Sermon: No Easy Way Out: Fannie Lou Hamer and Her Still-Unfolding Prophesies by Ethan Loewi

2020 November 20
by DoMC

Ethan Loewi

No Easy Way Out: Fannie Lou Hamer and Her Still-Unfolding Prophecies

First Unitarian, it is good to be with you as always. Friends, I’ll admit to being embarrassingly out of the loop on this, but I picked up the paper this morning, and I learned that there’s apparently an election coming up. Crazy. Darn thing totally snuck up on me.

That’s a little joke, of course—I’m just imagining a fun alternate reality, in which we haven’t been carpet-bombed by terrible news and political chaos for the last seven months of our lives. Of course there’s an election going on—this one in particular has been going on for about fifteen years. And aged us all by double that. Children who were six years old at the beginning of this election cycle are now 39, grey haired and cynical.

Despite said chaos, we have our faith and we have each other; these are not insubstantial blessings. But we live in exhausting times; I know how physically and spiritually drained many of us feel. I often find my thoughts echoing those of Emil Cioran, the great Romanian pessimist, who wrote that “To hope is to contradict the future.” Courage and resilience can seem in short supply. So today, I want to talk about someone who had those things in spades. A woman who went through hell time and time again in her quest for racial justice. And time and time again turned her pain into power.

So let’s talk about Fannie Lou Hamer. Today is October 4th, two days before her birthday—known in Mississippi, but sadly not all of America, as Fannie Lou Hamer Day. She wasn’t a minister, but she was one of the great prophets and preachers of her time. And, I believe, of our time as well.

As at few points I’m going to jump forward to 2020, for a little split-screen view of past and present—because she has so much to teach us about right now. In Shakespeare’s words, “What’s past is prologue” Then and now, Hamer models pragmatic, tenacious faith. Her favorite hymn was “This Little Light of Mine,” and she lived it: she shone her light in the darkest corners of America. And she knew as well as anyone how hard it is to work for change in frightening times. In her prophetic words, we have “no easy way out.” But Fannie Lou also shows us that faith makes you tough. Love makes you tough. And if you are fueled by those two things, you may be shocked at your ability not just to endure hardship, but to change the course of nations.

Fannie Lou Hamer was born in 1917, the youngest in a family of twenty children. This was Sunflower County of the Mississippi Delta—which Hamer called “the ruralest of the ruralest, and the poorest of the poorest.” Her parents were sharecroppers, a job that was often just slavery by another name. According to historian Chana Kai Lee, workers’ wages in this area were around $1.25 to $3.00 per day. She and her siblings were constantly hungry; dinner could be a handful of cornmeal, or a cut-up onion with some salt. There was a one-room schoolhouse, and Fannie Lou loved school—she recited poetry, won spelling bees. But state-wide, the average educational expenditure for Black children was about 20% what it was for white children. Now jump forward to 2020. In New York State, we have one of the least equitable school funding systems in the country. According to the nonprofit Alliance for Quality Education, the spending gap between wealthy and poor school districts in the state is nearly $10,000 per pupil, disproportionately hurting Black and Latino students. We have more in common with 1920s Mississippi that we might like to think.

          One of the bleakest moments of Hamer’s childhood came when her family finally earned up enough money to buy some livestock—three mules and two cows—just to have them all poisoned and killed by a white neighbor. She survived because despite it all she had faith and she had love. Fannie Lou was sustained by her deep Christian faith, and the courageous wisdom of her mother Lou Ella, who gave her a black doll. She told her daughter, “I want you to respect yourself as a Black child, and as you get older, you respect yourself as a Black woman. If you respect yourself enough, other people will have to respect you.”

