Fannie Lou Hamer: From Home to History

By Brigitte Carreiro for WORLD Channel

The team behind 'Fannie Lou Hamer’s America' describes how Mrs. Hamer’s private life made her into the trailblazing activist she became.

When did you first hear about Fannie Lou Hamer? Was it in school, as an adult, right now? Her name, though steeped in as much civil rights history as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, has been all but omitted but for a handful of references across the United States: a quote at the Civil Rights Garden in Atlantic City, a Coretta Scott King Book Award-winning children’s book and a memorial statue in her home of Ruleville, Mississippi.

So why would a school in the Bronx be named the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School?  Among her many accomplishments, Mrs. Hamer repeatedly fought to register to vote as a Black woman and helped over half of her fellow Black Mississipians to do the same. She later co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) with Ella Baker and Bob Moses to oppose the state’s all-white party. And it was due in part to the activist that President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Her story, as told in her voice in ‘Fannie Lou Hamer’s America,’ offers a never-before-seen look at the civil rights hero, but there is much more to learn about her life as a woman, wife, mother and friend. 

Who Was Fannie Lou Hamer?

“She had a very wicked, bizarre sense of humor. She was crack-down, holding-your-sides funny. And that's something a lot of people don’t see when they see that emotional testimony in Atlantic City,” said Monica Land, Fannie Lou Hamer’s great-niece and the executive producer of ‘Fannie Lou Hamer’s America.’ “You always saw this very passionate, strong person, but there was a whole other side to her.”

The project began in the early 2000s, when Land and director and editor Joy Elaine Davenport paired up with just an idea and a will. Davenport had just finished her master’s thesis with a film about the MFDP under the guidance of the party’s former chairman Lawrence Guyot. “When it was all said and done, he said, ‘All right, Davenport, the next movie’s about Mrs. Hamer,’ and I was like, ‘Roger that,’” Davenport said.

Creating ‘Fannie Lou Hamer’s America,’ while abundant in its challenges, especially in searching for and clearing archival material, was a “labor of love,” the team has said time and again.

For Davenport, directing a film about Fannie Lou Hamer was “like cracking open the Dead Sea Scrolls.” “I found it interesting that there’s a canonical history of Mrs. Hamer that almost seems like she sprung in, completely formed, in her 40s, and then became an activist, and then disappeared,” she said. “Because of that, a lot of the ways that her story has been told over the years have been narrowed and narrowed and narrowed, like making a copy of a copy, and that human part of her was lost.”

Their purpose, then, was to show audiences – whether they already knew of Mrs. Hamer or not – the person behind those impressive speeches.

“Considering how remarkable she was in front of the camera, the person behind was very vulnerable, and sometimes even lost as to what to do,” said Land. “Just to see her inner thoughts is very interesting – rewarding, even.”

Growing Up in Mississippi

To produce a film about Fannie Lou Hamer that no one had before, it meant looking at her life in Mississippi. Raised by sharecroppers on a plantation in Ruleville with 19 siblings, she dropped out of school at only 12 years old to pick cotton like many poor Black children her age. “When she was picking cotton with my mother’s family, she coined the phrase, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ That's not something she picked up because of the movement, that was just always her saying,” Land shared.

The way she grew up, Davenport said, was an essential element to include in the film. “Her Atlantic City testimony was basically saying, ‘This is my life in Mississippi.’ You don’t have her without that life, and it was this process of unearthing a sort of true Fannie Lou Hamer and getting to know her, and that added so much texture into our understanding of why she would do the things she did,” she said.

The Mississippi Delta has long been an area of strife in the U.S. While its rich lands were an oasis for plantation owners, jobs for Black sharecroppers were soon lost to machines, rendering families displaced. Today, economic mobility remains elusive, with Mississippi bearing one of the worst poverty rates in the country with a significant wealth gap between white and Black families.

“[Fannie Lou] knew hunger, and her children knew hunger, and if she could say anything about it, she would make sure that no one, no child, would ever have to feel that hunger again, period. And it wasn’t about her children, it wasn’t just about Black children; she would specifically say every child, Black, white, brown, or red – this is her cause,” Davenport added.

