Lessons from Freedom Summer

OPINION: Fannie Lou Hamer survived a prison beating, taught black people their rights and stood up to a president

So why don’t more students know about this Mississippi Civil Rights heroine?

Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, August 1964.

Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, August 1964.

Fannie Lou Hamer would have turned 100 this year.

A civil rights activist who famously stormed Mississippi’s all-white delegation at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City during 1964’s Freedom Summer, Hamer also organized voter registration drives in the Magnolia state, educating black people about their constitutional rights.

The Hechinger Report recently wrote about efforts to teach students in Mississippi about Hamer and other Civil Rights heroes. But this issue holds national significance as well. Decades of U.S. data show just how little students across America have actually learned about the nation’s history, civics and geography. Hamer’s determination in the face of relentless rural poverty and violence in the Jim Crow South make her a heroine about whom all American students should know.

Related: Why students are ignorant about the Civil Rights Movement

The Mississippi Delta has been called “the most Southern place on earth.” Extending from Memphis to Vicksburg, 220 miles long and roughly 75 miles across, the Delta encompasses over 4.4 million acres. The Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers’ serpentine floodplains make it the richest, most fertile soil on the globe.

The Delta was the world’s cotton capital, producing the fibers used internationally to make clothing. Delta bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King planted the seeds of modern popular music. The Delta was also home to Hamer, the youngest of 20 children of cotton plantation sharecroppers from black-majority Sunflower County.

From age 6 on, Hamer picked tons of cotton, dawn to dusk in 95-degree heat and 75-percent humidity. By age 13, with a limp from polio, she picked 250 pounds daily. But Hamer had gone to school on and off for eight years and when the plantation owner discovered she was literate, he made her the plantation’s time- and record-keeper, a job that required less manual labor.

Related: Have lessons about Mississippi’s violent past become optional?

In 1961, she awoke from a planned minor surgery to discover she had been given a hysterectomy to which she hadn’t consented. It was not unusual for this to happen to black women in the Jim Crow South.

Soon after, Hamer became involved with voter registration through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), activities which got her evicted from her plantation and thrown into jail.

Most people would regard this reality as hell itself and question the soul of man, but Hamer was a devout woman. She was sustained by her faith, family, and church songs, which were refuges from ever-present racism

At events, she led call-and-response spirituals, including her anthem, “This Little Light of Mine.”

Hamer’s civil rights crusade reached its apex in 1964 when she and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were among those seeking to have the MFDP unseat Mississippi’s white-only DNC delegation.

But she was publicly undermined by President Lyndon Johnson, who commandeered live national television coverage for a non-event press conference, just to divert attention away from Hamer’s DNC testimony.

“And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman,” Mrs. Hamer testified to the DNC’s Credentials Committee about being brutally beaten in jail for registering black Mississippi voters. “[H]e said, ‘We’re going to make you wish you was dead.’”

In 1977, Fannie Lou Hamer died of breast cancer and heart failure at age 59. Her most famous statement, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” is written on her tombstone.

Forty years later, racial discrimination and violence are still far too common across America, due in part to our history- and civics-impoverished K-12 education landscape.

This deprivation of knowledge about civil rights heroism cannot stand.

Together, we need to learn the basics of our country’s past and demand that American politicians expand educational opportunities that successfully deliver the story of Fannie Lou Hamer to schoolchildren in her native Mississippi and across the United States.

Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.

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