          The astounding transformation in Fannie Lou’s life began in ’62, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, came to her area. And until they did, as a 44-year-old-woman, Fannie Lou Hamer—the legendary voting rights activist—had never known Black people could register to vote. At the time, only about 6.7 percent of Mississippi’s eligible black citizens were registered. Because of Jim Crow laws, more Black voters in Mississippi could vote for William McKinley in 1896 than for LBJ in 1964. Now jump to 2020, where poll taxes and voter suppression have not been thrown in the dustbin of history. Just last month, a court in Florida ruled that people with felonies on their record must pay all their fines and legal fees before regaining their right to vote. This is simply Jim Crow disenfranchisement again—a ruling of sheer contempt for the poor, that also targets minorities. The same white supremacy she was fighting then, we are very much still facing now.

          Hamer’s life was constantly on the line as she tried to register to vote. Looking back, she 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.” So finally manages to register–and from that point on, she was relentless. She got this radical sense that she could change the world—and ran with it. She taught, preached, and organized, gathering the power of her people, and helping them to realize just how powerful they were.

Believe it or not, Fannie Lou had even harder times ahead. In ‘63, she and some fellow activists were stopped by Mississippi State Highway Patrolmen, and brutally beaten in police custody. Fannie Lou was almost killed, and had chronic pain for the rest of her life. The officers were acquitted, and described by the presiding judge as upstanding citizens. In response, Hamer remarked “I wonder how many more times America is gonna turn its head and pretend nothing is happening.” Now jump forward to 2020, when a few weeks ago zero police officers were charged with the killing of Breonna Taylor. Our justice system is still turning its head, though millions of people have hit the streets to chant her name.

You might think that being almost murdered by police could persuade a person to put their activism on the back burner. Maybe lower their profile a bit. You know what Fannie Lou did? She founded her own political party–the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which went to the Democratic National Convention in ’64, to challenge the whites-only delegation from Mississippi. So she takes the stage on national TV and drops the hammer on the democratic establishment, which was terrified of alienating white supremacists within the party. She said “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated at this convention, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our phones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” President Johnson was so embarrassed and scared of her message spreading that he called a bogus impromptu press conference, to try and get TV networks to cut away from her. His urgent “breaking news” was, I kid you not, announcing the nine-month anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. The nine-month anniversary, I kid you not. The little girl from Sunflower County, who grew up picking cotton with rags tied around her feet, now had the powerful man in the world afraid of her.

Think about that. Starting from desperate poverty, in a country that hated her for being a Black woman, and a poor person, and hated her even more for standing up for herself, Fannie Lou Hamer rose to become a nationally renowned advocate for Black voting rights. And if she can go on from those seemingly hopeless and helpless beginnings, to shake the foundations of injustice in her time—why should we feel helpless in our time?

Faith makes you tough. Love makes you tough. Fannie Lou had both–but she was not a saint, or superhuman. She was constantly vulnerable—spiritually and physically, she was deeply wounded by the world she sought to change. But her woundedness was not a weakness. If anything, it only brought more conviction to her conquering faith. My point being that you too—for all your vulnerability, all the exhaustion and pain you may feel in this moment—have power. And Fannie Lou would want each and every one of us to use our power.

Unitarian Universalism is a sustaining faith—and this is a loving, sustaining community. Lean on each other. In your darkest moments, ask for help; trust that it will be there. Faith and love can empower us to not just endure painful times, but rise to meet their challenge.  

There’s so much more I could say about Hamer’s life. She was a dynamo: in 1969, she started the Freedom Farm initiative, a Mississippi farming co-op for some of the poorest people in the country. She supported unions demanding fair pay for exploited Black workers. She led the creation of 200 units of low-income housing, some of which stand to this day. But let’s focus more directly on right now.

