Cotton Bales and Jail Beatings: The Civil Rights And Farm Activism Of Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer’s little-known work around agricultural advocacy in her native Mississippi shows that the civil rights icon was also a grassroots philosopher and practitioner of something akin to the contemporary food-justice movement.
Before Fannie Lou Hamer became a civil rights activist in the Mississippi Delta, she was a literal “field organizer” in that state’s cotton fields. So it was both a matter of course and a matter of Hamer’s ingenuity that she turned to Black community-based agriculture as a path to freedom when her voting-rights work ran her afoul of a plantation boss. When Hamer, then a sharecropper, tried to register to vote in the Indianola, Mississippi, courthouse in August 1962, she was greeted by police with guns and a literacy test designed for failure. She returned home to no job and no home. The Ruleville, Mississippi, plantation owner who paid her family in poverty wages and barebones lodgings knew about her trip before she arrived back in town by bus. He evicted her on the spot but forced her husband to stay and finish the harvest. On the razor’s edge of destitution, the sixth-grade graduate turned to her community. With no job to lose but dogged by threats of violence, she organized for Freedom Summer. On Aug. 22, 1964, she had her say on national TV, testifying before a congressional committee about why members of the mostly Black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party should be recognized at the Democratic National Convention, and the violence she’d experienced for speaking out. Although President Lyndon Johnson tried to pre-empt her testimony by holding a press conference, Hamer walked and talked and worked her way into the civil rights pantheon and the national consciousness. Even so, she had to eat. She hand-sewed a quilt for sale in a women’s circle, rotating turns with the group’s single sewing machine. And in 1967 she founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC). The FFC supported Black agricultural workers fired or harassed because of their civil rights advocacy, those replaced by newfangled farming machines, and those suffering from hunger while working subsistence jobs that kept them in a vicious cycle of perpetual laboring but still owing. Together, its members farmed more than 600 acres of land, shared the produce with thousands of rural Mississippians, provided clothing for schoolchildren in one of the nation’s poorest counties, and assisted residents with buying homes that had heat and running water—amenities that had previously been out of reach for many. Among the FFC’s most famous programs was a pig bank: The National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) donated 50 pigs to local families, and when those pigs had babies, the families gave piglets to other families that could use the livestock on their own farms. Land ownership—and control of the food it produced—was the way forward. When sociologist Monica White, Ph.D., began sharing the research that became her new book, Freedom Farmers (named for the cooperative), she was alarmed at how little her friends and colleagues knew about Hamer, the civil rights icon. Hamer is the subject of biographies and countless journal articles, but White noticed that many people weren’t familiar with her, and especially not with her contributions to agriculture advocacy that feed into today’s food-justice movements. “I was gobsmacked by how many people would say, ‘Who is she?’” White tells ESSENCE. “And this wasn’t just white folks. This was African Americans who did not know who she was. I was heartbroken, to have read her archive and to see how much she gave.”Sometimes they knew the quotable Hamer, who appears in today’s memes with trademark plainspoken quotes such as “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But few knew Hamer’s significant work around agriculture and economic justice in her native Mississippi. Beyond Americans’ lack of general historical knowledge, why has Hamer’s farm advocacy gone relatively unknown and sometimes erased?“The African-American community hasn’t wanted to talk about these components of her story because there’s a [historic] wound. We have a difficult time talking about agriculture because African Americans and agriculture have been fraught with slavery, sharecropping and tenant farming,” White says.Farming and rural life were often disavowed by Black Americans who migrated from the South and who thought they would be leaving hard manual labor—and vitriolic racism—behind when they headed to points east, west and north. And it didn’t help that Hamer was a woman in a movement often fronted by men but held up by Black women. She famously complained that the national press cared not one whit about Mississippi until Martin Luther King Jr. showed up to march, and said that “while he’s having a dream, I’m having a nightmare!”But Hamer’s history of fighting for economic justice within agriculture and for those people who stayed in the South can’t, and shouldn’t, be dismissed. Well before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the interplay of social identities that structure people’s lives, Hamer articulated an organic and deep understanding of what it meant to be Black, female, Southern, poor and disregarded. But she was never silenced, says White, who dismisses congratulatory comments that she and other Black women scholars are “giving” Hamer a voice.“Mrs. Hamer was willing to confront those who held power,” White explains. “She was not afraid to speak out about senators, or the Black middle class and preachers who had disdain for the poor. While she didn’t change what agriculture as an industry was doing, she taught us to use the tool of agriculture to build a model of what happens [when] we provide our own food, and what institutions we can build using food as a starting point.”Hamer and her FFC collaborators understood that sharecroppers and agricultural workers who labored under racism made a pittance and couldn’t afford better homes or attain better health. When she ran for a congressional seat in 1964, Hamer said, “Poverty and poor health form an unbreakable circle, one which need[s] attention from the people who are supposed to represent us.”She felt that “unbreakable circle” in her body, argues University of Kentucky geography professor Priscilla McCutcheon, Ph.D. Hamer’s body bore the scars of sexualized beatings in jail, overwork, lack of healthy food and medicine, and a forced sterilization she called a “Mississippi appendectomy.” Her own daughter had to get glucose infusions to supplement her poor nutrition. That personal lived experience of hunger, little education and rampant exploitation turned Hamer into an advocate for anti-hunger efforts and self-reliance across the nation. “You say you can’t feed me,” she said at a 1969 White House hunger conference. “But you can take my son to Vietnam. And don’t put this all on Mississippi people. There are hungry people right here in D.C.”But she believed that with land, control of it and Black farming knowledge—one thing many disenfranchised Mississippians did have—there could be progress. “The state wants us out and the federal government considers us surplus. We must buy land immediately or our people will die forgotten.” The FFC was that vision made manifest, but as McCutcheon has noted, it was dogged by high expectations that its startup infrastructure could not match. The cooperative had a handful of staff, and Hamer herself was constantly on the move, doing speaking tours to earn money to keep the organization growing and afloat. Funders grew agitated when they didn’t receive letters acknowledging their gifts or when paperwork went undone; some, including the NCNW, withdrew their support. And though the co-op was producing food and nourishing a community, it wasn’t turning a profit. It closed in 1976, the result of a series of natural disasters, financial strain and Hamer’s illness. Short-lived through the FFC was, White says, it cemented Hamer’s rightful place as a grassroots philosopher and practitioner of something akin to the contemporary food-justice movement. “Hamer is a precursor, a visionary, and a person who could clearly show ‘here’s freedom’ and ‘here’s oppression,’” White says. “She was a person who asked Black people to get free together and told us you don’t have to be beholden to someone who doesn’t have your best interest at heart.”TOPICS: blackhistorymonth2019fannie lou hamer