In commemoration of what would have been her 100th birthday, the legacy of late civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was celebrated by the March on Washington Film Festival and New York University-DC in a rare special program last week.
The Oct. 11 event began with spoken word by poet/performance artist Holly Bass, who shared the story of her own family history, one that, like Hamer’s, was centered around sharecropping.
Hamer’s life from her Oct. 6, 1917, birth began as a sharecropper on the Marlow plantation in Sunflower County before she was thrust into the history books by her advocacy for voting rights in Mississippi during the volatile ’60s. It was said she could pick hundreds of pounds of cotton in a week.
The focal point of the evening event was a screening of Robin Hamilton’s 2015 short documentary, “This Little Light of Mine: The Legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer,” which captured the fervor of Hamer’s grass-roots activism during the civil rights movement. The film, less than a half-hour long, succinctly tells the story of Hamer’s rise from a sharecropping family to the icon she became in pursuit of the right to vote.
Historical film footage of Hamer punctuates the film, demonstrating the power of her words that carried her to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964 as the founder and principal spokesperson for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MDFP).
As she testified at the convention, Hamer detailed the struggle and violence meted out on her and members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the quest to gain the right to vote. Her efforts resulted in a beating at the hands of the police that was so severe, she nearly lost her kidney and her life.
The MFDP’s presence at the Democratic National Convention in New Jersey that year was credited for integrating future Democratic delegations, and propelling the climate forward towards the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Hamilton calls the film a “labor of love,” as she worked on it with virtually no budget and no assistance. But it powerfully and poignantly pays homage to the short but incredibly effective life of Hamer, who died at age 59 of hypertension and complications from breast cancer in her native state.
”I wanted this to be my love letter to her, my thank-you,” Hamilton said during the panel discussion following the film, which was also her directorial debut.
Finding the people who fought alongside Hamer was also not an easy feat.
“I was fortunate and blessed to get the people I did,” Hamilton said. “Her daughter Vergie was open and she was pleased [to participate].”
But others proved more challenging.
“I had to do a lot of digging and asking and pleading,” she said. “Not everybody wanted to talk or remember. There were big names who were hard to reach. But I wanted to reach out to people who were with her on the front lines.”
One of those people she relied on heavily in the film was Dorie Ladner, who joined Hamilton on the post-film panel. Ladner, at age 14, took up the struggle and eventually joined the SNCC, working alongside Hamer to register voters in her native state.
Ladner was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, roughly 200 miles from Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was lynched shortly before Ladner took up the cause.
”When Emmett Till was murdered, I had to do something,” Ladner said. “When [Hamer] took a bus load of sharecroppers to the courthouse to attempt to vote in 1962, the people were steadfast. They had had enough.”
The young Ladner and Hamer worked tirelessly to earn that right to vote, often facing insurmountable violence.
“There was a lot of studying to do and a lot of work,” Ladner said. “But Mrs. Hamer had a vision. She wanted to be free.”
Hamilton said the project was nearly two decades in the making.
“I carried this story with me for 15 years,” Hamilton said. “I parked myself in the Library of Congress and read her papers at Tougaloo College. But I felt I knew her intimately, sitting listening to her voice in the headphones.
”What struck me was how little I knew about women in the movement,” she said. “I learned about her in class in a book by Kay Mills, ‘This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,'” she added. “Her story stayed with me through the class and beyond. I needed to get this done, and it went further than I ever expected.”