Missing Ms. Hamer
By Lyn May
I was 24 and living comfortably in New England with my husband and two small daughters when Fannie Lou Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. Her bravery and steadfastness were amazing to me and I couldn’t imagine what it took for her to fight for the right to live and vote peaceably in the country of her birth. This woman, a sharecropper who began her career in the picking fields at six, is one of my heroes. I followed her courageous career and felt proud to share African American womanhood with her. Of the many photos of Ms. Hamer I considered for this essay, this was the easy choice. Reading about her tells you a lot, but this picture of her wearing pearls tells you something about her that isn’t written anywhere, but that every woman who has ever had to fight for her self-worth will recognize.
I always vote and, when I’m tempted to pass on an election, I think of Fannie Lou getting beaten, shot at and jailed so I’d have the right to drive five minutes to my polling place. Either going to or from voting I thank her for what she did for me, and for what she did to try to make America the country it likes to think it is.
When she died in 1977, still fighting for justice despite her breast cancer, voting rights in America were looking pretty good. In 1964 the 24th Amendment eliminated the poll tax and The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed changing American politics at every level all over the country. Yes, we were still struggling with discrimination, riots, hostility and everything else that has always been part of the push toward equality, but there was also the thought that we could use the word “progress” and not feel delusional.
Now, six months into this presidency progress is not a word that comes to mind on any issue, including voting rights. What would Fannie make of the two letters sent recently from the Trump Administration, one asking for state voter registration lists and the other for details on compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA)? As a registered voter in Georgia, I’m keenly aware that my race is listed on my voter registration card. A fact I hardly noted has begun to take on unexpected importance. While, I brood and read and brood some more, wearing my best Eeyore face, I suspect Fannie would tell me to get my act together and DO something. Or, at the very least, do a better job managing my cynicism.
I have struggled with a sense of despair about how fast my country is changing in major and shocking ways. In the absence of clear or strong leadership on the issues I believe in, I’ve felt little optimism, and that can have a paralyzing effect. But Ms. Hamer may have sent me a message in the guise of a young woman I met a few months ago. I have done slightly more than noodling in my own soup, including going to my county Democratic Party meetings where I first saw Aundrea. We eventually sorted out where we were regularly seeing each other and began a running conversation about Democratic politics, local and national. A single mother with a good-sized commute, she’s found time to become active with the local Dems. She brings to the process experience as a union activist and as a woman who’s worked in a variety of positions at enough economic levels to understand the growing challenges of employment and wages in America. I believe Aundrea and Fannie are kindred spirits.
How wonderful it is to be wrong about the death of optimism, and about the disappearance of visionaries and activists like Fannie Lou Hamer. Those of us who believe in equity and the common good, and decency and good sense can feel that we’ve fallen on some tough times. Aundrea’s belief in participatory democracy and the hard work it takes to make change has encouraged this old war horse to take heart. Maybe we’re in better shape than some of us think we are.