Faith, endurance of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer revealed in new biography

Faith, endurance of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer revealed in new biography

(RNS) — Fannie Lou Hamer was an advocate for African Americans, women and poor people — and for many who were all three.

She lost her sharecropping job and her home when she registered to vote. She suffered physical and sexual assaults when she was taken to jail for her activism. And stories of her struggles reached the floor of the 1964 Democratic Convention — and the nation — when her emotional speech aired on television.

Historian Kate Clifford Larson has written a new book, “Walk With Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer,” that reveals details of the faith and life of Hamer, who was born 104 years ago Wednesday (Oct. 6) and died in 1977.

“Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer” by Kate Clifford Larson. Courtesy image

Inspired by young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers who preached Bible passages about liberation at her church in Ruleville, Mississippi, in 1962, Hamer became a singer and speaker for equal rights and human rights.

“She crawled her way through extraordinarily difficult circumstances to bring her voice to the nation to be heard,” Larson told Religion News Service. “And she knew that she was representing so many people that were not heard.”

Larson spoke to RNS about Hamer’s faith, her favorite spirituals and how music helped the activist and advocate survive.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to write a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer and how would you describe her as a woman of faith?

I published a book about (Harriet) Tubman and Hamer is so similar to Harriet Tubman, only 100 years later. I decided to start looking into her life and thinking I should do a biography of Hamer. I just became hooked. There were so many similarities, and things I could see in Hamer that I just thought, we need to have a refresher about Fannie Lou Hamer and the strength of her character and how she survived such incredible adversity and found the same kind of solace that Harriet Tubman did — in her faith, in her family and the community — to keep going and fighting and to try to make the world a better place.

It seems she is relatively unknown in many circles despite the credit she’s given by civil rights veterans for her work.

It is curious that she is not well known broadly. And I hope that changes, because I think we need to look back sometimes to see how far we’ve come. And with Hamer, the things that happened to her — she faced the world by confronting that trauma, and that violence, without hate. And the only way she could do that was through her faith, and talking to God and saying: Where are you, what is happening here, give me the strength to carry this weight and to move forward. And she did. She knew hate could really destroy her — that feeling of hating the people that were trying to kill her and subjugate her. She managed to rise above it because she had a greater mission in front of her.

Why did you title the book “Walk With Me”?

The title is from the song “Walk With Me, Lord.” She was brutally beaten, nearly killed, in the Winona, Mississippi, jail in June of 1963. As she lay in her jail cell, bleeding and bruised and coming in and out of consciousness, she struggled to hang on and her cellmate, Euvester Simpson, a teenage civil rights worker, was there with her. She asked Euvester to please sing with her because she needed to find strength and she needed God to be with her. So she sang that song “Walk With Me, Lord.” She needed to feel there was something bigger that would help her survive those moments where it wasn’t so clear she would survive. And I found it so powerful that she would do that. She survived that night and was able to get up and walk the next morning.

What other spirituals and gospel songs were particularly important to Hamer as she fought for voting rights and other social justice causes?

One of her favorites is “This Little Light of Mine.” She sang that everywhere, all the time. It’s kind of her anthem. There were some other spirituals, but really, most of the ones she sang a lot during the movement were those crossover folk songs, rooted in Christian spirituals, like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” She grew up not only in a very strong church environment, the Baptist church, but she grew up in the fields of Mississippi where there were work songs in the fields, call and response songs. Where she grew up was actually the birthplace of the Delta blues music.

She also quoted the Bible to the people she differed with. Were there particular biblical lessons Hamer applied to her fight to help her fellow Black Mississippians?

She used the Bible in many different ways. She used it to shame her white oppressors who claimed also to be Christians, following the path of Christ. She would use the Bible and say: Are you following this path by what you’re doing to me, to my fellow community members and family members? And she used the Bible passages to remind Christian ministers: This is your job, and what are you doing up on that pulpit? You’re telling people to be patient. Well, in the Bible it says stand up and lead people out of Egypt.

You wrote about William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, Hamer’s congregation, throughout the book. What happened there, over the years as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups used it as a place for meetings, classes and rallies?

The church, the ministers participated in the movement and had meetings in that church at great risk to themselves and to the church, and in fact, the church was bombed a couple of times even though the fires were put out, fortunately, very quickly. There were residents in the community that took their lives and put them on the line. They were at great risk, to go to those meetings, to conduct those meetings, to go out and do voter registration drives. It was all centered on the church community because that was really the only community buildings in many of these places where people could meet together to have these discussions.

You said Hamer was at a crossroads as she first listened to those SNCC (pronounced “snick”) activists seeking more people to join their cause.

