In The Merchant of Venice, Portia exclaims, seeing a light burning in her hall, “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”
The light known as Fanny Lou Hamer was born 100 years ago today in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the youngest of twenty children. She started picking cotton at age 6, and could pick 300 pounds in a day by the time she was 13.
In 1962, Fanny was inspired by a sermon from James Bevel, an organizer representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Soon thereafter, Fanny took the radical step of registering to vote. She was fired from her plantation job that very night. Undaunted, she began a life-long crusade for voting rights, organizing literacy training, civil rights demonstrations, and helping to host the fateful Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. She later said:
I guess if I'd had any sense, I'd have been a little scared — but what was the point of being scared?
The only thing they could do was kill me,
and it kinda seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.
Fanny was a founding member and vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a group formed to challenge the legitimacy of the regular Mississippi Democratic Party, which refused participation by blacks and opposed all civil rights legislation. Her impassioned speech to the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention was televised nationally (in spite of the best efforts of Lyndon Johnson, who hoped to appease southern Democrats and keep them from bolting to support Goldwater).
Johnson dispatched Hubert Humphrey to negotiate with the Freedom Democrats, hoping to mollify them with the offer of two "at-large" non-voting seats. Fanny's response was a shining example of "vernacular eloquence:"
Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand black people's lives?
Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs trying to register to vote.
I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County, Mississippi.
Now if you lose this job of Vice-President because you do what is right,
because you help the MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you.
But if you take [the nomination] this way,
why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights,
for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk about.
Senator Humphrey, I'm going to pray to Jesus for you.
Now that is speaking truth to power. Although her Freedom Party was not seated, Fanny's testimony reverberated throughout the country, and the Voting Rights Act was introduced in March of the following year.
Although Fanny was called "that illiterate woman" by Lyndon Johnson, she was better known throughout the civil rights movement as "the lady who sings the hymns." Whether at a rally in a church basement, or on a bus to a literacy training, or demonstrating on a street corner, Fanny was always leading hymns to calm others, to appeal to a higher authority, to bolster resolve. Her favorite was This Little Light of Mine, and we will proudly end our SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER performances with Moses Hogan's wonderful arrangement, in honor of Fanny.