Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer, by Kate Clifford Larson. Oxford, 2021. 336p bibl index, 9780190096847 $27.95, 9780190096861
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Larson, currently a visiting Women’s Center Research Scholar at Brandeis University, has written an excellent biography of Fannie Lou Hamer’s life as a grassroots civil rights leader and an activist in 1960s Mississippi. Focusing her research on nineteenth- and twentieth-century women and African Americans, Larson’s previous books include Bound for the Promised Land (CH, Oct’04, 42-1139a), about abolitionist Harriet Tubman; The Assassin’s Accomplice (2008), about would-be Abraham Lincoln assassin Mary Surratt; and Rosemary (2015), about Rosemary Kennedy, the disabled daughter of the famous Kennedy family. Walk with Me is a critically acclaimed social and political history, which the publisher, Oxford University Press, calls “the most complete ever written [on Hamer], drawing on recently declassified sources on both Hamer and the [C]ivil [R]ights [M]ovement.” Coincidentally, in 2021 Brown University historian Keisha N. Blain also published the Hamer biography Until I Am Free. Speaking to an audience at North Carolina A&T State University in April 2022, Blain argued that there could never be too many biographies of Fannie Lou Hamer (hers is an intellectual history). Kay Mills said the same thing in her 2007 edition of This Little Light of Mine. First published in 1993, Mills’s biography was followed by Chana Kai Lee’s similar exploration of Hamer’s activist life in For Freedom’s Sake (CH, Feb’00, 37-3511). Since then, eleven more books have been published on the life and work of this pivotal yet still-under-recognized Black, working-class, civil and human rights leader.
Larson reveals Hamer as more than a fleeting figure on TV screens during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, demanding that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) contingent be seated instead of the state’s all-white “regular” delegation. In fact, Hamer was already a grassroots community activist when she was inspired in 1962 by college students half her age from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), of which she soon became a field secretary. Fannie Lou Hamer was someone who knew how to network and tap into her audiences and constituencies with her speechmaking, organizing, and singing in ways that bring to mind both Antonio Gramsci’s “organic intellectual” and 1960s liberation theology. Details of the harassment and brutality that Hamer and other activists suffered in trying to register African Americans to vote are excruciating reminders of the constant threat and toll white supremacist violence exacted then and its resurgence with the 2016 political rise of Donald Trump. Hamer’s Christian faith was central to the risks she took throughout a life in which, as Larson puts it, “She waged a battle that cost her almost everything she had. … When she died in 1977 [from breast cancer], at the age of fifty-nine, she was deeply in debt and nearly alone” (p. 4).
Born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the daughter and twentieth child of Mississippi Delta sharecroppers, Fannie Lou Hamer left school at twelve to pick cotton, becoming a sharecropper herself as an adult and a timekeeper on a large plantation that later evicted her and her family for her voter registration activity. She was in her forties when the SNCC arrived in Mississippi to organize against segregation and disenfranchisement, using Ella Baker’s strategy to develop Indigenous leadership that would bring down those oppressive systems and empower African Americans. Larson recounts Hamer’s struggle to be taken seriously as a female working-class leader by middle-class, male-dominated leadership. This was despite her being revered by SNCC activists, sharecroppers, and local movement leaders such as Amzie Moore, who years before had recruited her to work with the NAACP. Larson notes the many Black women activists who organized with Hamer, including Ella Baker, Victoria Gray, Annie Devine, Annell Ponder, and Septima Clark, and reveals Hamer’s differences with other women, such as her dispute with Myrlie Evers over movement gender relations or with feminists over her anti-abortion views.
If the tenacity of Hamer and fellow activists amazes readers, they will be even more incredulous remembering the impunity that white law enforcement, local officials, and vigilantes enjoyed in their war against the movement in general and against Hamer in particular. Mississippi was the worst of the Jim Crow South, as the White Citizens’ Council, Ku Klux Klan, police, and the State Sovereignty Commission (which functioned like a miniature KGB) worked together to maintain a climate of terror for African Americans.