Motherhood in Many Forms

While growing up in the Delta was difficult, it also provided opportunities for Fannie Lou Hamer to form a close bond with her mother. According to Davenport, she was considered the “golden child” and grew up with a sense of identity and understanding instilled in her by her mother. “When she talks about her mom telling her to respect herself as a child and respect herself eventually as a Black woman – that is revolutionary in itself. Her mom, in a time that really was kind of unconventional, was saying, ‘You have power as a person no matter how old you are,’” said Selena Lauterer, the film’s only other executive producer.

Mrs. Hamer took these lessons to heart in becoming a mother herself. Unfortunately, as Land put it, she was “robbed” of the ability to bear her own children. In 1961, when Mrs. Hamer was undergoing surgery for the removal of a uterine tumor, a white doctor performed a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. Regarded as the “Mississippi appendectomy,” the practice was common at the time to forcibly sterilize people deemed unfit to produce, including poor, Black women.

This, Land and Davenport believe, reshaped Mrs. Hamer’s understanding of what family and motherhood looked like. “I think that [it] opened up her concept of what her children could be. You see her taking care of people in the community, you see her adopting children – so there was also an element of, ‘Those bastards took this from me, but I'll find a new way to use that energy,’” Davenport explained.

Fannie Lou Hamer adopted four daughters: Vergie, Lenora, Dorothy and Jacqueline, who is her only living child. “She was very, very, very close to them and instilled a lot of the same principles that her mother did with her,” Land shared.

This maternal instinct is likely what drew her to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Comprised of young Mississipians and college students from the North, SNCC was founded in 1960 by civil rights activists like Ella Baker, James Lawson and John Lewis. They traveled around the country registering Black Americans to vote, with Mrs. Hamer, in her 40s, being their oldest employee and field secretary.

“She resonated with young people. She was so drawn to them, and they were drawn to her. She aligned herself much more with the students than the elders in the movement,” Davenport said. “She saw that they are the future and the hope of the country, and if anyone’s going to do it, it’s them.” This kind of relatability is what drew Davenport to pursue a project about Fannie Lou Hamer in the first place.

While Fannie Lou Hamer’s work in voting rights was her most impactful mission, the caretaker side of her lent itself to the cause. As shared by Davenport and Land, her home became known as “the hub.” “People would just come and go. They’d stay, eat food, get rest, just get a laugh and a story. That was how she lived,” said Davenport. “She was very family-oriented, and that's just so unusual for a person of her stature. She made time for everyone,” Land added.

Fannie Lou Hamer, the activist and mother, was straddling the line between homemaker and changemaker. How her actions and beliefs aligned with feminist values in 1960s America, Davenport said, revolved around one simple principle: She did what had to be done.

“She was a founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, the National Council of Negro Women; she centered her power very much in her womanhood and in empowering other women, too,” she explained. “But she still saw herself within that role of the home, and then outside, she saw herself in that role of the community, and then she expanded that out to her role as a human in this country. But it all came back to the home and what it meant to take care of the people around you.”

Fannie Lou and Pap Hamer

Indeed, a large part of Fannie Lou Hamer’s life was spent out of the house – organizing, speaking and advocating for the rights of her community. Although, as Davenport said, “she believed strongly in the biblical idea of the roles of the genders,” she often found herself in a more nontraditional position within her home and community. In her stead, her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer, stepped in.

“It’s interesting how invested they were in traditional gender roles, but how much necessity forced them to switch. When she was doing her thing around the country, Pap was taking care of all the domestic [and survival] tasks that needed taking care of,” Davenport said.

“It bothered her to leave [her daughters] behind. It bothered her a great deal, but Uncle Pap was there. He supported her in every way; he took care of the girls,” Land added.

