Reviewed by Kate Wittenstein (Department of History, Gustavus Adolphus College)
Published on H-SAWH (June, 2001)
Fannie Lou Hamer: To 1964 and Beyond
Fannie Lou Hamer: To 1964 and Beyond
In For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, Chana Kai Lee makes extensive use of personal interviews, oral histories, and manuscript collections, including the Fannie Lou Hamer papers and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) papers, to rescue Hamer (1917-1977) from constructions that present her largely in terms of her iconic and symbolic role within the civil rights movement of the 1960s. According to Lee, Hamer was not simply a strong black woman who met all threats and challenges with determination and fearlessness. Her reality was more complex.
In For Freedom's Sake, Hamer's story is not one of "complete triumph over all odds or complete victimization." Her successes and rewards often brought "enormous personal pain, disappointment, and exhaustion." During the last years of her life, Lee tells us, Hamer "was left virtually alone to assess the consequences of her sacrifices made in a quest for freedom" (p. xi). For example, throughout the 1970s, Hamer lived with both serious illness and extreme financial hardship. Her disability insurance was insufficient. Friends and family donated clothing and food. In 1977 she suffered from depression and breast cancer that resulted in a mastectomy. She "stuffed socks into her clothing" because she could not afford a prosthesis. Hamer confided this to her good friend Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped her purchase one (p. 176).
Those were the last years of the woman who, as an elected delegate of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), stunned and captivated the 1964 Democratic National Convention and the nation with her graphic description of life for poor blacks in the Mississippi Delta and the violence and intimidation they met when attempting to register to vote. Lee's point is that to appreciate fully Fannie Lou Hamer's life and "the meaning of Hamer's life for Hamer," we need to recognize both the personal difficulties and public successes she experienced (p.180). They are equally important, she argues.
Indeed, throughout the biography Lee successfully weaves the personal and the public together to examine the roots of Hamer's activism, Hamer's own self-constructions, and the interplay of gender, race, and class in all aspects of Hamer's life. A brief summary of each chapter will illustrate Lee's skill and outline the structure of the book.
Chapter One recounts Hamer's childhood and young adulthood as the youngest of twenty children in a family of sharecroppers and domestic laborers in Montgomery County, Mississippi. Lee details the factors that shaped Hamer's racial and gender identities and locates the sources of her radicalism in both personal history (the life experiences and example of her mother Lou Ella Townsend) and political/economic experience (the "direct link between race and access to resources") (p. 12).
Chapter Two focuses on Hamer's emergence as a leader in Sunflower County and the issue of gender and leadership in the civil rights movement. Hamer criticized the traditional black male leadership. The clergy came under special attack for selling out. Hamer was also conscious of the fact that class set her apart from, for example, the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). SNCC recruited Hamer in 1962, and she took pleasure in the fact that she and the students stood outside the mainstream of civil rights leadership
In 1963, Hamer and a group of other Mississippians made a trip to South Carolina to participate in voter-registration work. On the return trip, the group was arrested, jailed, and savagely beaten by police in Winona, Mississippi. Hamer and others were subjected to sexual indignities as well--indignities that Hamer omitted from her public accounts of the beatings. Lee speculates that Hamer's reticence stemmed from her awareness that her grandmother and mother had suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse at the hands of white men, as well as her desire to counteract negative images of black women's sexuality. These events are discussed in Chapter Three.
Chapter Four traces SNCC activities in the Delta, the formation of the MFDP, increased local harassment of Hamer and her husband by the telephone company and others, and Hamer's emergence on the national stage as a spokesperson and fundraiser for SNCC and the MFDP among northern audiences. In fact, Lee argues, SNCC became quite dependent on Hamer's money-raising skills. Interestingly, Lee suggests that some SNCC members were so captivated by Hamer's grassroots authenticity that they may have had a tendency to exploit or objectify her. One SNCC member referred to Hamer as "a Mrs. Hamer." Lee argues that "the irony of Hamer's leadership was that her very personal, down-home style led some to impersonalize her as a type" (p. 77). There is an important discussion as well of Hamer's reaction to and concern about the while female volunteers of Freedom Summer (pp. 74-76).
Lee's account in Chapter Five of the MFDP at the 1964 Democratic National Convention stresses Hamer's refusal to compromise on the seating of the MFDP delegates and her differences with the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, Mississippi. Lee contends that Hamer's disillusionment with traditional middle-class black male leaders and their white liberal counterparts reinforced her commitment to local solutions to local problems.
In Chapter Six Lee discusses Hamer's move from the national stage to more community building at the grassroots level. In the immediate aftermath of the 1964 convention, Hamer criticized the NAACP for its lack of commitment to local self-determination. Problems also surfaced between the MFDP and its parent organization, SNCC. The organizations traded charges about local versus national control and the degree of radicalism in each organization. Hamer split with SNCC and continued to work through the MFDP to develop a political agenda that focused on housing, education, and welfare.
Lee argues throughout the biography that Hamer worked for economic as well as political rights. She makes this point most forcefully in Chapter Seven, which uncovers Hamer's role in the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union (MFLU) for the first time, and Chapter Eight, which covers Hamer's efforts to establish a freedom farm cooperative in the Delta region.
The MFLU, the economic counterpart of the MFDP, was founded in Shaw, Mississippi, in 1965. Forty-five cotton day laborers, domestic workers, and tractor drivers organized to address the exploitation of black workers and the lack of economic opportunity for blacks in the Delta. Lee makes the interesting argument that the MFLU, with its emphasis on self-determination and self-reliance, anticipated some of the black nationalism of the emerging black power movement. With her involvement in the MFLU and her effort to establish a self-sufficient cooperative farming enterprise, Hamer "appeared to be in transition to full scale anti-poverty work" (p. 143).
By calling attention to the economic-justice wing of the civil rights movement, these two chapters make an important contribution to movement history. That wing has a distinguished history in its own right, dating back at least to A. Philip Randolph's founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. Subsequently, the March on Washington in 1963 was a march for jobs and freedom. Hamer's movement involvement demonstrates that she traveled from voting rights to electoral politics (she ran for office twice in Mississippi and lost both times) to economic justice and self-determination within the local community. That battle, of course, is still being waged.
Lee's study makes significant contributions in a number of ways. To her credit, she has written a much-needed political biography that avoids sentimentality and iconography with respect to Hamer's personal life, public career, and important role in the civil rights movement. The biography goes a long way toward assuring that Hamer will avoid the popular and historical fate of Sojourner Truth, who for so long was treated only as icon, symbol, and authentic former slave in the eyes of a white audience.
Finally, For Freedom's Sake enters into contemporary historiographical debates about the role of women--black and white--in the civil rights movement, gender and leadership style in the movement, the long tradition of black women's involvement in politics--especially in the South--from Reconstruction forward, the decentering of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other prominent national leaders in the narrative of civil rights history, and the ongoing reconceptualization of the movement at the local and national levels.
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Kate Wittenstein. Review of Lee, Chana Kai, For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.
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Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.