This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. By Kay Mills. Dutton.$24.00. A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story. By Elaine Brown. Pantheon. $25.00.
To understand Fannie Lou Hamer and Elaine Brown, one has to go back to the road leading out of Selma, Alabama in 1965. As civil rights activists marched over the infamous Edmund Pettus bridge and crossed the border between Dallas and Lowndes Counties, the only perceptible change seemed to be the landscape, which became rural, the home of black sharecroppers. Few realized then that the border would come to represent as much of a philosophical boundary as a geographical one; marchers were not only entering a new county, they were changing eras too. On one side stood an experienced alliance of civil rights organizations focused on a single enemy: institutionalized segregation. On the other side was a nascent, febrile group of agitators whose rising influence would come to characterize the Movement in the following decades. The trajectories of Hamer and Brown were launched from these differing sides, and their careers embody much of the internecine strife that characterized the Movement in the following decades.
According to Nicholas Lemann, early black civil rights activists were of two major types. The first tended to be Southern and religious, and its members would have probably joined the ministry if the movement hadn’t come along; the other was usually Northern, urban, and middle class and possessed a reawakened interest in black consciousness. For poor Southern blacks, particularly people like Hamer, a “reawakened” black consciousness was an anomaly. Hamer knew only the oppressive life of plantation work and was steeped in black folkways that would become the moral and philosophic touchstones for the rest of her life. As a representative of the latter group, Elaine Brown would come to the movement viewing such a stance as the burden of the past, indicative of the tired religiosity and cautionary attitude that had always stigmatized black gains. For many of her generation, involvement in the movement was a self-conscious act first, “a point of access to the main African-American experience and therefore to self-discovery.”
Though their backgrounds and original motives may have differed, what they finally had to offer didn’t. As women, they had to fight against both racism and sexism, and to survive, according to Bob Moses, they had “to reach down to some deep consciousness, a deeper place in themselves.” Steeled by their struggles, they understood better than most the efficacy of moral energy that in many ways dissipated after Selma. The result was that they stitched together a kind of philosophic cohesiveness which could stand as a guidepost for the civil rights struggle that still remains to be won.
“A radical in the deepest sense of the word,” according to one acquaintance, Fannie Lou Hamer is best remembered for her defiant stand at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Born into a family of sharecroppers in 1917, Hamer was one of 19 children. She emulated the principles of her devout parents, both of whom were sharecroppers, and became deeply faithful, holding firm to her belief, even in the face of violent oppression, that hating made one as weak as those filled with hatred. In fact, she would always maintain to those who insisted otherwise that, “I am not fighting for an all-black world, just like I am not going to tolerate an all-white world.” Like countless other black women in the deep South, she married and went to work on a plantation. Hospitalized in 1961 for a minor operation, she was sterilized without her consent. “From this humblest of beginnings,” Hamer’s biographer Kay Mills writes, “Mrs. Hamer would go on to challenge the President of the U.S., the national Democratic Party, members of Congress, and the American people about fulfilling the promises of democracy.”
Early in the drive for voter registration, Hamer’s small town of Ruleville, in Sunflower County, Mississippi, had been tactically avoided because it was the home of Senator Jim Eastland, powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Civil rights workers knew they would get no help from reluctant federal authorities if they stepped into the senator’s suzerainty. (In 1968 half of the families in Eastland’s county languished under poverty line, while $10 million went to fanners for price support; Eastland himself received $116, 970 in federal farm payments.) In 1962, when the movement finally came to Ruleville, Hamer raised her hand as one of the first black citizens to register to vote. It was the beginning of her wholehearted commitment to the movement. By 1963 she was traveling around the county encouraging others to follow her example. At the SNCC conference in Nashville that spring, Hamer became a galvanizing presence, mainly through her singing of gospel music which became her trademark, her earthy voice capturing the era’s essence. For many of the young volunteers, the 44-year-old Hamer represented why they were there: she was a visible, vibrant example of self-empowerment. In 1963, the same day that Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama, Hamer and a few others were arrested in Winona, Mississippi and severely beaten. She recovered, and the following summer—Freedom Summer—she was an integral part of the training sessions for non-violent volunteers in Oxford, Ohio.
