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Truth to Power

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Fannie Lou Hamer and Robert Moses with Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
It was in the documentary Freedom Summer—a 2014 film that narrated the events of when more than 700 student activists campaigned for voting rights during the summer of 1964 — that I first heard the stirring words of Fannie Lou Hamer. Notably, she said, "And 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?" Standing at a podium during the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, she spoke truth to power in a way that was unheard of in primarily white spaces; especially by a Black woman. This sharecropper with a six-grade education from rural Mississippi stood confidently on a stage that wasn't intended for her and owned it all the same, in spite of eventually being cut off. Because if Fannie Lou Hamer was going to do anything, she was going to speak from a position of strength and faith. If you've had the opportunity to see Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, that podium scene is the moment I'm talking about, the reason Mrs. Hamer is one of the most inspirational and influential figures in my life.

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Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
I started scavenging other narratives of Black women during the movement and I was officially hooked on history. I learned the story of Mary Bowser, who was a covert operative in Richmond, VA during the Civil War with a story that reads like any modern spy flick; how she was a brilliant, free Black woman who had an eidetic memory. Bowser risked life and limb and freedom using various secret tactics like encoded messages in books and hollowed out eggs that contained intel she discovered from the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. The best part: she did this while undercover in Jefferson's home, right under his nose. I learned about the Combee River Raid planned and led in part by Harriet Tubman, an illiterate woman who experienced bouts of something similar to narcolepsy. This tiny woman with a mighty reputation helped free 700 people in one night! Then there was the story of how the Montgomery Bus Boycott was strategized and in play well before Mrs. Rosa Parks officially sat down. This was because Joanne Robinson and the Women’s Political Council had been putting in the necessary work in Montgomery. Speaking of Mrs. Parks, I learned that her legacy doesn't start or stop with her refusal to stand, but that her true bravery was her work in demanding justice for Black women who are victims of gender-specific assault at the hands of white men like Recy Taylor. I learned that it was Mahalia Jackson, the voice of an era never to be duplicated, who encouraged Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, to not talk about the bad checks that America had written Black folks. She instead told him to speak about a dream. It became one of the most famous and quoted speeches in the history of this country.

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Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker at the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic statewide convention.
There are countless stories like these that are not shared, told, or even used to tell the narrative of how Black women have played a part in every major moment in the history of this country. Malcolm X was a fan of Mrs.Hamer and even introduced her at a joint speaking event in December of 1964. He was a staunch protector and outspoken advocate of Black women famously stating, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” 

The story of Fannie Lou Hamer is one of triumph and tragedy, of inspiration and heartbreak. It is the story of a rural Mississippi sharecropper who believed enough in her God, her people, and the songs carried in her heart to definitively change the way Black people would see themselves, in a country they built, for years to come. I encourage you to look under the rocks of history to find what's hidden. Seek out the forgotten or lesser-known stories of those I have come to call my heroes. Let us all honor these truths in the way we treat and show up for each other, especially our Black women.  

If you'd like to know more on how to celebrate the life and legacy of the magnificent Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, I'm providing a link to a lecture that discusses her world in a bit more detail. It talks about the timeline of events that led to Freedom Summer, how she helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with Ella Baker and Bob Moses, the death of three Freedom Summer workers, and the toll that took on the rest of the students. 
 

Watch Truth to Power Lecture