The civil rights activist and leader Fannie Lou Hamer spoke truth to power with an authenticity that makes her words, her actions and even her singing seem to have immediate appeal to us. In 1962, Hamer was a Mississippi sharecropper with little formal schooling when she decided to attend a voting rights organizing meeting at a local church. Two years later, she was facing down President Lyndon Johnson and the national civil rights leadership at the Democratic National Convention.

Hamer and her fellow delegates representing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) argued that they should be seated instead of the state’s official all-White delegation, and they rejected a compromise that would have awarded the MFDP two symbolic nonvoting seats at the convention. Hamer’s tearful and passionate testimony about what she and others endured to register to vote and organize — including a beating and sexual assault in jail that injured her for life — has shaped her legacy to this day.

Hamer’s unlettered style sometimes embarrassed her allies, but it also made her a symbol of authentic grass-roots activism. Her reputation has only grown in recent decades, aided by a spate of biographies and books, a play about her life, and even an invocation of Hamer by then-Sen. Kamala Harris at the national convention of the same party that looked askance at her efforts 56 years earlier. It is Hamer’s genuineness — evident in everything she said and did — that makes it so alluring and so perilous to invoke her legacy.

The historian Keisha N. Blain’s “Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America” employs “a blend of social commentary, biography, and intellectual history” to harness Hamer’s example for the present. Blain’s short volume juxtaposes Hamer’s speeches, interviews and life story against the social-justice efforts that emerged after the deaths of Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor and Michael Brown, as well as the words of public figures such as the rapper and artist Megan Thee Stallion, Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi, and anti-poverty organizers Rev. William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis.

Blain contends that Hamer can provide “a blueprint for tackling a range of contemporary social issues.” In chapters covering topics such as the need for public truth telling, for decentralized leadership, for centering women of color in social movements, for transnational solidarity and for a new poor people’s movement, Blain contends that Hamer can tell us what to do. The author argues that Hamer’s core message is captured in a 1971 speech in which she declared that “until I am free, you are not either.” Thus, the freedom of poor Black people in Mississippi was in the interest of everyone else, and the reverse was also true. Solidarity across social movements and a willingness to act, Blain argues, are Hamer’s true legacy.

Hamer’s life does indeed have much to teach anyone interested in seeking justice for the oppressed. The daughter of a poor sharecropper who was also a Baptist minister, she started picking cotton at age 6. Her favorite song was “This Little Light of Mine,” which she would later help make famous within the movement. One day, when Hamer went to the hospital for minor surgery, the doctor sterilized her without even informing her what he had done. This was a common occurrence for Black women in Mississippi and elsewhere — a horror that Hamer later helped bring to public attention.

Hamer’s life changed after hearing Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists James Forman, James Bevel and Bob Moses speak at the voting rights meeting. Soon she was boarding a bus with other local African Americans to try to do something dangerous: register to vote. She found herself navigating a new world of literacy tests and other subterfuges to suppress Black voting, police intimidation, and the constant threat of violence. She was evicted from the plantation where she lived, and soon her husband was also.

But she drew moral vindication from the MFDP’s seeming defeat at the 1964 convention. Hamer ran unsuccessfully for Congress and later for the state legislature. She was in demand as other social movements emerged, and allied herself with Black Rep. Shirley Chisholm and others in the National Women’s Political Caucus, where they advocated for the concerns of poor women of color. She was an early critic of the Vietnam War and spent years tirelessly maintaining a collective farming venture she founded to serve as an antipoverty program for her fellow Mississippians.

Hamer had a complex set of commitments. For instance, she was critical of efforts to promote both birth control and legalized abortion, a position similar to that of many Black public figures at the time, including Jesse Jackson. Hamer didn’t call herself a feminist, referred to her husband as “the boss of the house” and argued that “decisions concerning life, comfort, and security must finally rest in the hands of men” — even while she spoke out for women’s equality.

Blain is forthright in acknowledging complexities like these, but nonetheless she uses modern terms such as “intersectionality,” “reproductive rights” and “racial capitalism” to describe Hamer’s philosophy and its legacy. Yet one gets the sense that these terms don’t entirely capture Hamer’s core concerns. Hamer also claimed that no one had ever told her she had the right to vote before the pivotal 1962 church meeting, but in fact she had already been assisting the local NAACP. Hamer remains beguiling and in many ways elusive — as she was even to those of her own era who took her authenticity at face value.

Hamer is an essential and inspirational figure for anyone seeking an honest accounting of America’s troubled past and for those who set themselves to the still-unfinished struggle for change, and Blain does an excellent job of reminding us of her importance. Every generation deserves to be reminded of her legacy, even as the temptation to press Hamer into the service of our own struggles remains irresistible.

UNTIL I AM FREE

Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message
to America

By Keisha N. Blain. Beacon Press.
200 pp. $24.95