At the 1964 Atlantic City convention, Lyndon Johnson felt that it was as important for his ego as it was for his political agenda to win the presidential nomination on his own terms. Having co-opted the Kennedy administrations mantle of civil rights legislation and signed the Civil Rights Act a few weeks earlier, he felt that he had earned the right to call for change at his own pace. In addition, the Great Society Programs that would characterize his domestic agenda still lacked congressional approval. Johnson needed to fashion a coalition strong enough to wake Washington from its moral slumber and to drive legislation through key congressional committees, many of which were controlled by powerful Southerners. In response to the talk of possible challenges on the floor in Atlantic City, Johnson answered, “There ain’t going to be all that. . . shit at the convention.”
Into this charged atmosphere stepped Fannie Lou Hamer and the idealistic and politically naive Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates who, unlike anyone Johnson knew, refused to bargain. The MFDP delegates were single-minded in their goal: denied access to the political process at every level in their home state, they wanted to unseat the all-white delegation to the national party. As Mrs. Hamer prepared to testify in front of the party’s Credentials Committee on national television, Johnson tried to preempt her testimony with his own press conference. Before coverage was switched though, Hamer succeeded in outlining the coming battle in no uncertain terms. The first sentence of her testimony was high-stakes politics: “Mr. Chairman, and the Credentials Committee, my name is Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O.Eastland, and Senator Stennis.”
The eventual compromise awarded the MFDP only two at-large seats. Politically-seasoned black officials like Andrew Young called it a victory; the group had achieved recognition without compromising Johnson’s landslide, which would become part of the catalyst behind the passage of the Voting Rights Act and other Great Society Programs. In addition, the regular party had been granted a vision of the future in which party politics would be opened to fuller participation by more Americans. On the other hand, Hamer spoke for the most members when she said, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats ‘cause all of us is tired.” For them, the cobbled “compromise” was yet another sell-out, and a backlash of distrust arose a few months later at SNCC’s meeting in Waveland, Mississippi, when the idea of limiting further white role in the organization was seriously debated. The political machinations at the Atlantic City convention were signs of the protracted battle to come, and, though the movement gained experience, some of its young members had grown dispirited and impatient. Many abandoned the struggle in the South for challenges that held more promise, among them black nationalism.
Elaine Brown came of age in this burgeoning period. Having grown up in the underprivileged neighborhoods of North Philadelphia, she knew that “life did not seem a terrible affair just because [her] mother said so.[She] felt it.” But whereas Hamer and other Southern black women—molded from their very births by racial oppression—were taught to internalize their anger for safety’s sake, Brown’s anger found immediate outlet. Equally outspoken friends and superior schooling offered a forum for her disaffection, and she began to distance herself from the values of earlier generations, her grandmother’s religiosity, for example, the same type of religiosity which was the underpinning to so much of Hamer’s philosophy. Her dissatisfaction led her from Temple University to California where, through her looks, intelligence, and share of good luck, she ended up hobnobbing with influential Black Panther members, many of whom would come to influence and power in postWatts southern California.
Brown joined the Black Panthers in 1968, but her devotion to it stemmed as much from her interest in fellow blacks who were “doomed to a ghetto of myopia” as it did her hagiographic fascination with male Panther leaders which led her, more often than not, to their beds. Brown’s accounts of men like Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Stokely Carmichael indicate that the Party’s worst enemies were not limited to Hoover’s F.B.I, or COINTELPRO, but included the leadership itself which became the victim of its own revolutionary brilliance. In many ways, Brown’s book is a case-study of extremism pursued to its logical end. The lingering image of the Party’s once powerful cadre of leaders is remindful of Eliot’s hollow men, “Shape without form, shade without color, / Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.”
