This much-awarded book is told in the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer herself in a free verse format that includes many actual quotes from Hamer. Most of these quotations come from “An Oral History With Fannie Lou Hamer;” her biography; and her speeches. [The text of many of her speeches can be found here.] As the author explains in a Note at the end of the book, Fannie Lou Hamer was considered “the spirit, or the voice, of the civil rights movement.”
Fannie Lou Hamer (nee Townsend) was born in Mississippi. She came from a family of poor sharecroppers, the youngest of twenty children, and often had to wear rags tied around her feet instead of shoes. In the book, she explains why there were so many kids:
“When I was born, on October 6, 1917, the plantation owner
paid my mother fifty dollars for producing a future field hand.
The money helped my family through the winter.
Chile, I am proof that the Delta birthed the blues.”
Her mother was a strong woman, and taught her daughter that black was beautiful and she deserved respect. She said: “If you respect yourself enough, other people will have to respect you.” Fannie bore this out later in her own life.
In the 1940s she met her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer, who worked on a neighboring plantation, where they then worked together for eighteen years until she was fired for trying to vote.
In 1961 she went into a hospital to have a small uterine tumor removed; without her knowledge or consent, she was sterilized by a white doctor as a part of the state of Mississippi’s plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. [Forced sterilization was so common among African-American women in those days that it became known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”]
On August 23, 1962, Hamer attended a sermon by Rev. James Bevel, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who ended his talk with an appeal to those assembled to register to vote.
At the time, only six percent of eligible black citizens in Mississippi were registered. They knew that to register was to place at risk to their job security, personal safety and even their lives.
Nevertheless, Hamer was the first volunteer to register. She later said:
”I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”
On August 31, 1962, she traveled on a rented bus with other attendees of Bevel’s sermon to Indianola, Mississippi, to register. People in the group were scared, and Hamer began to sing hymns to boost their morale. Ms. Hamer failed the test and lost her job for trying. But she discovered her passion, and became a leader and public figure in the civil rights movement. As Mississippi History Now observed:
“Prospective black voters inevitably failed the test, whether they were well-educated or not. Even after several years of effort in Sunflower County, by the spring of 1965 only 155 black people — 1.1 percent of those eligible to vote — were registered, while more than 7,000 whites were registered, or 80 percent of those eligible to vote.”
(She studied hard and passed the test the next year, making her one of 28,000 blacks registered in Mississippi out of a total of 422,256 eligible black voters.)
Hamer came to the attention of SNCC organizer Bob Moses, who dispatched someone from the organization with instructions to find “the lady who sings the hymns.” Hamer was recruited by SNCC, and she began traveling around the South doing activist work for the organization. In the book she reports:
“I toured the South with words from my heart
and spirituals I learned at my mother’s knee.
I fired up many a rally.”
On June 9, 1963, Hamer was on her way back from Charleston, South Carolina with other activists from a literacy workshop, and the group was stopped in Winona, Mississippi and arrested on a false charge. In jail, Hamer and her colleagues were beaten savagely by the police, almost to the point of death. It took Hamer over a month to recover from the beating.
Again, she was not deterred nor did she become discouraged or cynical. As Fannie later said, and included as a quote by the author:
“I have lived long enough to know
that no race has a corner on decency.
I feel sorry for anybody that could let hate wrap them up.
Ain’t no such thing as I can hate anybody
and hope to see God’s face.
Out of one blood God made all nations.”
She returned to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives. In the summer of 1964 she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or MFDP, organized to challenge Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Hamer was elected Vice-Chair.
In Washington, D.C., President Lyndon Johnson was so reportedly so fearful of the power of Hamer’s testimony on live television that he called an “emergency” press conference in an effort to divert press coverage from Hamer. But all he did on it was to announce the nine-month anniversary of the shooting of Texas governor, John Connally, during the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Many television networks then ran Hamer’s unedited speech anyway on their late news programs. The Credentials Committee received thousands of calls and letters in support of the “Freedom Democrats.”
Johnson dispatched several Democratic Party operatives to negotiate with the Freedom Democrats, including Senator Hubert Humphrey, to suggest a “compromise” giving the MFDP two non-voting seats in exchange for other concessions. But when Humphrey outlined the compromise to the Credentials Committee, saying that his position on the ticket was at stake, Hamer sharply rebuked him:
“Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand black people’s lives? Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Now if you lose this job of Vice-President because you do what is right, because you help the MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take [the nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I’m going to pray to Jesus for you.”
Hamer’s speech to the Committee brought many to tears, and gained her national attention.
At the next convention in 1968, Hamer became the first African American delegate since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and the first-ever woman delegate from Mississippi. She was seated to a thunderous ovation.
Hamer continued to work for Civil Rights, for women’s rights, and to help feed the poor until she died of complications of heart disease and breast cancer on March 14, 1977. She is buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, where her tombstone reads one of her famous quotes, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
You can listen to her testimony to the 1964 Democratic Convention Credentials Committee here:
In this book for children, Ekua Holmes does an exceptional job at illustrating this story with colorful textured collages reminiscent of quilts.
Evaluation: Hamer’s amazing courage and persistence in the face of very real and dangerous obstacles will impress and inspire readers who are unaware that as recently as the 1960’s, you could be signing your own death sentence in the South if you even tried to vote. She is a genuine American hero who should not be forgotten. I am so glad to see her story told for children.
Recommended age range: 10-14
Published by Candlewick Press, 2015