Commentary Race

Fannie Lou Hamer and Her Dream for Jobs and Freedom

Jazmine Walker

In an era when people across the country are asking, "Where are the Black women leaders?" activists like Fannie Lou Hamer serve as a reminder of how many rural Black women have always been strong leaders.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Strong Families project.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it is critical that we remember that this march was about advocating for social and economic justice. In an era when people across the country are asking, “Where are the Black women leaders?” activists like Fannie Lou Hamer serve as a reminder of how many rural Black women have always been strong leaders. For Hamer, people could not be free unless they had freedom “from hunger, poverty, and homes that did not adequately protect needy families from the cold winds of ‘Old Man Winter.’”

An outspoken woman from Sunflower County, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer bravely described her traumatic forced sterilization story and showed the importance of advocating for the reproductive rights of women of color.

A daughter of sharecroppers, she is also remembered as a grassroots voting rights activist and as someone who devoted her life to improving the livelihoods of rural Black women and families independent of the local, state, and federal government.

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According to data from the 1960 census, about 5,000 families in Sunflower County earned less than $2,000 a year. To alleviate this poverty, Hamer began the Freedom Farm with a donation of 50 pigs from the National Council of Negro Women. She also acquired some 700 acres of land on which to grow, produce, and raise livestock to provide nutritional food for families across the Delta and generate income for Black women heads of household and young people who worked on the farm. In For Freedom’s Sake, author Chana Kai Lee reminds us that the Freedom Farm also provided families with down payments for Federal Housing Administration mortgages to increase homeownership, transportation to medical facilities, and scholarships for college or training schools, and served as a crisis relief agency for families in the region.

Though farming may seem to be a departure from Hamer’s civil rights work, it was actually a continuation of it, since the work created avenues for long-term empowerment of rural communities while also providing opportunities to improve the political, economic, and social well-being of Black women and girls. And though the Freedom Farm eventually failed, Fannie Lou Hamer’s legacy continues through a number of Black women farmers and Black women farmer-owned cooperatives across the rural South.

Black women-led cooperatives like the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative—a women’s agricultural cooperative in the Mississippi Delta—are working to supply fresh produce to local schools, restaurants, and farmers’ markets to provide economic opportunities for Black women and girls who lack access to quality education, jobs, and health care. As conservatives continue to compromise rural livelihoods by attempting to double food stamp cuts to roughly $40 billion over the next ten years, these groups are creating opportunities for farmers of color to ensure that women and girls live in conditions that enable them to improve their quality of life and health.

Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer embody the spirit of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement, and Hamer’s legacy lives on through Black women and girls who are looking to generate and hold financial and intellectual assets so they can collectively build on and sustain their land and heritage.

Though many of these low-income women farmers lack the financial resources and flexibility to travel to Washington to commemorate the march for their right to civil and economic equality, they are collectively working together to invest in shared infrastructure and merge their fiscal and intellectual resources to ensure that rural communities grow and thrive. They help make the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington worth celebrating, and represent the work for freedom that Fannie Lou Hamer envisioned.

Commentary Human Rights

‘Overworked and Underpaid’: On Organizing, Black Womanhood, and Self-Care

Charmaine Lang

Accolades and honors do little when a culture of martyrdom—the discouragement to prioritize one’s own emotional and mental health—reigns in the lives of activists.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

As a researcher, I am interested, indeed positively obsessed, by the long tradition of Black feminist organizing in the United States. Outspoken activists like Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Lou Hamer, Toni Cade Bambara, and Frances Beal embodied their values to center the voices and thought leadership of Black women. They wrote and delivered speeches about the duality of sexism and racism Black women encountered in this nation, garnering in some cases accolades and honors.

But awards do little when a culture of martyrdom—the discouragement to prioritize one’s own emotional and mental health—reigns in the lives of activists.

I have found in my research that not much has been written about how women of color organizers made space for joy, wellness, and love while fighting against white supremacy and other forms of oppression. With activists today facing a similar struggle, I wanted to know what could we learn from our Black women activist foremothers to avoid burning out.

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So I went to the archives—that special place where I could touch a letter or a newspaper. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I examined Triple Jeopardy, the 1970s newspaper of the Third World Women’s Alliance, a radical women of color organization. I saw themes of struggling against oppressive structures and the fatigue that often accompanied the work. For example, the committee responsible for editing and publishing Triple Jeopardy described themselves in the last two editions as “overworked and underpaid.”

