How Fannie Lou Hamer Changed My Life

Excerpt from Chapter 5 of The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family.

When I was 14, in the summer of 1964, I lived with my family in Millington, Tennessee, just north of Memphis. My public high school was restricted to white students, the little Baptist church that my dad pastored was segregated, and the sign over the men‚Äôs room down at the local filling station said ‚ÄúFor Whites Only.‚Äù I was a passionate supporter of Barry Goldwater for the Republican presidential nomination. I put a Goldwater bumper sticker on my bike and rode it all over Millington delivering leaflets to homes and apartments, and then in July I watched the convention on television as Goldwater accepted the nomination.

In late August, the Democrats held their convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and I sat on the couch in our living room watching every minute of the drama on our little black-and-white TV. A lone black woman testified before the Credentials Committee. Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer, and she was a sharecropper from Sunflower County, Mississippi. She stared down those white men until they hushed up and turned toward her and quieted so they could hear what she had the nerve to say.

Hamer told of being arrested for trying to register to vote, and what happened when they carried her to jail. She said,

“They left my cell and it wasn't too long before they came back. He said, ‘You are from Ruleville all right,’ and he used a curse word. And he said, ‘We are going to make you wish you was dead.’ I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack…I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old…The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit on my feet—to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush. One white man—my dress had worked up high—he walked over and pulled my dress—I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.”

Hamer paused and looked up at the Committee members. She said,

“All of this is on account of us wanting to register, to become first-class citizens, and…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 of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

I was mesmerized by Hamer’s story, and amazed by her presence and personality. I had growing questions about the all-white society in which I lived, but I hadn’t yet concluded that it had systemic problems. Black people for me were largely an abstraction, a faceless category of other human beings who lived in a parallel universe. I knew as little about the lives of black people in my home town of Millington as I did about the people of China, Lapland, Argentina, or Tanzania. Hamer forced me to consider black people as human beings who could bleed, suffer, aspire, struggle, and rejoice. She inspired me to begin a process of listening, reading, and learning about black people that would change my life.

Five years later, I met Fannie Lou Hamer when she came to speak in Madison, Wisconsin where I was a college student. The two of us had dinner in the cafeteria, and then I introduced her to a small crowd in the Student Union building, and she talked about growing up in Ruleville, just 130 miles south of where I had lived in Millington.

“My grandparents was slaves,” she said, “but in Sunflower County today we are still slaves. We have had no justice. We have had no rights that they must respect. We have had no way to live. But I will tell you this. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. And we will have our freedom.”