She experienced trauma, and she had been sterilized against her will — she didn’t give permission — and she had gone through this very deep depression, and it tested her faith. It tested her understanding of the world, and she came out of that and went to this meeting in Ruleville in 1962 and when she heard those young people and their passion and their willingness to put their lives on the line for her, she viewed them as the “New Kingdom.” So it was more than a crossroads for her. It was a moment where she could see the future in these young people, and she called them the “New Kingdom (right here) on earth.” If they were willing to stand up and risk their lives then she could, at 45, 46 years old, stand up herself. That was a crossroads. She made that choice to stand up, publicly, and move forward.

What Is Rodney King’s Legacy?

What Is Rodney King’s Legacy?

ROAD TO REDEMPTION: Rodney King, 47, was found dead in his swimming pool on Sunday, June 17. In April, he was a featured author at the LA Times Festival of Books, where he discussed his autobiography, 'The Riot Within.' (Photo: Susan J. Rose/Newscom)

Rodney King’s untimely death over the weekend has led to a lot of conversations about his significance as a key civil rights figure. King, of course, gained fame for the 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles cops that he endured and the subsequent race riot that followed in 1992 after the officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing. He then became an unlikely voice of reason when, in the midst of the deadly and destructive rioting, he famously asked, “Can we all just get along?” Sadly, that question still echoes today after each new racially charged issue or controversy that erupts in the media.

But what will be King’s lasting legacy? By his own admission, he was not a perfect man. In fact, drunk driving and alleged substance abuse were the reasons he was pulled over by the L.A. cops initially in 1991, and he continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol apparently until the night of his death. In a Los Angeles Times post, reporter Ken Streeter recalls his series of interviews with King this year and confirms that King was still drinking and still smoking pot (he said for medical reasons).

So, King doesn’t exactly fit the classic image of the heroic civil rights icon. Yet, he stands as an important symbol in our nation’s uneasy saga of racial unrest and our stutter steps toward reconciliation.

Writing at The Root, Sylvester Monroe speaks of King as a “symbol” whose pain and missteps were not in vain. Last year at Poynter.org, Steve Myers observed how citizen journalism has changed since that infamous video of King being beaten by police. An Associated Press report at HuffPost’s Black Voices attempts to summarize King’s significance in shining a light on the injustices of racial profiling and police brutality in urban law enforcement. The article features an interview with Lou Cannon, author of Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD.

“The King beating and trial set in motion overdue reforms in the LAPD and that had a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the country,” Cannon explains. Indeed, under L.A. police Chief William Bratton in the 2000s, the department began focusing on community policing, hired more minority officers, and worked to heal tensions between the police and minority communities who continued to protest racial profiling and excessive use of force.

In the post-Rodney King world, adds Cannon, “It became more perilous to pull someone over for driving while black.”

To his credit, King was well aware of his shortcomings and shared his story in an autobiography released earlier this year to mark the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots. In The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, King came clean about his failures and his continued struggles with alcohol addiction, but also about how God had helped him begin to turn his life around.

In a poignant interview with the Canadian public radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi, King talked about his book and expressed optimism about both his own future and the state of race relations in the United States.

What do you view as Rodney King’s legacy? What does his complicated journey say about race relations in America? Will he rightly be remembered a civil rights icon?

Into the Wild ‘Blue’ Yonder

Into the Wild ‘Blue’ Yonder

FAITH OUTSIDE THE BOUNDARIES: Marshall Allman and Claire Holt bring Donald Miller's bestselling book to life in 'Blue Like Jazz.' (Image: Roadside Attractions)

“Jazz is the mother, and hip-hop’s the child / She died and revived, now her child’s running wild.” – Grits, “Jazz,” Mental Releases, 1994

The highly anticipated film adaptation of Donald Miller’s bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz, which opens this weekend, accomplishes something rare and beautiful: it depicts an authentic faith journey in a bohemian, urban setting. Though the titular music is mentioned only a few times in passing — over the plaintive wails of vintage Coltrane — the movie pulses with many aspects of great jazz. It is alternately exuberant and melancholy, messy and chaotic but with a coalescing sense of order and progression.

Directed by former CCM artist and producer Steve Taylor (who also directed 2006’s The Second Chance starring Michael W. Smith) and starring Marshall Allman (HBO’s True Blood), Blue Like Jazz is a fictionalized account of Donald Miller’s crisis of belief at liberal Reed College, a stark contrast to his Baptist Texan upbringing.

Plenty of keystrokes have been expended dealing with the question of whether or not this is a Christian movie. In my book, motion pictures can be no more Christian than model trains or milkshakes, which are all products born of long, collaborative processes. What people really mean when they ask that question is, “Does this film espouse a Christian worldview?”

The answer there is a firm, “yes, but.” Yes, but not an exclusively conservative evangelical worldview. Yes, but only if your definition of a Christian includes those who struggle and doubt and make horrendous mistakes and occasionally [SPOILER ALERT] deface buildings with giant condoms. (Did I mention this is a PG-13 film?)

