Crying for America: Fannie Lou Hamer


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 25, 2024

Listen to what Eleanor Holmes Norton, the civil rights activist and Washington D.C.’s longtime delegate to the House of Representatives, had to say about the subject of this month’s Lives of the Spirit programming, “I’m telling you, you’ve never heard a room flying [like one] that Fannie Lou Hamer set afire.”

Set afire, Hamer pushed whoever heard her to love more compassionately, think more clearly, and act more righteously. But before I try to share with you a little bit of her spark, a glint of this little light of mine refracted through the greatness that was hers, I want to give you a part in the sermon.

You see, one of the things that Fannie Lou Hamer cared most about was voting. And she used her experience as a Christian lay leader to build the voting rights movement in her home state of Mississippi and throughout the South. She often complained about “no-good, chicken-eating ministers” who failed to use their pulpits to inspire people to register to vote or to mobilize voters. So, if she was here today, talking to a congregation of people who want to see more compassion and justice in the world, in a state governed by the politics of cruelty, she you would tell you that you have got to go out and vote in the primary election.

You have to go out and vote in the primary, she would have something to say to folks who claim that politics have no place in the pulpit. She would say, “But, baby, what we eat is politics.” Politics, she would tell you, is why the governor is refusing millions of dollars in food assistance for vulnerable children. Politics, she would point out, is why he will not expand Medicaid. Politics, she would let you know, is why the Black maternal death rate in this state, the number of Black women who die in childbirth, is higher than the maternal death rate in Mongolia.

Baby, what we eat is politics. You have go to out and vote in the primary. In her spirit, in just a little bit, I am going to invite you to ask your neighbor about their plan to get to the polls, their voting plan. Now, I suspect that most of you are already registered to vote. It is too late to register to vote in the primary. But you can still register to vote in the general election. We will have people who can register you to vote in Channing Hall after the service. But even if you are already registered you still need to have a plan to vote.

Early voting runs from now through March 1st. You can vote at any polling place in the city.

I know that these conversations can be a bit awkward so I thought Rev. Scott and I could do a little modeling for you. Rev. Scott?

Rev. Scott: Hey Colin, do you have a voting plan?

Rev. Colin: No, I do not. I am registered but I am not sure I am going to vote in the primary. We already know who is running for President. It does not seem that important.

Rev. Scott: Come on! In a heavily gerrymandered state like Texas the primaries are where so much of the action is. So many of these districts and seats will be uncompetitive in the general election. If you want to make your voice heard, now is the time to do so!

Rev. Colin: Hmmm… I guess I am convinced.

Rev. Scott: Great! So, what is your voting plan?

Rev. Colin: Well, I still do not have one.

Rev. Scott: Tell you what, I am going to go vote Monday morning. Why don’t I swing by your place and pick you up before work. We can head over to the polls and then stop for a coffee before we go to the office.

Rev. Colin: Sounds great! Though, tea for me please.

Rev. Scott: Curtain!

Well, now it is your turn to talk with your neighbor about making a voting plan. We are going to give you two minutes and then Dr. Rocke’s going to bring us all back together by offering up a verse of “This Little Light of Mine.”

Dr. Rocke:

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

I hope you are going to let your light shine. Get to the polls if you are registered. Register if you have not and if you are eligible to do so. Again, we have folks in Channing Hall to register you to vote.

I hope that after that, if she ever meets me in the afterlife, Fannie Lou Hamer will not accuse me of being, the pescatarian equivalent of, a “no-good chicken-eating minister.”

No-good chicken-eating minister, this little light of mine, set the room afire, it has been said that Fannie Lou Hamer was the only person during the civil rights movement who was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s peer as an orator. She might have even been his better. Such was her power that President Lydon B. Johnson was afraid of her. When she was scheduled to speak at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, one of his most prominent allies told civil rights leaders, “The President will not allow that illiterate woman to speak from the floor of the convention.” When she did anyway, he was so enraged that he demanded, “Take them cameras off,” and held an emergency press conference to distract attention away from her. All the networks–she was being broadcast on live television–switched from her to him. And he stood before the nation, at a White House podium, essentially blathering until she finished speaking.

The whole thing backfired. The media figured out what Johnson was up to and, on the nightly news, the anchors replayed all of her speech. You can find it on YouTube. I recommend watching it in its entirety.

