February is Black History Month across America, and I’ll be celebrating the moxie of a few of our nation’s most compelling people, starting today with voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
It was Fannie Lou Hamer’s voice that President Lyndon Johnson feared.
He feared her plain-spoken testimony before the Democratic National Committee’s Credentials Committee on August 22, 1964. He was afraid of the truth that would be unleashed in her resonant, rolling tone. He knew the compelling story of how she had suffered greatly for the simple dignity of living as any other American, free to vote and free from fear, would grip the nation.
He didn’t want to hear how she was savagely beaten, driven from her home, and hounded by homegrown domestic terrorists, all for simply trying to register to vote, and urging others to do the same. And he didn’t want anyone else to hear her story, either.
So just as Fannie Lou Hamer was set to testify, President Johnson attempted to silence her voice by calling an impromptu press conference. He hoped that the presidential press conference would trump testimony by “an illiterate woman.” He was both right, and completely wrong.
News cameras did cut away from the live testimony, but news stations ended up playing recordings of Hamer’s testimony for days after, allowing an even wider audience to hear her plea for a better America. Rather than muting her testimony, Johnson simply amplified her voice.
Hamer found that voice mid-life, after more than 40 hard years of living as a black sharecropper under Jim Crow laws on the Mississippi Delta. The turning point came for her in 1962, when she attended a voting rights meeting organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. From that meeting on, the rest of her life was devoted to gaining simple dignity for herself and every black person in America who had been systematically disenfranchised.
Moxie hardly begins to scratch the surface when it comes to describing Hamer’s courage. A few lessons from her life:
Sometimes moxie is found at the end of the rope.
As Hamer often put it, she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Years of hard labor from an early age took a toll on her body, and a bout with polio as a child left its mark, too. But it was a hysterectomy, performed without her knowledge or consent when she was in the hospital for another procedure, that was among the final insults that pushed Hamer to activism. Forced sterilizations of black women were so common that they were known by the euphemism “Mississippi appendectomy.”
But even these hardships paled in comparison to the daily indignities and constant threat of living as a black person under Jim Crow laws in the American South. Hamer might have been at least a little afraid to be the first to volunteer to register to vote. “But, what was the point of being scared?” she said. “The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”
A lifetime of being beaten down helped Hamer cultivate the strongest, most dangerous moxie of all; the moxie that comes from having nothing left to lose, and everything to gain by trying.
Moxie is often anchored in a strong faith.
Hamer’s activism was born in the church. The voting rights meeting she attended on that fateful day in August 1962 was part of a worship service in Ruleville, Mississippi. A total of seventeen people signed up to ride a bus to Indianola, Mississippi, and attempt to register to vote.
As the bus rolled down the highway, Hamer’s voice lifted in song. A devout follower of Christ, she sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” Through song, she reminded each member of the group that they were loved, that they bore the image of the Creator of the Universe, that they were reflections of Him, that they were worthy of dignity and respect as His children, that He would protect and deliver them.
That first attempt to register to vote was unsuccessful. Hamer and others failed to pass a “literacy test,” one that whites always seemed to pass but which blacks always mysteriously failed. Hamer returned home to find that the owner of the plantation where she lived with her husband and four children had put her out. Now homeless, the Hamer family stayed with friends, literally dodging bullets aimed into the homes where they sought refuge.
Hamer persisted, and after several tries passed that alleged “literacy” test and gained her right to vote. But by now she she’d passed from volunteer to leader, and she began to work for the SNOC signing people up to vote. As she traversed Mississippi urging others to vote, her speeches were infused with scripture, echoing those truths she sang on the bus to Indianola. God loves you, you are His child, you matter, He will protect you and defend you.
I’m not sure how she held on to that faith when she was arrested in Winona, Mississippi in 1963, and beaten savagely by police, and by other prisoners under the direction of the police. The beating caused permanent damage to her eyes, legs and kidneys.
Still, Hamer wouldn’t be silenced. She continued her crusade, visiting churches across Mississippi, exhorting worshippers to claim their right to vote.
“Mrs. Hamer rose majestically to her feet,” wrote journalist Tracy Sugarman. “Her magnificent voice rolled through the chapel as she enlisted the Biblical ranks of martyrs and heroes to summon these folk to the Freedom banner. Her mounting, rolling battery of quotations and allusions from the Old and New Testaments stunned the audience with its thunder.”
Moxie comes naturally to a person who knows her worth is not determined by the men around her, but by the One who made her.
Hamer never enjoyed great health after the 1963 beating, and succumbed to breast cancer and heart disease in 1977. If I had the honor of interviewing her today, I would try so very hard to ask her just enough to get her rich, beautiful voice rolling. I would only speak enough to nudge those floodgates open, and then sit back and silently pray that words and music would begin to rush forth from her as they did so often, releasing a powerful torrent of truth and beauty. I’d listen as her hymns swept away evil, and brokenness, and injustice, and left in their wake life, peace and dignity.
Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!