Fannie Lou Hamer should inspire us all.
The youngest of 20 children in a sharecropping family, she had only a few years of schooling. She lived in poverty for the majority of her life; the owner of the plantation where she sharecropped evicted her for having the temerity to register to vote, and night riders subsequently shot bullets into the house of the family who provided her with shelter. After an arrest as part of a group who sought to do nothing more unlawful than eat at a bus station, she received a beating, on the orders of a highway patrol officer, so severe that she lost a kidney and lost most of the sight in one eye.
Despite these challenges, she continued a life course which bolstered the civil rights movement. After attending a voting rights rally in 1962, she became an active spokesperson for justice, and within just a few years, the nation heard her voice at the Democratic conventions of 1964 and 1968.
Hamer inspires me for several reasons, and her civil rights career adds to our insight regarding how best to do applied research at Wilder Research, to improve the lives of individuals, families and communities.
For one thing, I admire her perseverance, despite adversity and great risk. Motivated by recognition at mid-life that “Hard as we work for nothing, there must be some way we can change this,” she realized that she could, in concert with others, work to change society.
I admire her ability to skillfully push the levers which can transform attitudes and systems. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote: “…there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
Hamer precipitated that Socratic tension – to the initial dismay (unfortunately) of Lyndon Johnson who felt that the efforts of “that ignorant woman” might undermine his bid for the presidency, and to the dismay of many others. But in the long run, she and her colleagues persevered. Their efforts let greater numbers of people exercise their right to vote. And Johnson ultimately became a civil rights champion.
I also admire her long-term vision, within which she recognized the importance of developing an economic infrastructure which could enable people to sustain themselves. To achieve this end, she collaborated in the creation of the Freedom Farms Corporation, which lent land to African-Americans and enabled them to acquire enough wealth to purchase land on their own, thus achieving financial independence. Thus, she addressed structural impediments, such as lack of home ownership and poverty, which maintain racial disparities.
Hamer once said that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired”. On this Martin Luther King holiday, let’s hope that all of us share similar sentiments as we move forward to create a better future.