Of all the stories from the civil rights era, perhaps the most extraordinary and least told tale is that of the icon and freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer. An upcoming documentary will finally tell Hamer’s stirring story in her own words, thanks to a historic grant by the Kellogg Foundation to Mississippi’s Tougaloo College.
Keith Beauchamp, whose 2005 film, The Untold Story of Emmett Till, prompted the Department of Justice to reopen the investigation into Emmett’s murder, will serve as executive producer of Fannie Lou Hamer’s America. The doc will use Hamer’s letters, speeches and recordings to recount the life of one of the seminal heroes in Mississippi’s long and complicated history of pushback and resistance.
Born and raised on a cotton plantation in Ruleville, Miss., in 1917, Hamer began picking cotton at age 6. She dropped out of school at 13 years of age when the men on the sharecropping plantation on which she lived realized that she could pick 200-300 pounds of cotton per day. But Hamer continued to educate herself and eventually became the de facto accountant over the same plantation on which she picked cotton, until she was kicked out for registering to vote.
Known for bringing the spirituals she sang while picking cotton to the freedom struggle, Hamer was reportedly the first person to sign up to travel around the state of Mississippi to register black voters after hearing a speech in 1962. A few months later, she was beaten by Winona, Miss., police officers so badly that it took her two months to recover. Even though the beating left her with physical and psychological side effects, Hamer was not deterred.
But it was the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 that made Hamer a legend. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Hamer led a group called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the floor of the convention and claimed that they were the rightful delegates for Mississippi’s Democratic Party because they were the only ones elected without a discriminatory ballot.
The move so divided the party that the white Mississippi delegates left the convention, prompting the MFDP to make the appalling move of sitting in the abandoned seats on the floor of the whites-only convention. It is said that the MFDP’s actions and Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., were the two catalysts that prompted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Tougaloo College was awarded a grant by the Kellogg Foundation as a financial partner in the film because of the HBCU’s long history of involvement with the civil rights fight. The money not only will help fund the film but will also go toward developing a K-12 civil rights curriculum for the state.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s America will tell the story of how this hero overcame brutality, poverty and injustice to lead her people to freedom. When asked why she was so fearless in her pursuit of freedom, Hamer 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.
Find out more about the upcoming documentary here.