INTO her mid-40s, Fannie Lou Hamer weighed cotton for a white plantation owner in the Mississippi Delta. Uneducated and dirt poor, she lived in a small frame house that had no working indoor toilet, "while her boss's dog had its own bathroom in the main house," according to a new biography.
So in 1962, when civil rights workers arrived in her tiny hometown of Ruleville, Miss., urging blacks to register to vote, Mrs. Hamer needed little prodding. She had seen and experienced enough injustice and violence toward blacks that she was willing to challenge and defy decades of restrictive laws.
"I always said if I lived to get grown and had a chance," she said, "I was going to do something for the black man of the South if it would cost my life; I was determined to see that things were changed."
In "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer," journalist Kay Mills has written an extensive, carefully documented biography of this remarkable woman, who became one of the heroines of the civil rights movement. The book briefly traces Hamer's humble beginnings and then focuses on her efforts until her death in 1977 to change a repressive system that controlled blacks politically, socially, and economically.
Mississippi remained the most stalwart state in the Deep South in its opposition to giving blacks equal rights. Blacks who tried to knock down the steel walls of white resistance there often lost their jobs, had their homes set on fire, were jailed and beaten, or lynched. Hamer experienced some of this treatment.
After she tried to register to vote, she was banned from her home on her boss's plantation and forced to live with relatives in another county. In the summer of 1963, she was jailed and brutally beaten by Mississippi police after she and other civil rights workers traveled home from a bus trip to South Carolina for voter-education training. Hamer's health never fully recovered from that beating.
Her account of this incident at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., helped put her in the national spotlight. But even before she testified, Hamer had become an important figure in the civil rights struggle. Though she had only a sixth-grade education and her grammar was poor, her speaking and singing ability captivated people.
She had "the capacity to put together a mosaic of coherent thought about freedom and justice, so that when it was all through, you knew what you had heard because it held together with wonderful cohesion," remembers Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress, who worked for the civil rights cause as a law student. "She also ... would break out into song at the end of her things, and I'm telling you, you've never heard a room flying [like one] that Fannie Lou Hamer set afire. Her speeches had themes. They had lessons. They had principles.... You never needed to hear anybody else speak again."
Hamer began traveling around the country telling audiences about the plight of blacks in Mississippi and capturing the attention of lawyers, politicians, and other key leaders. In 1964, she helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the state's Democratic Party, which had been preventing blacks from registering and voting. Her work with the MFDP consumed most of her time during the next several years, and she remained committed to the political process as a way for blacks to help v ote themselves out of poverty. In the late '60s, she began focusing on hunger and economic development, organizing a farm cooperative.
During the last years of her life, Hamer was quite ill and often bedridden. She had little money for health care and no one to consistently care for her. Yet she managed to run for various political offices and speak on civil rights issues when asked. Some close friends, including her husband, felt she had been used. Her mistake, they said, was that she was too giving and couldn't say no to people. "My wife loved people, but people didn't love her," complained Pap Hamer.
Her accomplishments were many. Not only did she lead "the way for hundreds of thousands of black Mississippians to register to vote," but she was also instrumental in helping to achieve "the little intangibles - the races regarding each other as people.... White people had a tendency to think of blacks as less than human. She did a lot to improve that," an ally said.
"This Little Light of Mine" is full of interviews with such key civil rights figures as Andrew Young, Charles Evers, Marian Wright Edelman, and lesser-known activists who braved the hot summers of Mississippi to fight against white supremacy.
At times it is slow reading; Mills has crammed so many names, facts, and events into this book that a reader must pause now and then to sort out the details. But it provides a thorough and interesting look at an individual whose strength and spirit helped change many lives.