Fannie Lou Hamer was trying to get seated at the national convention as a delegate from the state of Mississippi. The state Democratic Party had sent an all White slate. Hamer and other civil rights leaders had organized an alternative slate. Calling themselves the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, they demanded that their integrated slate of delegates be seated instead. It was a moment when the Democratic Party establishment had to make a choice between being loyal to the nation’s white supremacist power structures–to continue to accept neo-Confederates and Klansmen amongst their ranks–and the fullness of humanity. And in that moment, President Johnson chose the white supremacy over humanity. He and the Democratic Party leadership seated the all White delegation, not the one from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Let me give you a few words from the speech that President Johnson did not want people to hear. Here they are:

Mr. Chairman … my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland and Senator Stennis.

Let me stop there for a moment. Those words might not seem like much. They need a bit of context. This is 1964. Fannie Lou Hamer is a middle-aged Black sharecropper from rural Mississippi. Born in 1917, the twentieth of twenty children, all of her life was hard. Growing up she sometimes only had rags for clothing. As an adult she and her husband Pap lived on a plantation and struggled to feed their family. When she was in her early thirties, she was sterilized without her consent. In 1962 she lost her job and was evicted from her home because she tried to register to vote. That same year, the house where she was staying was shot up by White people who did not think she should be, in her words, a “full citizen.” After that, she had been homeless for months, until, right before winter started, she and her family moved to that house on Lafayette Street.

The next year, 1963, she was beaten so badly when she was in jail–she was imprisoned as she travelled home from a voter registration workshop–that her body never fully healed. She had walked across the convention floor with a distinctive limp. And now, she was up on national television, in front of everybody, and she was telling the whole world her home address.

That is bravery. She had friends who had been killed. She knew Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary who was assassinated while standing in his driveway in Mississippi. She lived not all that far from where they lynched Emmett Till. And she was giving out her address on national television. Talk about letting your light shine.

“Mr. Chairman,” the words mean for her, here I am, a full citizen, with the right to vote, participating in the political process, and the people with power have to listen to me because I am powerful person.

“I live at 626 Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County,” the phrase signifies, the white supremacists, the neo-Confederates, the Dixiecrats, they tried to silence me. They tried to threaten me. They tried to kill me. They took away my home. They took away my job. But I am still here. I am still in Mississippi. My ancestors built the state’s wealth. My husband and I farmed its land. It is just as much my home as the home of anyone else. I am still speaking the truth. And I am not going to stop until this country is an actual democracy and people like me have a meaningful say in how it is governed.

Set afire, it is like she said in another speech, “We want somethin’ better and I’m not workin’ for equal rights with the white man in Mississippi because what he got he stole from me! I want TRUE democracy. I want something that’s built up from truth and righteousness!”

Set afire, in that speech on the convention floor, she spoke words of truth that turned Martin Luther King Jr.’s pretty phrase, “no lie can live forever,” into something solid. She shared how she had traveled to Indianola, Mississippi to register to vote. She described how “the city police and state highway patrolmen” had harassed her and her companions because they dared to register. She told how when she got home, the owner on the plantation on which she lived said to her, “If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.” And, “if you go down and withdraw, then you still might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi.” And how she replied, “I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.” And how he made her leave her home that same night and how just a few days later someone fired sixteen bullets at her.

She described how she had been brutally beaten in Winona, Mississippi. How “the state highway patrolman” had said, “We are going to make you wish you was dead.”

And she ended her speech, the speech that President Johnson did not want the world to hear, the speech in which she set out to, as she often did, “to tell it like it is,” and name the brutality that is used to maintain white supremacy, with sobering clarity. Here is what she said:

All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

Set the room afire, to tell it like it is, I do not think that those words need any interpretation. But if you just heard them then you might not understand Fannie Lou Hamer as a spiritual activist. And, of course, the purpose of our series Lives of the Spirit is to engage with some of the great spiritual activists of the last century. Encouraged by that old Unitarian belief, as A. Powell Davies allegedly put it, that “[l]ife is just a chance to grow a soul,” we have turned to their biographies to see if we could glean answers to the kind of questions that animate the pursuit of the good life. “What is the good life?,” we have asked. “When do you know you are living it?” “What models, what exemplars, might you follow as you seek to live into it?,” we have continued to query.

In asking these questions, we have lifted up the perspective of the mystic. The mystic, Howard Thurman told us, is someone who discovers something within their own “experience that opens up into the infinite.”

The infinite in the particular, I doubt that Fannie Lou Hamer thought of herself as a mystic. But there is no question that she saw the infinite within the particular. She understood that everybody’s freedom was bound up together. She would tell audiences in the North, that if she wasn’t free down in Mississippi, “You’re not free here in Harlem.”