Pap’s role in their family unit extended to even after Fannie Lou’s death in 1977. “When she died, people were coming to him because he had the three girls. They were like, ‘Pap, what are you going to do with these girls?’ And he was like, ‘What do you mean? Raise them,” Land said. “Whatever it took, that’s what he did. He cooked, he cleaned – those were his girls. And that didn’t diminish him as a man at all.”

The way she presented herself, too, rested largely on feminist ideals: “She always introduces herself as Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. The point was that, in Mississippi, if you're a Black person, you don’t get those adult titles. That was a way that they were socially diminished by the white supremecist power structure,” Davenport explained. “So, she made a point to talk about herself as Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, to note that she is grown, with dignity, has a husband and a home and is in charge of all that, and is not going to be put down by anybody who just wants to see her as ‘Auntie.’”

The Hero for Yesterday and Today

The respect that Fannie Lou Hamer demanded for herself as a Black woman, but even more so, as a person, follows her today. Her legacy is one that has stood the test of time, even as the country continues to encounter human rights violations and battles systemic racism. Her relatability to current social movements, for one, is something not lost on the team behind ‘Fannie Lou Hamer’s America.’ “She has really gained a younger following. I have some pictures of protests, and you see these young people with, ‘Sick and tired of being sick and tired’ on their back, or they’re carrying a sign: ‘Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,’” Land said.

Lauterer, too, has witnessed firsthand the influence of Fannie Lou Hamer. “I was screening the latest cut [of the film], and my husband and my [12-year-old daughter] were at home. They just gravitated towards the couch and quietly sat down and watched the film. And they could not stop talking about how amazed they were,” she shared. “My daughter said, ‘Mom, I have been wondering all this time why I was born white. After watching that film, I know I am meant to help people.’ So, if that was a focus group of one, then I can only imagine how it’s going to reverberate when people watch it nationwide.”

A part of the power of ‘Fannie Lou Hamer’s America’ is its ability to recognize how far America has come while illustrating how far we have yet to go. Mrs. Hamer’s fight lives on in the leaders – young, old, Black, white, rich, poor – who continue her mission today.

“This is one of the most important things that I will have ever worked on. I will look at my legacy in public television and I will look at ‘Fannie Lou Hamer’s America’ as one of the key pieces of work that, when I am gone, will live on,” Lauterer said.

Mrs. Hamer’s role in American history, as a hero of the Civil Rights Movement who changed things for her community, is one of unwavering tenacity and strength; her role in modern-day America is one of leading by example. The filmmakers shared how, when preparing to release this film, they realized that her story would be relevant no matter when audiences first watch it. “There was a time when we were thinking this is the year, because if we wait it’s not going to be relevant,” Land said. “Every year, something just paled in comparison to the year before. [Aunt Fannie Lou] could be talking right now about the same things that she’s talking about happening then; [it’s] the same kind of conditions.”

While circumstances surrounding Fannie Lou Hamer’s relevance are ones we hope to one day be irrelevant, she stands tall as a reminder that change and unity are possible when we come together and work toward a goal.

“The whole of humanity is just the dignity of being given the same as the person next to them, and being given the opportunity, the respect, the space, the identity,” Davenport said. “This country is sick. Those are her words. We are sick as a people: we are divided, we are distrustful, we’re desperate.”

“A nation divided cannot stand, and that’s where we are right now. We are divided. We need a prophet – and she’s it,” Lauterer added.

What we see in Fannie Lou Hamer is a woman standing up to the status quo, knowing that things aren’t right for all. It’s a narrative we’re, unfortunately, all too familiar with today in America and around the world.

“The title – ‘Fannie Lou Hamer’s America’ – works in two ways. One: This is her America. If you listen to her, you see past the illusion to the truth,” Davenport said. “And: She is America. That's the double meaning of the apostrophe. The story of Fannie Lou Hamer is the story of America.”

‘Fannie Lou Hamer’s America’ is streaming on PBS Passport. Learn more about ‘Fannie Lou Hamer’s America’ and watch a behind-the-scenes interview with Monica Land, Jacqueline Hamer Flakes and Jimmy Lee Lacey.

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