Political rights

Black political rights cannot be separated from economic justice. Why Fannie Lou Hamer’s message and fight endure today

Fannie Lou Hamer entered the Democratic National Convention in 1964

Fannie Lou Hamer, member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, enters the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ Credit – Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Contact a crowd in Madison, Wisc., in 1971, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said she knew what it meant to be hungry. She remembers growing up in the 1920s and 1930s in a tenant farmer family and often going to bed on an empty stomach. “I know what the pain of hunger is,” she told the crowd.

The youngest of 20 children, Hamer has done her part on the plantation to help her family make ends meet. In his autobiography To rent our bridges, Hamer remembers her childhood memories vividly: “To feed us during the winter months, mom would go from plantation to plantation and ask the landowners if she could have the remaining cotton… cotton husk and sell it and that would give us some of the food we would need.

Hamer’s childhood experiences drove her passion later in life when she fought not only for black political power, but also for economic justice. She understood that black political rights could not be separated from economic rights and recognized that economic security was fundamental in the struggle for civil rights. “If you have a pig in your yard, if you have vegetables in your yard, you can feed yourself and your family, and no one can push you around. ” she insisted in the late 1960s.

The terrible financial challenges that Hamer’s family endured in the early part of the 20th century mirrored the lives of many blacks in Mississippi and the South during this time. A study of Indianola, Miss., By anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker captured the devastating effects sharecropping in the South in the 1930s. Of the thousands of blacks who worked as sharecroppers, Powdermaker found that only 25-30% received a fair settlement for the crops at the end of the year. Half of black families in the Mississippi Delta during this time could not afford to maintain a nutritious diet.

Thirty years after Powdermaker’s study, economic conditions in Mississippi had not improved much. In 1960, 75% of all families in the Mississippi Delta lived below the federal poverty line of $ 3,000. These conditions were worse for black families in the area, with the median annual income for a black family in Quitman County, Mississippi being estimated at $ 819, less than a third of the $ 3,000 line. At a national level, an estimated 40% of black Americans in the United States lived below the poverty line in 1965.

Read more: What made Fannie Lou Hamer’s message on civil rights so radical and so enduring?

Despite limited material resources, Hamer was not deterred in her fight for economic justice. True to his conviction that concrete measures must be taken to change society, she found a practical solution to fight against hunger and malnutrition. In 1969, Hamer launched the Agricultural cooperative of freedom (FFC), a community rural and economic development project. With a donation of $ 10,000 from Measure for Measure, a Wisconsin-based charity, Hamer purchased 40 acres in his hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, with plans to develop the land to provide resources to local residents in need. A wide range of individuals and institutions have contributed to Hamer’s Freedom Farm, including famous activist Harry Belafonte and leaders of the National Council of Black Women—The largest black women’s organization in the United States in the 1960s.

Hamer envisioned the co-op as a way to empower impoverished residents of the state, and the co-op grew to over 640 acres. Locals could join Freedom Farm for $ 1 a month, although no one was ever turned down if they couldn’t pay. The FFC dedicated land to growing profitable crops such as cotton, but also reserved land for growing vegetables, including sweet potatoes, kale, tomatoes and green beans, for members of the community, thus ensuring the food and safety of residents.

Fannie Lou Hamer à Ruleville, Mississippi, en 1969.<span class=Al Clayton / Getty Images“src =” “data-src =” https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Mr02j3P3MLD.c8kylQmGuQ–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTU4Nw–/httpsus.uyimg.com api / res / 1.2 / 2_5vWPeMk1wZIeXnrzjLfQ– ~ B / aD04NTM7dz0xMDI0O2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u / https: //media.zenfs.com/en/time_72/2f04202feac8b7928 /eedec0050

Their community garden has yielded crops that served more than 1,600 families in the Mississippi Delta, as well as other parts of the country. An estimated 10% of the crops grown at Freedom Farm went to local residents who could not work in the fields. In the early 1970s, the FFC also shipped the surplus to black Mississippi families who had settled in northern cities. Hamer had a broad vision of how to tackle poverty in Sunflower County. Therefore, she also used Freedom Farm to create housing for local families in need, a program that has sheltered more than more than 70 families.

While the FFC has dramatically improved the lives of black people in the Mississippi Delta, it has provided resources to anyone in need, regardless of race or ethnicity. As Hamer explained to novelist Paule Marshall in 1970, “Hunger has no color line. And I would walk a mile for any hungry man, black or white.

In 1976, following a series of setbacks including tornadoes, flooding and the sudden death of the farm’s business manager in 1974, Hamer’s Freedom Farm closed. Although short-lived, the FFC provided Hamer with a means to feed and empower impoverished Americans and, in so doing, advance economic justice in the late 1960s and 1970s.

More than 40 years after Hamer’s death in 1977, the problem of economic inequality persists in the United States. Today, an estimate one in seven Americans Live in poverty. Despite the wealth of our nation, nearly half of the American population live in poverty or can be classified as low income, and an estimate 18.8% of black households live below the poverty line. In Mississippi48% of people are poor or low-income, a group that includes 65% of Mississippi’s black population.

Read more: The speeches that made Fannie Lou Hamer a civil rights icon

Fannie Lou Hamer’s passion and ingenuity – and most importantly his focus on empowering those in need – serve as a model today as activists continue to demand economic justice. As Hamer once argued, “The only thing we can do, women and men, is you [are] white or black is working together.

Hamer’s message resonates today through several initiatives, including the Campaign of the poor: a national call for moral renewal. Founded by Rev. William J. Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharis in 2017, The Poor Campaign demands better living conditions for impoverished Americans and builds on the activism of the civil rights movement. Their campaign calls on Americans of all races and socio-economic backgrounds to fight for economic justice. Like Hamer, Barber and Theoharis view the struggle for economic justice as a moral imperative.

The struggle for economic justice is also at the heart of the work of democracy. As Hamer argued, all Americans – and especially those in public office – must advocate for policies that empower the impoverished. Only then will the nation fully live up to its ideals. “To have a great country”, Hamer told a predominantly white audience in Kentucky in 1968, “not only will we have to have political power, but we will also have to have economic power.”

Keisha N. Blain is Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Freedom Struggle and Until I’m Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message, available now from Random penguin house.

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