Op-ed: Students should know the name Fannie Lou Hamer

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This op-ed has appeared in WGBH News and The Berkshire Eagle.

October 6 would be the 100th birthday of Fannie Lou Hamer, the black civil rights activist and vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). She made history during Freedom Summer 1964, storming the Magnolia State’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Atlantic City.

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Hamer would later famously say.

Fannie Lou Hamer’s grit in the face of relentless rural poverty and violence in the Jim Crow South make her a heroine whom American schoolchildren should know. But decades of national data show just how little they actually do know about U.S. history, civics, and geography.

History tells us that economic striving, great art, and moral leadership often spring from adversity.

The Mississippi Delta has been called “the most Southern place on earth.” Extending from Memphis to Vicksburg, 220 miles long and roughly 75 miles across, the Delta encompasses more than 4.4 million acres. The Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers’ serpentine floodplains make it the richest, most fertile soil on the globe.

The Delta was the world’s cotton capital, producing the fibers used internationally to make clothing. Delta bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King planted the seeds of modern popular music. The Delta was also home to Fannie Lou Hamer, the youngest of 20 children of cotton plantation sharecroppers from black-majority Sunflower County.

From age six on, Hamer picked tons of cotton, dawn to dusk in 95-degree heat and 75-percent humidity. By age 13, with a limp from polio, she picked 250 pounds daily. As an adult, she was a victim of involuntary sterilization, not uncommon among black female Mississippians.

Then there was the terrifying Ku Klux Klan lynching culture.

Most people would regard this reality as hell itself and question the soul of man, but Hamer was a devout woman. She was sustained by her faith, family, and church songs, which were refuges from ever-present racism.

In 1962, Hamer became involved with voter registration through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), activities which got her evicted from her plantation and thrown into jail. At events, she led call-and-response spirituals, including her anthem, “This Little Light of Mine.”

Hamer’s civil rights crusade reached its apex in 1964 when she and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. were among those seeking to have the MFDP unseat Mississippi’s white-only DNC delegation. But she was publicly undermined by President Lyndon Johnson, who commandeered live national television coverage for a non-event press conference, just to divert attention away from Fannie Lou’s DNC testimony.

“And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman,” Mrs. Hamer testified to the DNC’s Credentials Committee about being brutally beaten in jail for registering black Mississippi voters. “[H]e said, ‘We’re going to make you wish you was dead.’”

“She had Mississippi in her bones. MLK or the SNCC field secretaries, they couldn’t do what Fannie Lou Hamer did,” Bob Moses, himself an unsung civil rights leader, later told PBS. “They couldn’t be a sharecropper and express what it meant.”

Well into the 20th century, Democratic presidential candidates like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and even John Kennedy, needed to win the segregated South. So, shouldn’t students in JFK’s Massachusetts know Fannie Lou Hamer’s name?

“I question America. Is this … the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Hamer asked Democrats, the country, and the world in 1964. “[W]here 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?”

In 1977, Hamer died of breast cancer and heart failure at age 59. Forty years later, racial discrimination and violence are still far too common across America, due in part to our history and civics-impoverished K-12 education landscape.

This intolerable deprivation of knowledge about civil rights heroism cannot stand. Together, we need to learn the basics of our country’s past and demand that American politicians expand the educational opportunities that successfully deliver the story of Fannie Lou Hamer to schoolchildren.

Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.