By Keisha N. Blain
This blog post is part of our series on the 2021 Hooks National Book Award Finalists. For more visit memphis.edu/hooksblog.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s story captures the contributions of a Black woman sharecropper with limited formal education and limited material resources—but an all-consuming passion for social justice. Born in Mississippi on October 6, 1917, Hamer was the youngest of twenty children. The granddaughter of enslaved people, Hamer worked as a sharecropper for much of her life. At the age of twelve, she concluded her studies at a local schoolhouse so she could help her family meet their growing financial pressures. Still, they remained trapped in poverty—the result of the exploitative nature of the sharecropping system and the violence used to maintain it. The difficulties of Hamer’s childhood extended well into adulthood. Despite her limited material resources and the various challenges she endured as a Black woman living in poverty in Mississippi, Hamer committed herself to make a difference in the lives of others.
Her life changed dramatically in 1962. On August 27, 1962, Hamer attended a local church service in Ruleville, Mississippi. At this meeting organized by activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hamer learned of her constitutional right to vote as a citizen of the United States. She recognized that access to the ballot would help overturn unjust laws, replace corrupt elected officials, and shape local, state, and national politics. That night she began her political journey—relying on her radical honesty, boundless compassion, and unwavering resistance to racism and white supremacy.
Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America centers on Hamer’s ideas and political philosophies to demonstrate how they speak to our current moment. It posits that Hamer’s insights and political strategies during the 1960s and ’70s provide a blueprint for tackling a range of contemporary social issues. I had begun to write a book on Hamer in 2019 and thought I would finish it much later. However, the uprisings of 2020 as well as the global pandemic brought on a new sense of urgency for me to finish the book. During those difficult days, I found inspiration in Hamer’s words. The more I read Hamer’s words, the more clarity I found. Her vision for the world and her commitment to improving conditions for all people gave me a renewed sense of hope and purpose. I wanted to share that gift with others—and I firmly believe this is the opportune moment to share her story in a new way.
Until I Am Free is organized into six thematic chapters that explore Hamer’s perspective on faith, state-sanctioned violence, leadership, women’s rights, Black internationalism, poverty, and more. Together, these chapters grapple with one significant question: What might we learn, and how might our society change if we simply listened to Fannie Lou Hamer? One of her core messages—and the inspiration for the book’s title—that she delivered to audiences was, “Until I am free, you are not either.” Hamer recognized that no one could truly experience freedom if others were constrained. I use this framework as a starting point to remind readers that while the work of democracy is incomplete, the fight is certainly not over. As Hamer reiterated time and time again, we still have the power to make this inclusive vision a reality.