This was not, for her, empty rhetoric. Instead, it was an understanding of how politics works, “[b]aby, what we eat is politics.” If Mississippi, actually let me talk about Texas… If Texas is gerrymandered, then the entire political system is distorted. Our state has thirty-eight representatives in the United States House. Twenty-five of them are Republicans. Thirteen of them are Democrats. Republicans represent about two thirds of the people of Texas, but they got only about 52% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election. In other words, Republican voters have a lot more representation than Democratic ones.

The situation is only somewhat different than it was in 1964 when Fannie Lou Hamer asked, “how can a man be in Washington, elected by the people, when 95 percent of the people cannot vote in Mississippi?” Yes, many people can vote now–though it often seems like Texas is trying to lead the way in the science of voter suppression–but our state’s gerrymandering means that a lot of us go unrepresented in Washington.

In 1964, of all of this, she said, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change.”

Sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change. She spoke truth in 1964. Her words are true today.

Her ability to speak truth was firmly rooted in her Christian faith. Her father had been a preacher. She could quote the Christian New Testament chapter and verse. She knew dozens of hymns by heart, wove them into her speeches, and sang in jail and on the picket line—this little light of mine! The only way to be a Christian, she believed, was to be social justice activist.

Listen to how she started her first public speech, “I Don’t Mind My Light Shining”:

From the fourth chapter of St. Luke beginning at the eighteenth verse: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captive, and recover the sight to the blind, to set at liberty to them who are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Now the time have come that was Christ’s purpose on earth. … And it’s no easy way out. We just got to wake up and face it, folks. And if I can face the issue, you can too.

The Spirit of the Lord was upon her. She was anointed to preach good news to the poor. She healed the brokenhearted. She set at liberty the captives.

The gospel story, the spirit, was literal for her. She saw that God “made it so plain for us” when Bob Moses, an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, came to Mississippi to try and get Black people to vote. “He sent a man in Mississippi with the same name that Moses had to go to Egypt. And tell him to go down in Mississippi and tell Ross Barnett,” that was the governor, “to let my people go.”

Moses and Moses, the name was not a coincidence. It was the spirit of God working through the people. It was the spirit that was on her.

That spirit taught her that the church–or the religious community–had two principal purposes in the work of building a true democracy. The first was that preachers were to discern the signs of the times and tell it like it is from the pulpit, let us have no “chicken-eating ministers” please. The second was to teach people how to live democratically. In the 1950s and 1960s, in Mississippi, Black people might not have been able to elect people to political office but they could select leaders in the congregations, form committees to run a church, organize community meals, learn to speak from a pulpit and join together in song.

To tell it like it is, to live democratically, one of my favorite essays is by the great Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James. It is titled “Every Cook Can Govern” and makes the simple point that a genuine democracy is one that ensures that every person has the opportunity to participate in government. Government by “the common people,” he believed was not just possible but necessary.

Fannie Lou Hamer understood this perhaps more than anyone other civil rights leader. She ran for Congress. She ran for Senate. She only had a few years of schooling but she knew what working people needed. And she knew what they had to do to get their needs met.

Baby, what we eat is politics, her efforts were not just electoral. She started a farming cooperative. She started a pig bank, an effort that helped poor rural workers build their wealth by building communal herds of livestock. When White Mississippi politicians refused federal food assistance for the poor, she worked with folks up North to directly provide food aid and made registering to vote a condition to receive it.

Baby, what we eat is politics, Fannie Lou Hamer died in 1977 of cancer. The last years of her life were not easy. She suffered from ill health. The civil rights movement faded. She spoke out against the Vietnam War and alienated some of her allies—ceasefire in Palestine now! She has been not given the central place in the history of the civil rights movement, which is to say the history of this country, that she deserves.

But, baby, what we eat is politics. Fannie Lou Hamer, the spirit was upon her, if she was here today she would say: go and vote in the primary, register people to vote for general election. She would say, “any cook can govern.” She would encourage you to think about running for office. She would tell us, “I am getting sick and tired of seeing the power structure talk about qualifications.” And she would proclaim that anyone who wants to lift up the poor, to build a true democracy, has the qualifications to serve in office. It does not matter if you are cook or chemist, a day laborer or a lawyer, if you want to lift up the poor you should run for office, she would let us know.

What we eat is politics, Fannie Lou Hamer, the spirit was upon her. Go vote. Run for office. Feed the people. May her spirit be with us, and move through us, today.

That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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