As a staff, we're spending time over the next several months learning from people of color throughout history. A few weeks ago, we began by reading and reflecting together on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, a legendary civil rights activist and founder of the Freedom Farm Cooperative.
Fannie Lou Hamer
In 1969, the nation was reeling from the social roller coaster that many historians refer to now as the modern civil rights movement. The previous fifteen years gave birth to a litany of legal reforms through Brown v. Board, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provided the legal momentum for equality that many civil rights activists had dedicated so much of their lives to achieve. This same time period also witnessed the deaths of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, both of whom had put so much faith in American democracy to help right the wrongs of racism and poverty. While some in the movement continued to look to Washington for political reform, Fannie Lou Hamer desired more direct change coming from more local communities like her own in Ruleville, Mississippi.
Fannie Lou Hamer was unapologetically Mississippian. Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, Hamer knew the lay of the land well and knew the unique challenges that other sharecroppers like her experienced. She knew the debilitating realities of poverty, hunger and racism and saw them all as interconnected social concerns. When Hamer was a small child, a jealous white neighbor poisoned her family’s livestock, consequently forcing her family to move to nearby Sunflower County and become sharecroppers. Her neighbor’s act of terror eradicated what little economic security the family had available. It is no wonder given this experience that Fannie Lou Hamer’s later activism included farming and land reform. Hamer knew that it is hard to be manipulated into a state fear when families have control over their food source.
Black landownership became an urgent task for Hamer. With the help of donations, Fannie Lou Hamer bought 40 acres of land in 1969 and started Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County. Hamer started community vegetable gardens, planting sugar snap peas and collard greens, and encouraged her poor neighbors, black and white, to farm with her. Hamer found economic empowerment in farming and saw it as the necessary solution against the guaranteed poverty of sharecropping. The rise of industrial agriculture also became a threat to the old sharecropping system as machinery began to replace and displace poor tenant farmers, which nearly doubled the rate of welfare recipients across Mississippi from 1968-1972.
Dependency on federal aid was not a sustainable solution for poverty alleviation according to Hamer. Creative solutions like Freedom Farm’s “pig bank” became a way to feed families and generate income. A sow would be given to a family on “loan” from the pig bank with the understanding that two of the piglets would return to the bank as “interest.” Families then cured meat from the pigs or sold their newfound livestock for income. Freedom Farm’s creativity was not limited to just agricultural reform, but Hamer’s vision included starting head start programs, affordable housing, and accessible healthcare services.
Freedom Farm Cooperative ultimately filed for bankruptcy after several years of operation. Though donations were plentiful at first, it became difficult for the farm to support itself with the limited revenue that it generated. Despite Freedom Farm Cooperative’s short lifespan, I believe Fannie Lou Hamer’s efforts are not in vain. Fannie Lou Hamer helped to mobilize her home community to break the triple threats of hunger, poverty, and racism through a creative imagination and down-to-earth-know-how. Fannie Lou Hamer is an inspiration to us all in a democratic vision where all communities, no matter race or class, are deserving of food and land as a basis for freedom.
Check out these sources to learn more about Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative:
Watch Fannie Lou Hamer: Stand Up, a short documentary on Fannie Lou's life
Fannie Lou is featured in The Potlikker Papers by John T. Edge, Nashville's current city-wide read. We highly recommend it!
Fannie Lou Hamer: The Life of a Civil Rights Icon, by Earnest N. Bracey
A Voice That Could Stir an Army: Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rhetoric of the Black Freedom Movement by Maegan Parker Brooks
For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, by Chana Kai Lee
This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, by Kay Mills