Readers will feel as though they are watching from front row seats as the federal government moves too slowly to protect voting rights activists. Meanwhile Hamer, the SNCC, and others marshalled meager resources, making use of the media to win support while battling middle-class movement leaders such as Roy Wilkins and the NAACP, who preferred legalistic “articulate” approaches or local preachers who preferred none at all. Hamer had particular contempt for the latter, often shaming them in her public speeches, which DC representative and former SNCC activist Eleanor Holmes Norton described as being on the same level of eloquence and effectiveness as those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Her speeches had themes,” remembered Norton. “They had lessons. They had principles,” with a “ringing style” (p. 133).
Hamer’s speeches and singing were connected, both equally moving, charismatic, and group centered. The book’s title is based on a gospel song Hamer felt especially called to sing after the terrible beatings police inflicted on her and her companions while stopped in Winona, Mississippi, on a bus headed home to Ruleville, Mississippi, in June 1963 during their voter registration campaign. Officers tortured and raped Hamer, inflicting injuries that plagued her for the rest of her life. (She had already been forcibly sterilized by a doctor in 1961 without her consent, a common practice inflicted on women of color in the United States.)
The quotes that Larson liberally showers throughout the book successfully enliven the defiance, fear, and resilience of Hamer and those around her and the cruelty of their white tormentors who coalesced across class lines, fighting to maintain their privileges. At a national SNCC meeting in Washington, DC, in December 1962, Hamer turned her story of being refused the right to register to vote in Mississippi four months earlier into a call to arms: “We want somethin’ better and I’m not workin’ for equal rights with the white man in Mississippi because what he got he stole from me!” (p. 123). Years after her 1963 nightmare arrest, she recalled, “If them crackers in Winona thought they’d discourage me from fighting, I guess they found out different” (p. 106).
“Fannie Lou Hamer,” Larson writes in her introduction, “reminds us that at [the Civil Rights Movement’s] center sits grassroots organizing and the women who were the source of its power” (p. 3). Larson details Hamer’s harrowing struggles to stay alive, survive harassment, and figure as a crucial grassroots leader right up until her death. Like Hamer scholars before her, Larson rescues Hamer from a role of historical anomaly as the Mississippi sharecropper who delivered an impassioned eight-minute speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. That speech, in fact, makes sense only if one considers not only her mobilizing and strategizing with the MFDP but also her exhaustive voter registration efforts, cross-country speaking tours, and Freedom Vote “mock elections” to dramatize Black Mississippians’ disenfranchisement and galvanize them to demand real suffrage. Those activities connect with her many other campaigns: supporting cotton pickers’ strikes, building a community center and “Freedom Farm” cooperative, integrating Ruleville schools, reforming the Democratic Party convention process, running for state senate, and networking with the Council of Federated Organizations, feminist groups, and the National Council of Negro Women. Police beatings and untreated health problems stemming from poverty sapped her strength, and she died far too young. However, as SCLC activist leader Reverend Andrew Young eulogized Fannie Lou Hamer at her funeral: “None of us would be where we are today had she not been here then” (p. 231).
Larson’s strongest points lie in her detailed analyses of civil rights efforts in Mississippi. Hamer and other MFDP members, for example, did more than just testify before the 1964 convention’s Credentials Committee and refuse the two at-large seats “compromise” the party offered them—what has become a declension narrative of SNCC/MFDP endeavors. Instead, Hamer and the MFDP defied pressure from civil rights, labor, and Democratic Party leaders promoting President Lyndon Johnson’s triumphalist nomination. They also picketed, later “sitting in” the empty seats abandoned by the “regulars” who now supported the Republican presidential nominee. Hamer, says Larson, “forced the Democratic Party to choose between civil rights and the southern segregationists who held an outsized influence in the party” (p. 185). Hamer returned in 1968 and 1972 to participate in party reforms she helped compel in 1964.
Larson’s discussion of Black Power and the SNCC in 1966 would have benefited from more nuance and less master narrative—where radicalism is problematic, nonviolence normative, and armed self-defense a betrayal. Black Power in Mississippi and Alabama began as a strategy focused on organizing Black Americans to register, vote, and mobilize autonomously. The main problem, as Charles Payne points out in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (CH, Oct’95, 33-1141), was the SNCC’s ultimate abandonment of grassroots organizing. But this is a minor criticism. Larson’s biography is essential, accessible reading for academic and general audiences eager to learn more about this Black Freedom Movement icon.
Summing Up: Essential. All readers. Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, Racial Justice Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America
Philip F. Rubio is professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University. He has a PhD in history from Duke University.