Similarly, during archival research at the Spelman College Archives, I came across a letter from writer-activist Toni Cade Bambara to writer-activist Audre Lorde, in which the closing simply, yet very tellingly, read “overwhelmed Toni.”

For me, this admission that they were tired, human, and affected by the oppressions they fought makes room for Black women to name their feelings and share their stories. That vulnerability and space needs to be continuously created because it would allow us to express that we are in need of change, and in need of assistance as we work under multiple pressures—deadlines, limited resources, the constant hovering of oppression, and age-old representations of Black womanhood.

The “Mammy” trope—which depicts Black women as perpetual, asexual servants loyal to white supremacy—is particularly damaging to Black women. It holds that Black women are happiest when they are serving others, which means that they all too often are expected to delay their own self-care and joy. This trope gained popularity in the 19th century, but its remnants remain with us as Black women continue to be thought of as strong. If we take the Mammy trope as an example, a Black woman’s only role is to be in service to everyone outside of herself. Black women activists then become the depository for any affliction that ails people.

Many Black women have tirelessly fought to resist ascribed roles.

Triple Jeopardy and the letters of Bambara and Lorde taught me that Black women used activism and writing as forms of self-care. Self-care is antithetical to the Mammy trope, which represents Black women as self-sacrificing. Black women’s ability to write each other, about their personal, creative, and organizing lives, was deeper than just catching up. Letter writing served as a tool of survival, as the authors reimagined their lives as Black women. They also supported each other, as they provided feedback on each other’s poems and stories; they uplifted each other, and made plans for meetings and celebrations.

Many of the letters I came across in the collections of Bambara and Lorde expressed gratitude to the sender from the recipient whose spirits were lifted after receiving a personal letter. “I got your lovely card, and it picked up my dropping spiritsjust like your fiction does,” scholar Mary Helen Washington wrote in a letter to Bambara. In another letter addressed to Bambara, the writer (signed only as “G”) said, “Girl—I just got your letter—and was it ever on time.”

Black women writer-activists also did some form of consciousness-raising via letter writing. They expressed rage and humor at the audacity of people, mostly white male publishers, trying to define them through a white, masculinist, and heteronormative lens. And they sought understanding and reconciliation from each other as Black women and feminists.

In a letter to scholar Evelynn Hammonds, Lorde writes:

Please forgive the delay in this reply to your letter…I wanted to think about issues you raised in your letter reaching beyond the material ones…Evelynn, it is not clear to me the exact nature of the conflicts underlying the history between you and Barbara and Cherrie, nor does it need to be. But the bitterness on both sides is quite obvious…I do not like this. It makes me very sad because I feel it is unnecessarily destructive for us all. We have so little time, and there are so few of us doing real work, and under so much pressure…I ask you to consider: WHO PROFITS FROM THESE SEPARATIONS BETWEEN US, THESE ACRIMONIES, THESE FEUDS? So, I am wondering if there is any way possible for each of the three of you, having been separate now for over a year, to re-examine your relationship to the personal conflicts between you…and consider what some of the real bases are upon which you can deal with each other with some amount of respect and trust?

They gathered strength from each other as they talked of how things are, and how they wanted them to be.

These letters challenged the narrative of the strong and ever-enduring Black woman. They serve as an example of the importance of quality of life for activists, and how they can best be supported.

In order to have sustainable movements, social justice movements and organizations need to center the care of activists.

Organizations and movements can make sure that they are creating space for self-care by prioritizing wellness, and encouraging activists and movement builders to take the time to do the same. I know that the work to destroy all forms of oppression requires all of our time. We are, after all, fighting to bring about a more just and equitable society. However, it is possible to do the work and prioritize health and wellness at the same time.

I know that conversations around self-care can sometimes be elitist and classist. Yoga classes can cost an average of $18 per session, and massages sometimes start at $70. Self-care can quickly become about who can afford to relax and release some tension. But costs don’t necessarily have to be a barrier to relaxation.

Community care is essential to the lives of activists. Activists and organizations can host massage and healing circles, journal together, check in with each other regularly, and seek authentic and honest relationships that affirm them. Instead of being seen as more work, this actually can be an essential part of a wellness routine that can aid activists in their work.

Love for each other, and an investment in our individual as well as collective needs, will help us as we navigate and work to dismantle hostile environments. Activists can encourage each other to take care of their emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical selves. Managers and executive directors can create wellness as part of work culture by checking in with their employees. Some already do. I hope others will catch on.

