August 15, 2017

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“The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement” | Carole Boston Weatherford on Fannie Lou Hamer

Listen to Carol Boston Weatherford reveal the story behind Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

voiceFannie Lou Hamer was 44 years old when she learned that African Americans had the right to vote. Once she discovered that, neither repeated humiliations and threats nor police abuse would stop her from exercising that right and encouraging others to do so. Her campaign across the South during the 1960s, and her testimony in front of the Credential Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In Carole Boston Weatherford’s moving, poetic tribute to Hamer, Voice of Freedom (Candlewick, Aug. 2015; Gr 6 Up), illustrated in mixed media by Ekua Holmes, the author recounts the life of this remarkable woman from her childhood on a sharecropping farm to her national prominence as the “the spirit of the civil rights movement.”

Those who lived through the civil rights era or have studied the period know of Fannie Lou Hamer, of course. But why is it that her story and accomplishments aren’t better known to the general public today?

Like so many women who worked behind the scenes in the civil rights movement, Fannie Lou Hamer has been forgotten in some circles. Hamer, who was a gifted orator, did come to the forefront for a time—in her region and nationally. But most women who were active during the civil rights movement,  with the exception of Dorothy Height, were pushed to the side by some of the men they worked with, and are largely forgotten today. I think it was because she was a woman that she did not gain the prominence of some of the male civil rights leaders.

There’s always a temptation to anoint one person as the leader of a movement, and of course that has long been Martin Luther King, Jr., but there was also Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. Fannie Lou Hamer and nameless others worked just as hard and sacrificed just as much, but never had the national prominence that King or Malcolm X did.

Reading the details of Hamer’s early childhood—the 20th child of sharecroppers, working in the fields by age six, an education cut short—and about her family’s many setbacks, it’s amazing what she achieved in her life.

I often say in reference to the people whom I’ve profiled in my many books that “demographics are not destiny.” It doesn’t matter how you started out, it matters how you end up. As King himself said, “You don’t need a PhD to have a life of service.” I think that we are all born with a gift, a talent, a seed within us; every child can be nurtured and fertilized and given sunshine in different ways by the people and the community around them. Given the right nurturing, a child will be able to develop. Even if a child begins life in poverty and disadvantage, even if he or she doesn’t have every opportunity, or can’t get a degree, that child can still achieve, can still contribute.

You tell Hamer’s story in verse, in the first person; Is that how she spoke to you initially, or was it by trial and error that you arrived at her voice?

My first inclination is to approach a narrative through verse; I call poetry my first literary language because I started out as a poet—at age six. So I always begin with poetry as opposed to prose, though I do write in prose as well.

As far as the voice is concerned, I try to let the subject speak to me and through me. In a way, I am channeling the person, I’m channeling the voice. Of course, I do research, but before writing the first draft of this book I didn’t read any of Hamer’s speeches and I purposely did not listen to any of the recordings made of her. Initially. I didn’t even integrate too many of the quotes; I wanted to see how the voice would come through.

After I wrote the first draft, I looked at some of her writings. The way she used grammar, for example. She was an elegant speaker, but she didn’t always use perfect grammar.

And I had nailed it the first time! There were expressions that she used, that I included. I didn’t know she had used them and I hadn’t spoken to people from Mississippi from her time period who might have spoken that that way. I truly had to let her speak through me.

You mention Hamer’s mother as an instrument of her sense of self-esteem and pride. What else did she instill in her young daughter?

Well, of course, the music. Hamer, who was known in the civil rights movement as much for her singing as for her oratory, learned the African-American spirituals and gospel hymns at her mother’s knee. She mentioned that her mother taught her the spiritual “This Little Light of Mine,” and that it was one of her favorites. Music was a source of sustenance not only for Hamer, but also for the people in the civil rights movement who she inspired. In fact, she mentioned singing in jail to uplift the other prisoners.

Hamer endured poverty, grueling labor in Mississippi fields, sterilization, and she and her family were subject to endless humiliations and cruel treatment; “proof that the Delta birthed the blues.” Yet, nothing seemed to hold her when she learned for the first time (in her forties) that African Americans had the right to vote—not death threats or a horrific beating by police that left her with permanent injuries.

I think that when she went to the voter registration meeting [in 1962, at a local church] and found out that she had a right to vote—even though that right had been denied—it gave her life a higher calling. She suddenly had a mission beyond the hand-to-mouth existence that she and her family had been living.

When the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee identified Hamer as potential leader did she accept that role willingly?
I don’t think she hesitated. I think she was ready. Perhaps the harshness that she endured prior to that time had prepared her for that moment. It gave her a chance to begin to control her own destiny—and improve the lives of others at the same time.

Among the many highlights in her role as a civil rights activist was Hamer’s testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in front of the Credentials Committee, which in spite of Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts to draw attention away from it, had a profound effect on listeners. What was Johnson so afraid of?

I think that at that time democratic politicians who were running on national tickets were walking a fine line between the Northern Democrats and the Southern Dixiecrats. Johnson could not afford to alienate the Dixiecrats by having this black woman, a progressive Democrat—probably even viewed radical at the time—become a divisive issue. And he certainly didn’t want her to steal his thunder. I think it was similar to the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 in that it embarrassed our country. America, the beacon of democracy, had people living here who were so racist that they were killing little children—in a church. Inequality, racism, and discrimination were America’s dirty laundry and the president certainly didn’t want that broadcast at the Democratic National Convention.

Hamer also ran for office in Mississippi. Is it true that the first vote she cast was for herself? That’s what I’ve read. As far as my research that was true. Isn’t that something?

The struggle to get the Voting Rights Act passed in the 1960s, and your book, seem particularly relevant today in light of the dismantling of a section of the Voting Right Act two years ago by the Supreme Court.

Fannie Lou Hamer is an important person for young people to know about today—at a time when voting rights are being threatened and young people themselves are being disenfranchised. It’s not just minorities, or the elderly (who can’t get to driver’s license bureaus to get an ID), who are impacted. For example, I think in some states college students are being denied the right to vote in the cities where they go to school. If they’re from out of state, they’re making these students get absentee ballots, which creates a barrier to voter participation. Young people may not realize it but the voter disenfranchisement movement directly effects them; they need to be aware of the sacrifices that were made to gain the ballot for everyone, and to know that even their voting rights can be threatened.

You have been quoted as saying that you look for stories about family traditions and “forgotten struggles.” Are you working on something now that you can share with our readers?

I have a book about the Tuskegee Airmen in the pipeline; it’s going to be called You Can Fly. That will be out in 2016 with Atheneum and my son’s illustrating it. It’s his debut book. His name is Jeffery Weatherford.

 

TB-imageListen to Carol Boston Weatherford reveal the story behind Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

 

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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