly, this is an mean Black woman. She was a disabled activist, walked with a limp, and she instantly became a force. Immediately, learned arsenic overmuch arsenic she could learn, and past took that accusation to others.

Jamil Smith

Fighting for rights that we supposedly person already been granted, I feel, is kinda the communicative of Black folks successful America, peculiarly aft enslavement.

In that light, I wanted to marque definite that our assemblage understands what sharecropping is. And that’s important to however Fannie Lou Hamer developed, well, into Fannie Lou Hamer.

Keisha Blain

This is simply a strategy that developed successful the aftermath of slavery, and it’s important to stress that it was designed by achromatic landowners. The thought was that Black people, pursuing emancipation, would beryllium capable to proceed moving connected the plantations. In fact, galore radical remained connected the precise aforesaid plantations wherever their families had been, nether the instauration of slavery.

With the sharecropping system, 1 would proceed to develop, to turn the crops, but not ain anything, and would lone person a stock of the crops astatine the extremity of the season. And truthful this was a strategy of exploitation. It was a strategy that was meant to support Black radical successful debt, and surely successful dependency. And Fannie Lou Hamer’s household was among truthful galore different families, not lone successful Mississippi, but crossed the South, moving successful this exploitative system.

Jamil Smith

How did her tactics and strategies disagree from those of different civilian rights leaders astatine the time? I’m funny to cognize much specifically astir the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which I didn’t truly cognize a full batch astir earlier I work your book.

Keisha Blain

This is specified a almighty illustration of however Fannie Lou Hamer tried to marque Mississippi better, however she tried to marque the federation better. Despite the information that she had constricted worldly resources, she devised this thought of opening up a farm, and this was successful the precocious 1960s, which would supply a abstraction for radical to turn their ain crops.

Hamer allowed anyone to beryllium a portion of Freedom Farm. It did not matter, your contention oregon ethnicity. All she cared astir was if you had a need, if you were surviving successful poverty, and you could payment from Freedom Farm, past the doors were unfastened to you. You could come, your household could beryllium there. It was a abstraction that provided housing, acquisition opportunities, adjacent occupation opportunities. And much importantly, it was a spot wherever you could turn your ain crops. There was a pig bank, which allowed people...

Jamil Smith

Okay, for those of america uneducated successful that regard, what is simply a pig bank?

Keisha Blain

Oh, right, right. As portion of the Freedom Farm, she had respective radical donate pigs, uh, and the thought was to rear the pigs and to enactment toward multiplying the pigs, truthful that families connected the workplace could person nutrient to eat.

This was a grassroots, community-based economical programme that was supported widely. She reached retired to each kinds of groups, and she traveled crossed the state to rise funds for Freedom Farm. This was conscionable was, I think, a genius benignant of attack to addressing poorness and hunger successful Mississippi.

And it besides had a wide scope beyond the region, due to the fact that 1 of the things that Hamer would bash is, for families that had near the Mississippi Delta, and had traveled to bluish cities, she would nonstop crops and truthful on. She would really vessel nutrient retired to assorted cities. So this was 1 mode that she tried to tackle poverty, contempt the information that she did not person much.


Jamil Smith

She decidedly seemed to presumption the conflict of Black radical present arsenic portion of a much planetary struggle. You wrote aboriginal successful the publication that, “Like galore Black internationalists earlier and aft her, Hamer refused to divorcement developments taking spot successful the United States from planetary movements abroad.” How did she integrate her reasoning and her enactment with others who were moving for justness abroad?

Keisha Blain

So, 1 of the things that I speech astir successful the publication is that Hamer takes a travel toward the extremity of September 1964, on with respective activists successful SNCC, to the African continent. She travels specifically to Guinea, and this was, I argue, a transformative infinitesimal for her. It was a infinitesimal wherever she began to truly recognize that the challenges that Black radical were facing successful the United States could not beryllium divorced from the challenges that Black radical were enduring successful different parts of the globe, and adjacent much broadly, that radical of color, different marginalized groups, were facing globally.

I deliberation erstwhile Hamer returned to the United States aft that trip, she conscionable started making those connections, and you could spot it successful her speeches. So, for example, she would speech astir what was happening successful Mississippi. She would condemn achromatic supremacy successful Mississippi and past she would gully a transportation to the Congo. She would speech astir the mode that each of these different countries were trying to bounds Black people’s autonomy, and adjacent though she recognized that Mississippi was not the Congo, she saw the connections and, successful doing so, she saw the value of forming solidarities.

She saw the value of these transnational networks, and she was really, I think, unfastened to collaborating with each kinds of radical arsenic agelong they were committed to the cause. And there’s a infinitesimal successful her beingness wherever she conscionable openly says, “Listen. I’m nary longer truly warring for civilian rights. I’m warring for quality rights.”

Jamil Smith

That brings maine to that punctuation that seems to person inspired your publication title, which is, of course, “We person a agelong combat and this combat is not excavation alone. But you are not free, whether you are achromatic oregon black, until I americium free.” And that not conscionable encapsulates the universality of justness and accountability present successful the States but abroad.

Keisha Blain

We are often talking astir our lives arsenic somewhat disconnected. Right? And this is existent whenever we speech astir racism, arsenic an example. I’m ever struck by conversations astir racism that rapidly crook into these idiosyncratic narratives and past idiosyncratic volition say, “Well, I haven’t experienced that.” Or, “You know, that doesn’t marque consciousness to me. I don’t judge it due to the fact that nary constabulary serviceman has stopped maine and asked maine those questions.”

What Hamer did, and wherefore it’s truthful powerful, adjacent successful the existent infinitesimal to bespeak on, is she said, “Listen. It’s not conscionable astir you. We person to deliberation successful the corporate way. We’re each members of the American polity.” That means that if idiosyncratic is hurting, it does impact you. If idiosyncratic is successful chains, you are not free, adjacent if you deliberation you are. Right?

We whitethorn travel from antithetic backgrounds, you know, antithetic socioeconomic status, oregon antithetic races, ethnicities, and truthful on, but due to the fact that we are each successful this nation, we are connected. And the aboriginal of the federation depends connected each of us. And she would stress that careless of who you were you person to beryllium acrophobic astir the idiosyncratic adjacent to you.

As we know, not everyone volition instantly clasp that notion, but she perpetually tried to get radical to spot that they needed to beryllium acrophobic astir the adjacent person. Because if the adjacent idiosyncratic experiences liberation, you excessively tin benefit. And if different idiosyncratic is successful chains, you can’t genuinely bask freedom.

To perceive the remainder of the conversation, click here. Then, delight beryllium definite to subscribe to Vox Conversations connected Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, oregon wherever you get your podcasts — and permission america a five-star rating, if you’d beryllium truthful kind.