Campus Life

Annual Fannie Lou Hamer symposium celebrates legacy of civil rights leader

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” is a phrase said often but is not always attributed to Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who paved the way for generations of activists and Black leaders who came after her.

Dr. Keisha Blain, the keynote speaker of Stockton’s 19th annual Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights Symposium, emphasized Hamer’s belief in her statement, and how she dedicated her life to fighting for justice for all. The theme was “Women’s Voices in U.S. Politics: Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired.”

“When Hamer declared she was sick and tired of being sick and tired, she was speaking to the exploitation of black people on a global scale and alluding to the larger system of white supremacy,” said Blain, who is a professor at Brown University and the author of the book “Set the World on Fire: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.”

Beverly Vaughn and the Freedom Singers perform at the Fannie Lou Hamer Symposium. Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Myers.

Blain began by talking about Black Lives Matter, “the protest movement that shook the nation to its core,” in her own words. She highlighted the relationship between women of color who are presently fighting for equality and civil rights leaders of the past, specifically Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fannie Lou Hamer, Blain explained, was born into a sharecropper family. “The system of sharecropping left black families in a never-ending cycle of debt,” said Blain. Hamer ended up going to a church service in which she learned that she had the right to vote. She then felt that it was “God’s will” for her to join the civil rights movement.

Hamer joined seventeen others in her town who decided to register to vote. They were met by armed police officers and faced discriminatory literacy tests, and Hamer was threatened by her landlord. She then co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, challenging the currently all-white Democratic Party. Hamer attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where she famously delivered a powerful speech about the struggles faced by Black people trying to exercise their right to vote in America.

“When Hamer is acknowledged today, her story often stops right there with her dynamic speech and her contribution to the fight for voting rights,” said Blain. “What is often missed is Hamer’s expansive vision of freedom, which was fully inclusive of all marginalized groups and even extended beyond US borders.” Blain went on to discuss the importance of Hamer’s 1964 trip to Guinea with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which allowed her to realize the fight for equality has no borders. From then on, she advocated for the human rights of all people.

“She was making a case that the fight for justice must be a global one…liberation cannot occur in fragments,” said Blain.

Following Dr. Blain’s speech, there was a panel including Pleasantville mayor Judy Ward and professors Audrey LaTourette and Dr. Shawn Donaldson.

“She paved the way for me and many, many others,” said Mayor Ward during the panel. “I wouldn’t be here as a female African American mayor without her…people in the past were hungry for the things they fought for, and that’s why it’s up to us to take advantage of the rights they gave to us.”

The program also featured a lively performance by the Freedom Singers, led by professor Beverly Vaughn, and a soulful dance number performed by junior Kyra Hall. The event concluded with a Q&A session in which Blain offered advice to students.