Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry
Fannie Lou Hamer: If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. 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 be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America? Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer testifying before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. During her testimony, Fannie Lou Hamer spoke of being brutally beaten by Mississippi jail officials, simply for trying to register to vote. Now, Hamer was an impoverished sharecropper with no formal education, but her powerful message was so threatening to the established racial and political order that President Lyndon Johnson preempted the televised testimony with an impromptu press conference about a minor issue. Later that night, though, the networks broadcast Hamer's entire testimony during primetime.
Although the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party did not win a seat at the convention that year, Hamer's words and her continuing years of activism transformed representation within the Democratic Party. For more on the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, I spoke with Dr. Keisha Blain, author of the new book Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. Professor Blain started by telling me a bit about who Fannie Lou Hamer was.
Keisha Blain: Fannie Lou Hamer was a courageous civil rights activist, also a human rights activist, who advocated for Black political rights in the United States during the 1960s. I think most people know her in the context of the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where she gave a passionate speech about state-sanctioned violence, voter suppression, and several other pressing concerns which challenged the nation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say a bit more about that speech, because it is often slightly quoted misquoted. The quote's so taken out of context, but it was so powerful right then, it shook a president. It terrified Lyndon Johnson even.
Keisha Blain: It did. It was a powerful moving speech, and she spoke about the challenges that she faced as a Black woman living in Mississippi. She spoke about the violence, she spoke about the difficulties with casting a ballot. She really pointed out the problems with American society and underscored that it was not a place of equal opportunity, and she demanded changes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about how Mississippi shaped Fannie Lou Hamer?
Keisha Blain: Hamer, like so many others, grew up in a sharecropping family. This certainly shaped her experiences having to live in poverty, having to constantly be relying on white people, on white planters in the case of sharecropping for her daily sustenance. It was a violent place. Most people certainly know about the Emmett Till case, having interactions day to day interactions could lead to a violent attack, certainly in lynching. Mississippi was a very tough place to be, and certainly, as an organizer in the '60s in particular.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk about the Freedom Farm Cooperative. It is certainly not completely unique, but it does certainly stand out as part of what designates her work as quite different than the kind of integrationists in public accommodations work, again, that we tend to associate with the civil rights movement.
Keisha Blain: Because she endured hunger and poverty in her life, she wanted to make sure that she created a space where others in need would have the basic necessities. She launched in the late 1960s Freedom Farm as a collective. It was an opportunity for people to grow crops, to sustain themselves, to certainly to work, even to live. It became this vibrant community, which not only provided resources for people in the Mississippi Delta but even extended beyond the area.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to read this one piece because I paused on it, and I've been reflecting on it since I read this. This is in a segment that you call, "I'm tired of being called Aunty." You write that in the early 1960s, Hamer publicly addressed the disrespect she and other Black women faced in a society that devalued the lives and contributions of Black people. She being Hamer pointed to the common practice of white people referring to her as "girl" and "aunty" terms that failed to recognize Hamer's personhood.
Those two words, girl and aunty can be words of such a loving endearment when spoken by other Black women to Black women. Reading them here and thinking of what they sound like in the voices of white segregationists, I was hoping maybe you could walk us through a little bit about both the reclamation of those terms and what Hamer is saying at this moment about womanhood and Black womanhood.
Keisha Blain: In the context of Mississippi in the 1960s, these were terms that were meant to demean Black women. Hamer wanted to call attention to that as part of a larger project of her commitment to women's empowerment certainly, and as part of the genealogy of Black feminist thought. Even though, as I explained in the book, Hamer did not identify as a feminist.
Melissa Harris-Perry: She did experience specific gender-based violence, both in the context of sexual violence and in the context of reproductive violence. Can you say a few words about that?
Keisha Blain: She was the victim of forced sterilization and this was a situation where she had been hospitalized to remove a small uterine tumor, this was even though it was a non-cancerous tumor. Without her knowledge, the white physician decided to remove her uterus. She found out about it after the procedure in the most demeaning way. She found out through gossip. People were whispering about it. She confronted the doctor certainly angry about what had taken place, and she was unable to get any kind of response or compassion from him, but it set her on a path to speak boldly about forced sterilization, to talk about the exploitation the violence that Black women are facing in that particular context. Then just two years later in '63, she experienced a brutal beating in Winona, Mississippi, and a sexual assault as well in a jail cell. She just endured so many painful experiences. Everything that she went through strengthened her, as difficult as that sounds, and gave her even clarity about her mission to improve the lives of everyone around her.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The subtitle of the book is Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. For you, what is Fannie Lou Hamer's enduring message to America?
Keisha Blain: I think Hamer's message to America can really be encapsulated in the title, which is Until I Am Free. As Hamer traveled throughout the United States in the 1960s, she would often say, "Whether you are Black or white, you are not free until I am free either." I think that message is an important one. It's a reminder that we are all connected regardless of our differences. We are connected as part of this American polity. That means that we have to be concerned about the experiences of other people. We have to be committed to the liberation of all groups. That's the message to America.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Keisha Blain's Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America has a publication date of October 5th, Fannie Lou Hamer's birthday is October 6th. Dr. Keisha Blain thank you for joining us.
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