Fannie Lou Hamer speaks at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Washington CNN  — 

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Their appeals were ignored.

On Monday, a group of House Democrats sent a letter to their colleagues in the Senate urging them to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and pave a path for a federal voting rights overhaul. On Wednesday, the bill fell short of the 60 votes needed to break a Republican-led filibuster and move forward.

The outcome was utterly predictable. After all, the assault on voting rights is partisan. Across the US, Republican lawmakers are attempting to protect their power by subverting elections and blocking rival constituencies’ access to the ballot box.

These moves disproportionately target Black voters, and indeed fit into a long history of maneuvering to limit Black political participation.

To understand the urgency of defending voting rights and the country’s young and fragile multiracial democracy, turn to Keisha N. Blain’s incredible new book, “Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.”

In the volume, Blain, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the African American Intellectual History Society, revisits the life and achievements of Hamer, a Black sharecropper from Mississippi who became an exceptional grassroots organizer and a key voice in the midcentury civil rights movement.

“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily – because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” Hamer asked in a searing speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where she represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an organization that challenged the segregated Mississippi delegation at the DNC.

Her televised testimony seized and shook the country, and eventually helped lead to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But Blain’s book isn’t merely an appreciation. It’s an exploration of how Hamer’s political battles – from securing voting rights to ending police violence – live on in the present.

I spoke with Blain about the abiding relevance of Hamer’s approach to confronting not only racism but also sexism and classism.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

until i am free book cover

Hamer observed, “America is divided against itself because they don’t want us (Black people) to have even the ballot here in Mississippi.” Do you detect echoes today of Hamer’s struggles against the widespread fear of Black political participation?

There were so many reasons why I felt like it was important to write this book now. And one of the reasons was my realization that we, as a nation, are taking many steps back when it comes to voting rights. Here, I’m thinking about the 2013 Shelby decision, which was a pivotal moment in the history of how the Voting Rights Act has been under attack. But even since Shelby, many states have been fighting to block Black voters and other marginalized groups.

All of this took me back to Hamer’s story, particularly because she was one of the key figures who laid the groundwork for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. One of the things she pointed out in the ’60s – and it’s true today – was the fear that if Black people and other marginalized groups had full access to the voting process, they would be able to elect public officials who would advocate for their interests. They would want to dismantle systems of oppression.

And all of these things, I think, encapsulate the idea of the power of the vote, and are exactly why Hamer committed her life to advocating for Black political rights. I think that the resistance that Black people and other marginalized groups face today stems from the same motivations as the kind of resistance that Hamer endured in the ’60s and even in the ‘70s, too. I’ll summarize it as: The White power structure can stay in place only if people are disenfranchised. If people of color are not heard through the act and the process of voting, certain laws and practices stay in place and exclude and marginalize certain people.

You write that “public testimony also provided a vehicle for Hamer to make her audiences ‘co-owners of trauma.’ ” I’m moved by this notion of being so transformed by someone’s testimony that you can’t go back to what you were before. Is this mode of advocacy – pushing people to be co-owners of trauma – something we see today?

The concept of testifying and making audiences co-owners of trauma comes from a remarkable fellow historian Kidada Williams, who wrote a book on racial violence, 2012’s “They Left Great Marks On Me.” Williams traces examples of Black people testifying – sometimes in a courtroom setting, but oftentimes in a church setting or in a public space. They would talk about what they had endured at the hands of, for instance, the KKK. For them, testimony was one powerful way to raise awareness and seek justice.

Hamer took that same approach in the ’60s when it came to, for example, forced sterilizations. There was no way a working, poor, disabled Black woman from Mississippi would be able to stop White doctors from performing these procedures. But what she could do was make people aware of the trauma of forced sterilizations as it related to her and other victims. (In 1961, a White doctor gave Hamer a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent.) And in shining a light, she could inform people – and also enrage people who might have been completely clueless.

I think that we see something similar today. The person who immediately comes to mind is Darnella Frazier, the young lady who recorded the video of George Floyd’s murder. What struck me about her was twofold. She recorded the video, which in itself was a powerful and dangerous thing to do. Her recording was perhaps the single most important piece of evidence that went to trial. And then she testified. She spoke about what she saw. And it was public because the whole world was watching. Everyone following the case knew who was testifying.

To put your face out there, to put your name out there – ultimately, you’re putting your life at risk in a setting where you are talking about what you saw the police do. You are standing up and saying, “No, what they say happened is not what happened. I’m telling you what I saw.” You’re putting your life at risk, and doing so because you are committed to making sure that the truth gets out there into the world.

Fannie Lou Hamer speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party supporters in Washington, DC, in 1965.

In one chapter, you argue that the rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s protests against the violence that Black women face mirror Hamer’s focus on the “interlocking systems of oppression that shape women’s lives.” Tell me about this connection.

I suspect that many people may not know that Hamer did not self-identify as a feminist. She could have, because she was involved in the women’s liberation movement, but she intentionally did not embrace the label. She did not embrace it because she did not believe that the women’s liberation movement addressed the challenges that Black people, particularly Black women, were facing.

At the same time, what’s so remarkable about Hamer’s story is that she was deeply committed to women’s empowerment. She rejected the label, but her actions showed that she did not condone patriarchy. She believed that women should not be blocked from leadership opportunities. So, she contributed to the women’s liberation movement, and part of how she contributed was by emphasizing the importance of recognizing intersecting systems of oppression. She ended up advocating for what can be described as a form of intersectionality, a concept that didn’t get introduced until the ’80s through the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw.

With Megan Thee Stallion, I was trying to identify the best contemporary example that might demonstrate how a Black woman today can center Black women’s experiences and push for an intersectional analysis without ever necessarily using an image of being a feminist. That’s what I thought was so intriguing about Megan Thee Stallion. She wrote that powerful New York Times op-ed, and never once called herself a feminist. I’m not suggesting that she’s not a feminist. But it is clear that she was simply laying out the facts about the importance of talking about not just sexism and patriarchy, but also racism and classism. She presented the message of women’s empowerment in a way that resonated with the way Hamer presented the message to White liberal feminists in the late ’60s and in the ‘70s.