Mention Fannie Lou Hamer in many of the nation’s classrooms, or in some offices on Capitol Hill, for that matter, and chances are the civil rights icon’s name might garner more blank stares than recognition.
Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper with a sixth-grade education who became a voting rights advocate at a time when registering meant risking your life, was the focus of Wednesday’s opening night of the March on Washington Film Festival. The festival runs through July 25 and is free, but the required reserve tickets have been in high demand.
The annual event, organizers said, is designed to tell stories of the known and unknown heroes of the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and ’60s, a period that has significantly shaped our times.
“The ultimate goal is to tell the story more accurately,” says founder Robert Raben, who says the period is the country’s second revolution but is not known as well as it should be.
The festival debuted in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march, and this year’s edition has landed with particular poignancy. The country is again awash in racial turmoil and finding itself struggling with reconciling history. Look only as far as South Carolina.
“What we’re finding is an enormous hunger for accurate, more contextualized, more precise understanding of this era in American history,” said Raben, adding that efforts are underway to get the festival materials into the nation’s schools and provide other avenues for public access.
Film is the festival’s center, but the event has evolved, with activists telling their stories; journalists, scholars and authors speaking; and musical performances.
In addition to a new short film about Hamer, “This Little Light of Mine: The Legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer,” Wednesday’s event included a panel with filmmaker Robin Hamilton, along with those featured in the film: Vergie Hamer Faulkner, Hamer’s daughter (Hamer, who died in 1977, had been sterilized without her knowledge), recalled being 9 and witnessing the start of her mother’s activism. She also spoke about the threats on Hamer’s life.
Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s delegate to Congress, recounted her efforts to get Hamer and activist Lawrence Guyot out of a Winona, Miss., jail after brutal beatings. Hamer was viciously beaten and nearly killed. Guyot, Norton said, had been beaten and was left naked; Norton had to wait for him to find something to cover himself. She was a second-year Yale law student at the time and, like Hamer and Guyot, worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Norton told a rapt audience at the Metropolitan AME Church in downtown Washington about seeing Hamer’s fresh bruises.
“There’s nobody I can compare her with,” she said.
Along with Hamilton and Faulkner, other panel participants were SNCC alum Dorie Ladner; the Rev. Ed King, a white activist who worked with Hamer in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; and longtime activist, educator and Mississippi politician Leslie McLemore.
Thursday at the National Archives, journalist and author A’lelia Bundles moderated an event that included Clarence Jones, who was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawyer and advised King on his “I Have a Dream” speech, and three Pulitzer Prize-winning authors: Taylor Branch, Gilbert King and Diane McWhorter. Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson also spoke.
“Our history has never taught the centrality of race as the key barometer to how well we’re doing with the American experiment,” said Branch, known for his chronicles of King’s life. “Unfortunately, right now we’re paying the price for 50 years of trying to avoid and hide that subject.”
Jones shared stories of King and his own insights about today’s challenges, blending wisdom and wit. Key to American progress, he said, is understanding slavery and the doctrine of white supremacy.
“There’s probably no more issue that’s fraught with hypocrisy today in our country — other than maybe sex, I don’t know — than the issue of race in America,” he said, drawing a bit of laughter. He also urged more cross-generational conversations with young people in the Black Lives Matter movement.
McWhorter, author of “Carry Me Home,” about the struggles in Birmingham, Ala. (the site of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing), noted that some segments of the black middle class did not supportive of King and the movement because they feared it threatened their societal standing.
More films about the era are needed to help educate the country, Branch said. He and King, author of “Devil in the Grove” about Thurgood Marshall and a Florida false rape allegation case involving four men, have works underway.
“Clarence knows I’ve been trying to make a film for 30 years,” said Branch, who is optimistic about an HBO project. “I think we’re going to make it this time.”
The festival continues through July 25. Tickets remain for some events.
For more information, visit marchonwashingtonfilmfestival.org.