Friday, June 10, 2011
Freedom Summer 2011
Two weeks ago I was in the Mississippi delta, in tiny, ramshackle, Ruleville, to see Fannie Lou Hamer honored at last by the state of Mississippi.
In 1962, the delta sharecropper determined she wanted to register to vote. In that moment her vital force exploded, sending a shock through the South that changed it for the better and for good. Joining organizer Charles McLaurin’s group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she worked for voting rights and social justice.
In Mississippi that was tantamount to a death sentence. She was expelled from her sharecropper shack and her job. Shots were fired into her Ruleville home. She was savagely beaten. She later reflected, “The only thing they could do to me was to kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.” That beating hastened her death in 1977.
But she lived to command the nation’s attention, first as a traveling freedom-song performer—she could rattle windows with her voice as powerful as a mountain—then as a delegate/spokesperson for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Viewed by millions of television watchers, she hurled challenges at Lyndon Johnson and the country to live up to the liberty and justice for all spirit of its Constitution.
On May 25, Charles McLaurin, after many years of struggle and fund raising, unveiled a historical marker at her gravesite. I witnessed it with seventeen others from IU South Bend as part of a course and tour we call “Freedom Summer.” It was an unforgettable moment of triumph.
Besides its import to history, it was special to share the moment with friend and prime mover, McLaurin. He spoke of how Fannie Lou Hamer challenged us to teach more about the history of the poor and downtrodden, since the history books have left us out. She realized, as I have, that we couldn’t rely on others to write our history, that we must do it ourselves or risk the characterizations of the mainstream, consensually seduced as they are by corporate power. Of all the things she did though, she inspired me with her songs. She raised her voice to celebrate, challenge, and to give courage. When she sang “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” it was like the battle cry of freedom. When she sang “This Little Light of Mine” she was giving voice to the hearts of everyone around her whose combined glow would banish the darkness.
This is what I aspire to: to keep singing for justice—which is the public face of love; to light as many candles as will illuminate the path on which we need to walk to get to that just society.
Lotta candles got lit on that trip. Our IU South Bend students talked non-violence with 1961 Freedom Rider, Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, the legendary leader of the first march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. We learned how Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette shook off adversity as he gave a tub-thumping oration at an old-fashioned mass meeting at the 1st Baptist “Brick-a-Day” Church where Martin Luther King and 200 others were held hostage by a Klan mob. In small-group circles with Freedom Riders and students from high schools and colleges all over the nation we conversed about today’s civil rights struggles: the same old poverty, racism and war, but new issues, like GLBTQ rights, gender changes, and bullying. Over breakfast we strategized organizing with Freedom Riders Lawrence Guyot and Margaret Kibbee.
They weren’t there to hand over the torch. As one said, “It’s gonna take a lot of handing over; I’m still carrying my share.” Another said, “I’ve got pessimism of the mind, but optimism of the will. I get up every morning and try to do something.” When we stand with them we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. I hope that will help our lights to reach farther.
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