While a more conventional history might leaven Brown’s sometimes zany, kiss-and-tell style, the book seems like an accurate reflection of the Southern California, hyper-kinetic atmosphere. Her particular lack of honest self-criticism—she never offers much summary appraisal, and her position as a feminist in a den of misogynists doesn’t square with her demeaning bed-hopping—typifies the Panthers themselves, who thrived in part because of their ability to mold themselves according to the moment. That this characteristic meant that the Party was sometimes more style than substance isn’t lost on her. For example, even though she excoriates Tom Wolfe for his shortsighted “radical chic” generation label, she is more critical than Wolfe about black leaders who were more concerned with their sartorial splendor than with effective revolution. Afros, mirrored sunglasses, dashikis, leather jackets, and the aesthetics of assorted weaponry are debated in tony nightclubs as hotly as maxims by Che Guevara or Mao Zedong. “We seriously pretended,” Brown writes at one point, “that our commitment to the struggle was an old thing, not born the day before yesterday, when some of us were “white,” or not really “black.”“
In August, 1974, Brown herself assumed control of the Black Panthers. Even her previous experience with the “exhilarating madness” hadn’t fully prepared her for the reality. Though the party had always advocated the use of violence, Brown was stunned by the weaponry and the willingness to use it. The result was that at “the deepest level, there was blood, nothing but blood, unsanitized by political polemic,” and Life Magazine’s chilling photograph of 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson leading a Marin County judge out of the courtroom with a shotgun to his neck as human-collateral for the freedom of the Soledad Brothers was all that much of the country felt it needed to know about the Panthers. But Brown made efforts to corral the loose cannons and curb wanton violence. She worked hard, often on her own, to make sure that the Panthers’ otherwise successful ventures, such as community programs and encouragement of a new sense of community pride and individual self-esteem in urban ghettos, continued.
It wasn’t until the latter part of their involvement—once Hamer returned home to Mississippi and Brown assumed leadership without the distractions of earlier leaders who were dead, in jail, or exiled—that these two women shared concerns as well as methods. Not only did they come to understand that a victory over remaining economic and educational inequality was necessary if freedom was ever to ring with any import from the red hills of Mississippi to the curvaceous slopes of California, but they were committed to doing something about it. For the disenfranchised the personal is political, as Hamer and Brown were doubly aware. They were Maya Angelou’s black, female archetype, “assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and black lack of power.”
Thus their efforts started within the movement itself, to secure a place for women. Stokely Carmichael’s statement that “the only position for women in SNCC is prone” is, if hyperbolic, certainly symbolic. The early years of the movement showed a deep ambivalence about the role of women. The situation worsened and grew more abusive in the militant black movement. Brown writes that “a woman in the Black Panther movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. A woman attempting the role of leadership was, to my proud black Brothers, making an alliance with the counter-revolutionary, man-hating, lesbian, feminist white bitches. . . . I would lambaste the civil rights men who had dismissed the importance of women like Fannie Lou Hamer.” For her part, Hamer was a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, and at meetings where woman like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem spoke of consciousness raising and “liberation of the spirit,” Hamer reminded them that if they thought white women had problems, “then they should be black and in Mississippi for a spell.”
Having secured an increased respect, both Hamer and Brown were ideally located at a juncture of American political history, the legacy of which drives the issue of race relations today. In Lyndon Johnson’s first State of the Union Address in 1964, he announced the country’s plans for a war on poverty. As that policy took shape, it was determined that blacks themselves, aided with federal money, would be the answer to the movement’s next phase. The goal was for blacks to guarantee their earlier gains by empowering and improving aspects of their lives other than through the corrupt, labyrinthine elective politics still perverted by segregationists, or through an armed rebellion that was threatening to tear the country apart.
Both Hamer and Brown found themselves on the crest of this new approach. Armed with federal dollars, Hamer shepherded a successful Head Start program, attacked the Delta’s hunger problem by lobbying for increased assistance from federal sources and wealthy liberals, and started community co-ops and a Freedom Farm. Brown was influential in Oakland’s election of its first black mayor and in initiating changes in long-term Bay area investment plans which were more beneficial to the surrounding, poor black community. She also furthered the Panthers’ free food programs, medical clinics, and educational offerings. Nearly 30 years later, the results of these and other efforts are, at best, mixed. Some, like the agricultural co-ops, were failures. Head Start, on the other hand, has proven highly successful. Instead of a balanced assessment, though, the legacy of these types of programs is the prevailing belief, as Nicholas Lemann describes it, that they were innately flawed, that “anything the federal government might do for the black poor will surely fail.”
To read these books is to be reminded, once again, of the spurious and dangerous repercussions of such a legacy. These two women are examples of the power of moral energy, and their efforts eclipse cynicism and defeatism. As much as anyone from that era, they understood that “in a true democracy, people are politically active not to achieve celebrity or money but to change their own lives.” In two decades that are too often remembered as a colloquy of violence and despair, the voices and examples of Fannie Lou Hamer and Elaine Brown created a rare alchemy. Together, as Eleanor Holmes Norton once commented about Hamer, they crafted a “mosaic of coherent thought about freedom and justice, so that when it was all through, you knew that you had heard.”