The question we face today is, how do we help Hamer’s prophecies keep unfolding? Some victories have been won, thank God—remember that figure I quoted, that in 1964 just 6.7 percent of black voters in Mississippi were registered? Today, that number is 78%. But how do we keep going—and create deeper, systemic change? Today, unlike the 60’s, we have many of the powers that be falling all over themselves to say how much they just can’t stand racism. Corporations like Wal-Mart, or the giants of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, have made heartfelt statements. For example, a McDonald’s spokesperson said “With one of the most diverse workforces in the world, we believe Black Lives Matter, and it is our responsibility to continue to listen and learn and push for a more inclusive society by being open, honest and candid.” That’s terrific—thank you Mickey D’s. As long as we’re being candid: if you’re paying your workers $7.25 an hour, you are a huge part of the problem. Opponents of meaningful change–like reparations, raising the minimum wage, antitrust laws, stronger unions–will hide from it at all costs. Will cloak themselves in the argot of racial justice so as to avoid its real demands. Second Corinthians, 11:14: “Satan himself masquerades as angel of light.”

          Now, I can’t hit that fiery note without getting burned a little myself. It’s easy to take shots at big corporations for not living up to their stated values—to say yeah, those other people are the problem! The harder thing is to ask am I living up to my own values? To speak the plain realities of social location in this sermon: I am a white man from a middle-class background. What part could I have in the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, a black woman who faced poverty and white supremacist violence from her youngest days?

Well, Fannie Lou actually had an answer there. Much as Unitarian Universalists believe in our 7th principle, our interdependent web of existence, Hamer loved a verse from the book of Acts, chapter 17: “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” And as Fannie Lou said time and time again, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” With all of her great spiritual force, she preached collective liberation. The radical idea that her freedom was bound in everyone else’s—yours, mine, even that of the miserable white man who poisoned her family’s livestock. Because he certainly wasn’t free, if his soul was so twisted and desiccated by hatred.

Collective liberation is not just some vacuous feel-good slogan. It is a long and challenging march, thousands of years old, seeking a world where the many are no longer exploited by the few. Where in the words of the prophet Amos, the poor are no longer bought for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. So I have to bluntly ask myself: am I doing my part to make Amos and Fannie Lou’s prophetic words come true? Or I just a one-man PR department—paying lip service to racial justice, while fundamentally accepting of a status quo that works to my advantage? It’s a tough question, but life-giving if I can face it with honesty. Again, no easy way out.

In our reading, Fannie Lou draws this brilliant distinction between those who “stand behind” and those who “stand with.” It’s so easy to say you support something, to hold all the cutting-edge opinions. It’s easy to say “Yes, I can’t stand systemic racism—I sure hope someone does away with it. Best of luck to them.” And it’s another thing entirely to get involved and do your part. Looking around this congregation, I see so many great models to follow—so many people walking the walk. In the past months I’ve seen you march, donate, volunteer, supporting causes like Black Lives Matter and voter outreach. You’ve given your work and your love. I am grateful and energized by your commitment.

I’ll close by looking to the future. Just a month ahead, in fact—to that election that totally snuck up on me. We have to vote, of course. Fannie Lou, and God only knows how many other people, were beaten half to death so they could vote and drag this country towards progress. And tapping into some Hamer-esque pragmatism, there’s more we can do: we can phone bank, write letters to voters, donate to groups like UU the Vote or the ACLU, become a poll worker, or talk to our friends and family. It’s entirely natural to just sit around feeling anxious; Fannie Lou would tell us to take action. To pray with our feet, like the brave young people of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. And in the face of impressively shameless lies about mass voter fraud, we can preach the integrity of this election. Just as Fannie Lou shone her little light, we can shine the light of our chalice. We can do our part to help more voices be heard.  

But no matter what happens on November 3rd, our calling as people of faith and seekers of justice remains the same. These times can seem novel in their awfulness—and that sense of newness can be dizzying. But most of this we’ve seen before. Yes, our current president has sprinkled some postmodern, reality TV nightmare dust on everything. But anti-blackness, hatred of the poor, contempt for democracy—these are more than familiar. The enemy is known. Against all of these powers, against spiritual wickedness in high place, may we find the courage to stand with, not behind, the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer. And may we walk up that freedom road together. Amen, ashe, may it be so.

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