Fannie Lou Hamer often sang a spiritual that implores: “While I’m on this tedious journey, I want Jesus to walk with me.” As the title of her biography implies, Hamer’s life was a song inviting those seeking equality to join her in direct action for change.
I knew about Hamer’s remarkable life fighting racism, sexism, and class subordination, but until I read this book I had never realized the force of her passion for singing. Hamer sang as a child to please her part-time preacher father. When she left school at age twelve, she chanted work songs to keep pace as she picked cotton with her sharecropping family. And throughout her life, she sang praises in church, inspirational spirituals in planning meetings, freedom songs at protest rallies, and sorrow songs in jail cells.
Biographer and historian Kate Clifford Larson chronicles the struggle of those who stayed behind when millions of Black Americans moved north and west during the Great Migration to find work and escape “racial terrorism.” The youngest of twenty children, Hamer remained to help her aging father and ailing mother as they eked out a living in the “oppressive and brutal” existence of the Mississippi Delta. Hamer eventually married and she and her husband adopted two daughters, with whom they “cobbled together a living as farmers.”
Extensive interviews with family, friends, and fellow activists reveal intimate details of Hamer’s extraordinary transformation from Mississippi tenant farmer to grassroots political organizer and speaker of national prominence. A key moment in this transformation was in 1961, when Hamer sought treatment for worsening pelvic pain and was instead sterilized without her consent. This devastating experience sparked a determination to fight back against the racism she had known all her life.
Larson’s research digs deep, accessing recently opened FBI records, secret Oval Office tapes, and newspaper archives. She names names – the doctor who sterilized Hamer, the police officers who beat and sexually assaulted her, and scores of politicians, officials, and employers who ruthlessly intimidated Black citizens to suppress voter registration. But we also learn the names of courageous volunteers who risked their jobs, homes, and lives to fight for civil rights. Among these was the activist Robert Moses, a New York teacher and organizer who inspired Hamer to participate in voter registration drives. This led to her playing a vital role in voting rights efforts in Mississippi.
In a searing account of Mississippi life, delivered in August 1964 and aired on national television, Hamer asked, “Is this America … [where] our lives [are] threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” The impact of her question altered the trajectory of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and of US politics, and it still resonates today. In Walk with Me, Fannie Lou Hamer’s resolute refrain echoes as a guide for activists who continue to toil in the fields for justice and equality.