Marshall Allman plays the fictional Don Miller as an everyman-turned-iconoclast, who fled to Reed as an act of rebellion amidst personal turmoil in his personal life and at his fundamentalist Baptist church. Eventually, he ends up rebelling against the rebellion, slowly finding his way back to a place of forgiveness and reconnection after spending a school year “lost in a sea of individuality.” Viewing his journey, then, is a little bit like an ad hoc whitewater baptism. It’s full of confused, frightened thrashing about, but after it’s over, you walk away with a deep sense of peace and meaning.

Dramatizing a primarily internal conflict, a challenging task in any film, requires getting the details right. And as Don says in the film, if you’re going to have an existential crisis, you can’t do much better than winter in Portland. Despite its paucity of ethnic diversity, the city of Portland, home to Reed College and plenty of native weirdness, plays a significant support role, with many iconic Portland locales represented onscreen.

And though most of the screen time is carried by Allman’s Don alongside new friends Penny (Claire Holt), Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), and an enigmatic character known only as The Pope (played to the hilt by Justin Welborn), Don’s journey is encapsulated by an active disdain for his parents and an effort to run from the faith of his past.

MEN BEHIND THE STORY: Director Steve Taylor (from left), author Donald Miller, and star Marshall Allman during one of several tour stops this spring to screen 'Blue Like Jazz' for preview audiences.

Thus, the main source of the film’s God-centered outlook comes from the seemingly incomprehensible way that the people and events that comprise Don’s first year at Reed somehow lead him back to faith, rather than pushing him further away. Somehow, despite the copious amounts of alcohol, philosophical debates, activist stunts, and gender identity politics, Don begins to see with clarity who he really is, and in contrast, who God has been the whole time.

There’s something wonderfully symmetrical about a film that depicts a rediscovery of God among the godless being named after an art form initially rejected as vulgar and inferior. That sense of poetic justice is amplified further when you consider that the trio of producer Steve Taylor, cowriter and cinematographer Ben Pearson, and Don Miller himself, had given up on the project after four years of fundraising futility. They were only able to move forward after two fans emailed them with the idea of a crowdsourced Kickstarter campaign  — one that eventually shattered all the previous fundraising records for films and turned thousands of financial supporters into de facto associate producers. So after witnessing the creative journey from memoir to screenplay to the big screen, Blue seems very much like, pardon the expression, a God thing.

Which is good, because this film is a significant departure from standard faith-based fare that takes more of an obvious approach to faith. It’s obvious that the film, like the book that spawned it, was intended to help spark honest conversations between members of competing faith communities, including those who have no faith at all. In this sense, Blue Like Jazz is clearly a bridge-building film, and it could very well serve as a notice to the rest of Hollywood that it’s possible to do faith-based filmmaking that is both spiritually honest and commercially viable. For that reason alone, people need to go out and see Blue Like Jazz as soon as possible.

My only remaining hope is that, if this film reaches a modicum of commercial success, the principal creators turn their attention to another intractable problem in need of cultural bridge-building — the racial divide in America. If that seems like too tall an order, they should take it as a compliment. I have plenty of faith in God expressing Himself through the talents of Donald Miller and Steve Taylor.

They just won’t be able to set it in Portland, because, well, there just aren’t enough Black people here.

Stumbling Toward Holiness

Stumbling Toward Holiness

As it turns out, do-it-yourself is not just for Home Depot or Lowe’s aficionados. Jana Riess, author of the new book Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, which was released by Paraclete Press last month, attempts to achieve sainthood in 12 easy months.

As Riess writes in the introduction to her book, “this project originated as a lighthearted effort to read spiritual classics while attempting a year of faith-related disciplines like fasting, Sabbath keeping, chanting and the Jesus Prayer.” Each month, Riess endeavored to read a new spiritual classic such as writings from the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers (some of the first hermits of the Christian tradition) while incorporating a spiritual discipline such as fasting. (She even reveals how to eat Girl Scout Cookies while losing weight! Read for the skinny!)

However, by year’s end, Riess was reminded why Jesus had to die on the cross: she failed at keeping even her own rules and regulations for the project. From reciting the 12-word Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — to keeping the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath (which included pre-shedding her toilet paper prior to her Sabbath observance), Riess concludes that sainthood is not a do-it-yourself project for the light of heart. Still, though she flunked sainthood, she gained valuable insights into herself that translated into her irreverent yet poignant book.

Riess, who blogs at Beliefnet.com and is the author or editor of nine other books, spoke to UrbanFaith about Flunking Sainthood.

URBAN FAITH: You mentioned that your year of DIY Holiness was your effort to “pop a little zing back” into your relationship with God or the “spiritual equivalent of greeting Jesus at the door wrapped in cellophane.” Did it do that for you?

