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Fannie Lou Hamer

The Prompt (containing background information)

Hamer would seem to be the opposite of King. He grew up in Atlanta; his parents were financially stable members of the middle class; his father was a rough-hewn, but admired and successful minister. King, Jr. went to one of the best African American universities (Morehouse College), whose president was a friend of his father; he then went to a respected, liberal seminary outside Philadelphia, studying with highly educated white professors; he then went to a PhD program at Boston University, again studying with well-educated white professors. So he was male, formally educated, and thoroughly middle class. While still a graduate student, he delivered sermons in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, and Detroit. His language has been characterized as philosophical and elevated. His wide-ranging vocabulary reflects years of reading and study. He freely quotes Shakespeare, Thoreau, Donne, Emerson, Carlyle, Lowell, Lincoln, Jefferson, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. (During his lifetime, not everyone realized that he got most of these quotations not from reading these writers directly, but from repeating quotations of them that he found in books of sermons.)

Hamer, on the other hand, grew up in the Mississippi Delta--an area of huge cotton plantations and small towns, such as her hometown of Ruleville, where she lived her whole life. (It's also the area where blues music was born. B.B. King, for example, sprang from the Mississippi Delta.) Her parents were poor sharecroppers who did the back-breaking work of picking cotton in the sun all day, for the benefit of a wealthy white plantation owner. She had 15 or more brothers and sisters. She dropped out of school around the eighth grade to become a sharecropper herself. She never returned to school. She married a sharecropper, whom she called "Pap." Scholars think that she was involuntarily sterilized by a doctor who was trying to reduce the number of African American births. She typically spoke in a pure version of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) common among those who lived in the Mississippi Delta, a version of English frequently shunned at white universities then and now.

So to summarize the contrast: King was male, urban, middle-class, well-educated, well-traveled his whole life. Hamer was female, rural, poor, not formally educated, and not traveled (until she became well-known). Even middle-class African American protestors from the Mississippi Delta--such as Aaron Henry--joined Roy Wilkins, the national director of the NAACP, in criticizing her Mississippi version of AAVE as "bad English" spoken by uneducated people. They discouraged her involvement in the civil rights movement because they thought that her dialect made a bad impression on whites whom they and King were trying to persuade.

When you read her speeches, do you see elements that parallel elements in speeches by Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and/or King? Or does she sound distinctive? Do these speeches sound effective to you? Why do you think they were or were not effective?

My Response

Unlike Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer was an undereducated poor black woman. Despite being a poor sharecropper, Fannie Lou Hamer’s speeches parallel elements in speeches by Frederick Douglass. She speaks about the poor treatment Southern blacks received, using her own experiences with registering to vote and getting training as a civil rights worker (“Federal Trial Testimony…”) to illustrate how her personal experiences were representative of the experiences of other poor Southern (specifically Delta Mississippian) blacks. Frederick Douglass similarly uses his own experiences to demonstrate how slaves were treated, explaining that his experiences were not unique but universal. Douglass states, for example, that separating mother and baby was “a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away” (31).

Similar to Sojourner Truth, Hamer spoke nonstandard English; but unlike Truth, who was often portrayed as a Southern nursemaid, Hamer actually was Southern and poor. Truth’s affiliation with middle and upper middle class white abolitionists “of education” (Painter 181) allowed Truth, despite her illiteracy (which Douglass saw as a form of enslavement (97)), to maintain her own vision “of ladyhood, ‘unimpeachable moral character’” (181). Truth worked to keep her reputation intact, even to the point of collecting letters regarding her character and suing for libel (58).

Hamer’s distinction is her lack of a middle class sensibility, which does make a bad impression on whites. This “uncultured” self makes her an effective speaker as she speaks for those who faced the worst brutalities of a white patriarchal society that denied rights to blacks. While middle class African American protestors such as Aaron Henry and Roy Wilkins may have discouraged Hamer’s involvement in the civil rights movement (prompt), they, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement and Truth and Douglass among the abolitionists, would have represented less than half of the black community (see “The African American Middle Class” and “Poverty in Black America” for recent statistics).

Douglass and King wrote and spoke on many subjects related to slavery and civil rights. Douglass, for example, wrote several versions of his autobiography and spoke on women’s rights, the meaning of America’s independence to slaves, and lynching (Andrews). King spoke and wrote about citizenship, Ghana, voting rights, biblical love, the Vietnam War, and the promise of a better future (Carson and Shepard).

Hamer, though, has basically one speech: how she became involved in the civil rights movement, her struggle in registering to vote and in helping other blacks register to vote, the retaliation she faced as a result of that struggle, the torture she experienced at the Winona jail, the failure of black ministers (chicken-eating preachers) to act for blacks instead of preaching patience on behalf of whites, the need for black and white Americans to work together “as one blood”, and her prophetic call to speak (Brooks and Houck). She consistently and repeatedly explains her background and the racism she experienced. Her repetition of events and the repeated horrors of her attempts to gain voting rights for Southern blacks in Mississippi and her authenticity as a Southern sharecropper, someone who has actually done “the back-breaking work of picking cotton in the sun all day, for the benefit of a wealthy white plantation owner” (prompt), make her an effective orator, who, through intentional repetition, demonstrated to audiences the true horrors Southern blacks faced.

Works Cited

“The African American Middle Class.”

Andrews, William L., editor. The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. Oxford UP, 1996.

Brooks, Maegan Parker and Davis W. Houck, editors. The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is. [UP of Mississippi, 2011].

Carson, Clayborne, and Kris Shephard, editors. A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. IPM / Grand Central Publishing, 2001.

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. Edited by William L. Andrews, Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 23-97.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam.” A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Claiborne Carson and Kris Shepard. IPM / Grand Central Publishing, 2001, pp. 139-164.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. W. W. Norton and Company, 1996.

“Poverty in Black America.”

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