By Kate Clifford Larson. Oxford University Press, 2021. 336 pages. $27.95/hardcover; $18.99/eBook.
If you’re curious to learn how a malnourished Black sharecropper with a sixth-grade education became a legendary voting rights activist in rural Mississippi, this book is for you. Fannie Lou Hamer walked in the Light and sang to the Light. Her visceral voice resonates through every stirring story. “I don’t want no equal rights anymore. . . . I don’t want to become equal to men like them that beat us,” she declared to a reporter after the 1963 acquittal of police officers who viciously beat her body with blackjacks. “I’m fightin’ for human rights.” And fight she did, despite relentless intimidation by White people. Fannie Lou and her husband, Pap, were fired from jobs, evicted from their cabin, and relentlessly harassed. Yet she persisted in her call to be a change agent and mentor.
Hamer was a particularly active and influential organizer during Freedom Summer in Mississippi, the volunteer campaign launched in June 1964 to register as many Black voters in the state as possible. A majority of the volunteers were White students from the north; many of them dropped out of school and quit jobs to come help in Mississippi. Recruiting White volunteers was a strategic choice; their involvement in the campaign alternately appealed to and incensed the local White community, oftentimes leading to intimidation and violence. During training sessions, Hamer told the students they were “the answer to her prayers,” and before major voter registration drives, she told them not to be afraid or ashamed: “All we have to do is trust God and launch out into the deep.” She directed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staff to really look at the young volunteers: “When you see all of these students coming here to help America to be a real democracy and make democracy a reality in the state of Mississippi. Can’t you see the fulfilling of God’s word?”
In December 1964, after Hamer ran for Congress and lost to a White man, she spoke at a Harlem church rally sponsored by the Freedom Party in New York City. After sharing her personal history, she criticized the Johnson administration for not supporting the civil rights workers in Mississippi and urged the audience to demand change:
The truth is the only thing going to free us. . . . [T]here’s so much hypocrisy in this society and if we want America to be a free society, we have to stop telling lies, that’s all. Because we’re not free and you know we’re not free.
Kate Clifford Larson’s page-turning biography takes readers into the violent racism of the Mississippi Delta to show how Hamer rose from grinding poverty to become the voice of unheard Black citizens and the conscience of a nation. Born the twentieth child of mother Ella Townsend, also one of many children, Hamer lived a “blues-riddled life.” Deprived of fertility by a hysterectomy without her consent, singing was one of her few comforts. As a child, she sang “This Little Light of Mine” with such purity that her parents stood her up on tables for everyone to hear. Gospel songs shaped her spiritual life, sustained her strength, and inspired others. “This Little Light of Mine” became her lifelong theme song, and she sang it at every public appearance. Loving God was as central to Hamer’s identity as her name and skin color. She called out ministers who refused to support the Civil Rights Movement; she exhorted people to join her and to “walk with my hand in God’s hand”; she challenged everyone to “fight for freedom because Christ died to set us free. And he stayed here until he got thirty-three years old, letting us know how we would have to walk.”
Larson, a Women’s Studies Research Center visiting scholar at Brandeis University, conducted prodigious research and did extensive interviews with people who knew Hamer. She viewed film clips and listened to recordings of speeches, which helped her capture the tenor and power of Hamer’s voice on the page. Larson pairs painful details of backlash against activists with uplifting moments of community song, food, faith, and resilience. Walk with Me is a masterpiece of historical scholarship, and will be of interest to Friends who carry concerns about racial, gender, and cultural bias.
Judith Wright Favor is an elder member of Claremont Monthly, Southern California Quarterly, and Pacific Yearly Meetings. Her latest publication is the Pendle Hill pamphlet Friending Rosie on Death Row.