JANA RIESS: Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. There were certain practices that were more resonant with me than others. For example, the Jesus Prayer definitely had that effect.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT? Jana Riess learned that the quest to become a mature Christian is more about the journey than the end result.

You write about how difficult it was for you to implement these new disciplines and read these Christian classics each month. Did you expect it to be that hard?

I think I was naïve going into the project. There were some practices that I expected to be difficult like fasting which is why I wanted to get that out of the way quickly, so I chose to fast in February, the shortest month of the year.

But there were other practices that I was expecting, frankly, to be much easier than they were … like gratitude. I was very surprised by how difficult it can be to sustain genuine gratitude. We talk a lot about being thankful and what that means, especially at this time of year with the holidays. With being thankful, one thing that I discovered is that it is difficult to sustain gratitude over the long term for things that are fleeting — even things like health. We’re always most grateful for our health when we’re just getting over an illness rather than if we have a long period where we’re feeling just great.

What was your favorite spiritual practice and why?

My favorite spiritual practice was the Jesus Prayer, and that’s the only one that I’m still doing every day, because its only 12 words long. It is something I’m able to incorporate into daily life very easily. It’s also not showy. Other people don’t even have to know if I’m saying the Jesus Prayer in my mind. Some of the practices that I tried were very obvious, like fasting or practicing financial generosity, because they involved other people. Because the Jesus Prayer has an emphasis on the fact that I’m a sinner, it reminded me that I’m not in the position to judge other people, which is something I need to be reminded of every day.

Although you earnestly attempt to implement these spiritual disciplines from month to month, your sense of humor makes it clear that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Do you think that Christians should inject humor into their spiritual lives, or is this just a part of your personality?

Both. I think that it’s essential for me to have humor in every aspect in my life. Humor is a wonderful way of helping us to not take ourselves too seriously and to deal with hard times. I think also many Christians could try to inject a little levity in their lives and in their relationships. We need more joy frankly, many of us.

There’s a wonderful book that just came out by Father James Martin. He’s the resident priest on The Colbert Report. He’s very funny. The book is called Between Heaven and Mirth, and it’s about humor and the Christian faith. One of the things that I took away from that book is that instead of trivializing deep religious faith, humor can actually enhance deep religious faith and make it stronger. He points out places in the Bible where humor is used intentionally and places in religious history where humor is important. It’s a good book.

Do you feel that many Christians are unaware of the spiritual classics, or even some of the spiritual practices that you mention in the book?

Yes, I think that’s true. It’s certainly true in my religious tradition. It is difficult to try to make some of these texts more relevant for today. Some of them may be off-putting. I mention in Chapter 3 that Brother Lawrence’s book rubbed me the wrong way in some instances, even though it was very spiritually enriching. Just the style of it is so different — the author referring to himself in the third person. It’s just a very different kind of book than what we would read today. So sometimes I think the spiritual classics get ignored simply because they are not written how we would write now.

Do you think that God requires that we implement all of these practices or read all of the spiritual classics?

No. And thank goodness! I think that are many different kinds of spiritual practices precisely because there are so many different kinds of people. And when we beat ourselves up for not being able to do all of them perfectly, we are not even honoring who we are in all of our diversity. Some people are more active. They are doers in the world. They are into social justice. Other people could think of nothing better than to sit for two hours a day in deep prayer. People are so different.

What advice do you have for other aspiring saints, other than reading your book?

Although I flunked sainthood and often felt that I was doing these practices far from perfectly, there was tremendous value in doing them. We don’t expect that we’re going to read a book about soccer and then suddenly be able to play it the very next day like Pelé. We practice if we’re in a sport or trying to learn to play an instrument, and the practice in itself is the journey rather than the destination. Not every athlete is going to make it into the Olympics, and not every Christian is going to be able to fit into contemplative prayer. But we learn from the doing.

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Oldies but Goodies

If you’d like to follow Jana Riess’s lead and add some Christian classics to your reading list, here are a few that Jana recommends:

The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul by the 19th-century French saint Thérèse, a young nun known as “the Little Flower of Jesus,” sought to forget herself in quiet acts of love (translated by John Beevers).

Eternal Wisdom from the Desert: Writings from the Desert Fathers; 3rd-century monks and nuns drawn to live in the Egyptian desert; they were the first hermits of the Christian tradition and inspired the model for Christian monasticism. (edited by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.).

The Rule of Saint Benedict by Saint Benedict, the 6th-century Italian monk considered the father of Western monasticism; his “rule” were spiritual precepts distinguished by a unique spirit of balance, reasonableness, and moderation.

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century French monk; known as “Lawrence of the Resurrection,” his primary message was focused on being aware of God’s presence in daily life.