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Pittsburgh author traces the life and legacy of civil-rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer

Historian Keisha N. Blain's new book about Fanny Lou Hamer is "Until I Am Free."
Beacon Press
Historian Keisha N. Blain's new book about Fanny Lou Hamer is "Until I Am Free."

Keisha N. Blain first heard of Fannie Lou Hamer when she was studying at Binghamton University, in New York. Blain, a first-generation undergraduate, was struggling to find her place and her voice. It was the mid-2010s; iconic civil-rights activist Hamer had died four decades earlier, but learning about the experience of this Black woman from the Jim Crow South who boldly confronted the powers that be inspired the young student.

Beacon Press

“Reading her story was transformative for me,” said Blain.

Blain, now a University of Pittsburgh history professor, has dug even further into Hamer’s life and legacy with her new book, “Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America” (Beacon Press).

Hamer is perhaps best known for her defiant televised speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, excoriating voter suppression and state-sanctioned violence in her home state of Mississippi. But while Hamer never quite became a household name, Blain demonstrates how her ideas and actions were ahead of their time, and continue to resonate today.

Hamer was born in 1917, the youngest of 20 children in a sharecropping family. She turned to activism only at age 44, after attending a meeting organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She quickly became one of the civil-rights movement’s top speakers and organizers despite the constant threat of violence and other retaliation activists faced. Hamer and her husband were forced to leave the plantation where they worked as sharecroppers. In June 1963, a police beating left her with kidney damage, and worsened a limp she’d had since a childhood accident.

And all that is in addition to the lifetime of racist indignities she endured before she even took up activism. Hamer was in her 40s before she was made aware she could vote. And in 1961, the white surgeon who was to cut a benign tumor from her uterus removed the entire uterus instead — the sort of involuntary sterilization suffered by countless poor women of color in that era.

It was Hamer’s life experience that made her such an effective organizer, said Blain.

“It wasn't just about talking about Black voting rights, which is important, but it was about connecting to people on the ground,” said Blain, speaking by phone from Princeton, N.J., where she is on research leave. “And it was all possible because of her own experiences. She experienced violence from the police. She experienced just pain and hardship growing up in the Mississippi Delta. Experienced poverty and hunger.”

Blain herself has a growing national profile. Her previous publications include her award-winning 2018 book “Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.” She also co-edited, with acclaimed author Ibram X. Kendi, “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019,” a 2021 New York Times bestseller.

She begins each chapter of “Until I Am Free” with a contemporary vignette that recalls Hamer’s legacy, from the 2015 death of Sandra Bland to the founding of Black Lives Matter by three Black women.

“I thought it was important for readers to understand that even though Hamer’s story is set in the past, it's still very much connected to all that we're experiencing in the present,” she said.

Hamer’s devout Christianity drove her activism, and on some social issues she held traditional beliefs, for instance opposing birth control and abortion. But in other ways she was in the vanguard. For example, in a time when most civil-rights work happened in a top-down model built around charismatic, usually male leaders (like Martin Luther King, Jr.), Hamer favored grassroots organizing.

“One of the things that she emphasized over and over again was the importance of developing local leaders,” said Blain. “She often got into conflicts with other civil-rights leaders who would not be from the particular area in which they were organizing. They would come into the community and they would come with good intentions. And what Hamer would say is, ‘While this is important, you also have to be thinking about who are the people who understand the community best because they've been living there.’”

In other words, it wasn’t just about mobilizing to fight injustice. It was about building the capacity that allowed local communities to fight for themselves.

Hamer also advocated for what we’d now call intersectionality — the idea that people exist, and experience oppression, in terms of more than one identity. Hamer didn’t create the idea, Blain notes, but she did insist on it.

“Fannie Lou Hamer is one example of someone who could not simply talk about racism, for example, without grappling with sexism, without grappling with classism,” said Blain. “So she was always thinking about how these systems of oppression overlapped, and tried to get people to also do the same.”

Hamer was also an early public figure to openly oppose the Vietnam War. And a group trip to Ghana, in 1964, sparked her to conceive her mission anew in terms of human rights globally, not just civil rights in the U.S. “She tried as much as possible to get others around her to think about the challenges of people outside of U.S. borders. [She was] very vocal in her support of those who are still living under colonial rule, for example, in the ’60s. And so this is a part of her activism. I think that that's often overlooked, but so important.”

Hamer worked for civil rights until her death, in 1977, of breast cancer. Though other civil-rights activists are more widely remembered, Hamer remains a force strong enough to have been name-checked by Kamala Harris in her August 2020 speech accepting the nomination for vice president, just months before Harris was be sworn in as the first Black woman to hold the office. Blain said shining a new light on Hamer in her book is a way to honor the inspiration that Hamer’s story gave her in college.

“It was powerful to just encounter a woman who had so many things going against her, yet she found a way to stand up to injustice, to speak truth to power,” said Blain. “And it showed me that I needed to focus less on what I didn't have and what I didn't know. But I needed to just contribute in whatever way that I could. And for me, it was writing and research. I felt like that was a gift I could offer the world and make a difference through my words.”

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Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: