GirlTrek, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the health and well-being of black women and girls, is gearing up to celebrate the life of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer on Friday, the 100th anniversary of Hamer’s birth.
“Fannie Lou Hamer died too soon, and we want to celebrate her life in a big way,” GirlTrek CEO and co-founder T. Morgan Dixon said. “In her honor, we are going to raise an army of sisters, #FanniesArmy, who will lead 100 walks across America at sunset on Oct. 6.”
At press time, there were more than 300 walks registered for Friday, from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss., Harlem to Denver. “The history of black women walking has always changed things—from Harriet Tubman to the women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Dixon said. The idea for #FanniesArmy actually came about after more than 20,000 black women and girls walked on the centennial of Harriet Tubman’s death in 2013.
“Congress had designated March 10 as Harriet Tubman Day, but nobody was celebrating it, and we said, bump that; this is the centennial of the passing of a legend, and we’re about to celebrate,” Dixon added. They then looked at the calendar and saw that Hamer’s 100th birthday would have been Oct. 6, 2017, and began planning for this week’s action.
“Why? Because Fannie Lou Hamer was a righteous freedom fighter who literally sacrificed her body for us,” Dixon explained. “She was beaten down trying to vote, and trying to organize voters. She had a forced hysterectomy when she was going in for routine treatment [she later adopted children]. She literally put her body on the line for us and then died prematurely of heart disease and cancer. We know sacrificing our bodies for our family. We know service at that level; black women do.”
By leading a political party and unparalleled grassroots campaign in Mississippi that delivered over 60,000 votes, Hamer, a former sharecropper, is directly responsible for securing the Voting Rights Act and changing the tide of justice. She spoke at the 1964 and 1968 Democratic National Conventions and demanded the attention (and fear) of President Lyndon B. Johnson. However, unlike Rosa Parks or Coretta Scott King, she remains mostly unsung, save for one of her most famous quotes: “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
In a recent TED Talk with co-founder Vanessa Garrison, Dixon noted that every day in America, 137 black women die from heart disease, claiming more lives than gun violence, AIDS and cigarettes combined. A “whole plane full” of black women dying every single day.
“Black women are dying faster and at higher rates than any other group in America from preventable obesity-related diseases. And so we say, ‘Not on our watch.’ We say, ‘We’re going to do the single most powerful thing for our health, which is move every day,’” Dixon said.
GirlTrek has already recruited more than 112,000 black women and girls across the country to take its pledge to lace up their shoes and walk out their front door at least once a week. Their goal is to inspire 1 million black women and girls to join the movement by 2020, to promote not only physical health but social justice, too, said Dixon. (For their work, both Dixon and Garrison were named to The Root 100 last month.)
Alexandra Clark, a 19-year-old junior and business management major and president of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s GirlTrek chapter, said that she loves getting out and about every Saturday morning (she said it jump-starts her day), but also the safe space and support system that GirlTrek provides for women on campus and from the greater Charlotte, N.C., community.
“Our conversations are so good,” said Clark, who explained that there are themes each week where organizers throw out broad, open-ended questions to get the discussion going.
“We talk about anything from relationships to how to love yourself to how to unite women on our campus,” said Clark, who pointed out that the movement itself flies in the face of the stigma of black women being angry or stuck up. “It shows that we can come together and focus on our health and walk. I love that they’re trying to get a million women walking. It’s not just middle-aged women; we’re young college students dedicated to walking at least once a week.”
Clark also said that there are “stress protests”-themed walks to confront stressors in their lives, including racist incidents on campus. The week before, she noted, a “Colored” sign was found on a water fountain in a residential hall at the school. She said that the Friday walk for Hamer will provide a chance to unpack or release some of the tension around that.
“Especially on a large campus, [racial incidents] can be hard to talk about,” Clark said. “So we thought it would be a good idea to just host that walk and have people come out, and if you are feeling some type of way to say it, or if you haven’t spoken about it, or if you don’t have anyone to talk to about it, then come and talk to us about it.”
Yet Clark stressed that the walks are there to uplift: “We don’t want to be negative or sad, but to be able to get things off our chest and talk.”
Dixon and Garrison will be participating in a walk in Hamer’s hometown of Ruleville, Miss., in the Mississippi Delta on Friday. They have the blessing of Hamer’s daughter, Jaqueline Hamer, and said that they plan to revel in the name of one who gave so much for us.
“This bridge called our backs has been open for 400 years,” Dixon said. “And so in celebration of that and really to put feet to our prayers that we can be liberated, we wanted to walk in her honor and we wanted to say, ‘We are tired of being sick and tired of being sick and tired, Mama Fannie.’”
To participate in #FanniesArmy and walk for 100 minutes at sunset on Friday, go to girltrek.org, scroll down and click “Find an event near you” and put in your zip code. If there’s no walk near you, email email@example.com to create one.