By Kat Robinson, Hooks Institute Graduate Assistant
This post is part four of our series on the 2021 Hooks National Book Award finalists.
A cradle-to-grave biography, Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer explores the transformative life of Fannie Lou Hamer, from her early life picking cotton alongside her parents in Montgomery County, Mississippi through her later years as a voting rights activist until her death in 1977. Hamer used her experiences from sharecropping at 12 years old to revolutionize voting rights across the South; witnessing first-hand the discrimination and racism that Black people faced in the South, Hamer sought out like-minded individuals interested in justice and equity. With only a 6th-grade education, Hamer was a unique figure among her contemporaries like Dr. Martin L. King or Russell B. Sugarmon — and used her uniqueness to lead the voting rights movement into a direction it needed to go, against tremendous odds.
Historical and previously unavailable archives about Hamer were finally released, which Larson took advantage of when writing her biography. Hamer was the 20th child of Mississippi sharecroppers, born in 1917. She grew up in extreme poverty, experiencing malnutrition and limited access to healthcare and housing, and most horrendously she dealt with the impacts of white supremacy. These accumulated hardships led to 7 of her siblings dying before she was born. Out of this great loss was born a tight-knit family that Hamer would work to support throughout her youth.
Frustrated by lifelong crises, Hamer sought out a movement called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – an organization centered around nonviolent protests for civil rights. In 1961, the SNCC traveled to Mississippi to ask Black Mississippians what rights they felt they were missing as Americans – that answer was the right to vote. In the 1960s, only 5% of the Black Mississippian population was registered to vote because the violence faced when attempting to register was brutal. Hamer’s own experience of being fired for registering to vote further pursued her toward her mission. That mission was to travel throughout the South; illuminating the adversities and violence Blacks faced when attempting to register and leading voter registration initiatives. Not only in Mississippi but all over the United States.
Larson’s biography differs from others because it includes those recently released documents that have only resurfaced in the last 20 years, since the last biography about Hamer was released. Larson employs a feminist lens that places Hamer at the center of her life’s story: Hamer’s story not only differs from others due to being a woman in leadership within the civil rights movement but as a woman who had significantly less education than her male counterparts. Although Hamer was prevented from continuing her formal education, she possessed literacies and languages that her male counterparts did not. As a sharecropper and Black woman living in the South, Hamer experienced various gendered and racial harassment that informed her stance on equality and human rights. Unlike other activists and leaders, Hamer used her upbringing to inform her work.
Larson believes today’s reemerging threats on voting rights would deeply affect Hamer. Larson remarks on the current issues facing voting rights: “Today, her [Hamer] legacy stands strong. There are many lessons in her life that we can look to… to continue the fight for equality and justice here.”
This biography showcases the power behind “every day, ordinary people” who impact our nation’s society in positive ways. Hamer is a role model to show that the ‘average’ person can create great change. Larson says, “Across our country there are emerging leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer… They need support. That’s why her story is so important, because we need to be reminded that it happened before and we can do it again, and we can do better this time.”