News Race

Cleveland Transit Officer Pepper-Sprays ‘Black Lives Matter’ Activists

Regina Mahone

The officer confronted a crowd of activists who had begun locking arms and chanting in protest over the way he forcefully detained a 14-year-old. “The crowd was determined that the youth would NOT be harmed or killed and were fierce, as we know it’s a real possibility,” explained one witness, Kimberly Ellis.

A three-day convening last week designed to provide Black organizers and community activists with a space to heal, mourn, and strategize around the Black Lives Matter movement ended in indignation following an aggressive interaction with a transit authority officer.

Participants of the Movement for Black Lives Convening, held July 24-26 at Cleveland State University in Ohio, encountered police violence after the closing ceremony, when a Cleveland transit officer took a local Black teenager into custody. The officer believed the teenager was “intoxicated to the point where he was unable to care for himself.”

Witnesses said the officer slammed the young man to the ground before moving the teen into a police vehicle.

Local law enforcement responded, joining the transit authority officer and other officials on the street as the crowd swelled with locals and activists who had attended the Movement for Black Lives Convening.

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The officer confronted a crowd of activists who had begun locking arms and chanting in protest over the way he forcefully detained the 14-year-old. “The crowd was determined that the youth would NOT be harmed or killed and were fierce, as we know it’s a real possibility,” explained one witness, Kimberly Ellis, on Twitter.

“Conference participants peacefully intervened using classic non-violent civil disobedience tactics, such as inter-locked arms, in order to prevent the police from leaving the area with the child in custody,” said the Movement for Black Lives Convening organizers in a statement.

The officer pepper-sprayed a group of about 30 people, according to reports.

“At some point, based on what I saw, I felt that the police reaction was focused on reacting to the protesters as opposed to deescalating the situation,” Kimberly Ellis, American and Africana Studies scholar and creator of #BlackPoliticsMatter, told Rewire in a phone interview.

While some activists worked to treat pepper-spray victims, the handcuffed teen, with his mother, was escorted into an ambulance by the police to get checked out. A witness said the mother told officers that her son wasn’t intoxicated like the officer had claimed.

Ellis, who said she joined a small group of activists trying to “focus in on the mother and what we could do for the teen,” told Rewire that the officers hesitated to release the teen because of the crowd of people who had gathered around the ambulance.

“I was trying to find out what was happening and how I might be able to help … but everything changed when I heard one of the officers say, ‘Well, even if I were to release him, I can’t because there’s too many people around.’ And I just thought to myself, well wait a minute, I mean, now the dynamics have changed because if you’re even thinking about releasing him and now you’re sort of victim blaming … it’s just kind of like, but the protesters were there because some of them saw what happened and thought the arrest was unwarranted or extreme.”

The officers ended up releasing the teen to his family after the crowd cleared space for a relative to drive her truck to the ambulance, explained Ellis.

The conflict comes nearly two weeks before the one-year mark of 18-year-old Michael Brown‘s death in Ferguson, Missouri, which set off a spate of protests across the country in response to police violence against Black women, men, and children.

It also follows the recent deaths of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, who died while in police custody in Waller County, Texas, and Homewood, Alabama, respectively.

The national convening began on Thursday and attracted more 1,000 attendees, including “movement elders” such as the niece of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer and Miss Major, a leader in the trans community; #BlackLivesMatter co-founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi; community leaders representing labor unions and international delegations; and families of victims of police violence.

Speakers placed the movement in its historical context, as part of an ongoing fight for freedom that began before the attendees were born and will continue after they have perished.

Along with numerous panels on the various ways in which Black people are seeking justice, the event offered spaces for healing, a Youth Freedom program, which included “activities for children around political education, art and healing,” and tours of the Black-owned Rid-All urban farm.

The event closed on Sunday with a performance by Voices in the Valley youth and chants of “Black Youth Matter.”

Shortly after the closing ceremony, the transit authority officer detained the 14-year-old Black teen.

Following the police attack on Sunday, conference attendees who were still in Cleveland and those who were on their way home responded on social media.

“The whole point was we weren’t going to let another Black teenager be hurt, be abused, be killed, be maligned, be railroaded and swept into the criminal justice system. I mean there were so many reasons to be there,” Ellis said. “I don’t think [the teen] really understood what was going on, but I am sure that he has never had a crowd full of Black people just surrounding him and shouting at him, ‘We love you.’ And like, caring for him and chanting, supporting him the whole way … He had the biggest and the best support group ever.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the tactics used by conference participants during Sunday’s interaction with law enforcement.

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