In preparation for Black History Month 2022, I read Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America by Keisha N. Blain.
Hamer’s story is integral to the history of the struggle for Black voting rights, women’s empowerment, economic rights and human rights.
Born in Webster County, Mississippi, in 1917, she was the youngest of 20 children, the granddaughter of enslaved people, and a sharecropper for much of her life who became a trailblazing activist and organizer.
Her best-known words are, “We have a long fight, and this fight is not mine alone. But you are not free whether you are white or black, until I am free.”
I find it helpful to reflect on Hamer’s life through the lens of Exodus, particularly Exodus 5:1-22, which narrates the story of Moses’ first attempt to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.
After meeting his brother in the desert, the brothers gather the leaders of the people to gain their trust and share God’s vision of liberation with them.
Moses and Aaron then go to Pharaoh with a very clear command from the LORD: “Let my people go so that they can hold a festival for me in the desert.” Pharaoh’s reply is predictably dismissive: “Who is this LORD whom I’m supposed to obey by letting Israel go? I don’t know this LORD, and I certainly won’t let Israel go.”
Like Moses and Aaron, Fannie Lou Hamer knew a little something about speaking truth to power. Hamer knew a little something about sharing a word from the LORD and about being summarily dismissed. She knew a little something about the powerful using their theology to discredit her and about being disregarded in the name of economic necessity.
Pharaoh is not content to simply give Moses and Aaron a categorical, “no.” He feels the need to undermine and destroy them by issuing commands that will make the lives of the enslaved much more difficult. No longer will the Hebrew people be supplied with the straw they need to mix with wet clay to form the bricks they would bake in the sun before using them in Pharaoh’s building projects.
Word of this command had its desired impact. When the people complained, their overlords told them they were lazy, shifty and afraid of hard work. In turn, the people blamed Moses and Aaron for their increased hardship.
They declared that dreams of freedom made them a target much more than they filled them with hope. They said, “Your stinking promises are making us stink with Pharoah. From this day forward keep that stinking talk of liberation to yourself.”
Moses was left to cry to the LORD: “The overseers are calling the people lazy. The people are blaming me for their pain. I am blaming you for getting me into this. Ever since we met at that bush, things have done nothing but go downhill. I don’t think you know what you are doing.”
I don’t know all that Fannie Lou Hamer went through. Yet, almost certainly, she experienced personal attacks intended to undermine her work.
She knew about the poor being blamed for their poverty. She knew about being accused of planting false hope. She knew about being accused of putting burdens on the backs of the people instead of lifting them off. She knew about wanting to give up on God.
In their approach to Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron did not seek the freedom of their family and circle of friends alone. They sought the freedom of all the people. Yet, they knew that the people would not be free until they were free themselves.
Fannie Lou Hamer shared their understanding. She courageously held on to it. She held onto it so courageously that Vice President Kamala Harris quoted it in her 2020 speech to the Democratic National Convention accepting the nomination to be the vice-presidential candidate.
Let us not turn our back on the stories of Moses, Aaron and Fannie Lou Hamer by believing the lie that some people can be free while others toil in bondage. Freedom, as these heroes make clear, is an all of us or none of us proposition.
Senior pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California, since 1989, and a board member of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty).