By Patrick Healy, Opinion Editor
Drizzle outside and masks inside didn’t stop professors, administrators, students and members of the public from entering Montante on Tuesday to hear Dr. Keisha Blain, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, discuss the life of Black civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. High schoolers from across the country, Canisius’s Dr. Richard Bailey noted, were also viewing the livestream of the latest installment in Canisius’s storied William H. Fitzpatrick lecture series.
Born in 1917 as the twentieth and final child of Mississippi sharecroppers, Hamer worked on a plantation before becoming actively involved in the 1960s’ civil rights movement.
Hamer joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and would help to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party after Mississippi’s Black voters were prevented from casting their ballot in the Democratic primary. Known as a great orator despite her sixth-grade education, Hamer gave a fiery speech at the 1964 Democratic Convention in which she asked about segregation, “is this America — the land of the free?”
Dr. Blain described Hamer’s admiration of young activists and her desire to counter the perception that Black people had no interest in electoral politics. Hamer was a staunch supporter of suffrage whose efforts helped lead to landmark legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Dr. Blain’s 35-minute lecture preceded an equally long question-and-answer session in which members of the Montante audience questioned Hamer’s belief in the power of voting, offered comparisons to similar civil rights activists and suggested potential alternatives including reparations and sovereign territory for Black Americans.
Applause met the remarks of 93-year-old former Buffalo common councilor, who defended the vote as an extremely important way to improve Black people’s lives. Other audience members suggested that reparations or sovereign territory were the only solutions to race relations in this country. Dr. Blain thought Hamer would view those solutions as both logistically impossible and as validations of those who supported segregation. Despite being physically intimidated and forcibly sterilized, Hamer believed the “United States could live up to its ideals'' and that the races could live together.
In response to a question from Canisius professor Dr. Fajardo-Heyward about the obligations of youth, Blain said that young people cannot be spectators; there must be a “synergy” between politics on the streets and at the ballot box. Dr. Bruce Dierenfield, himself the author of multiple books on the civil rights era, offered a comparison between his own research and Blain’s.
Asked about her time spent researching for her biography of Hamer, Dr. Blain said that she came to realize that the “larger than life” figure she so admired suffered from depression. In another somber moment, Blain said Hamer’s sole living daughter told her that Mississippi hasn’t improved much since the 1960s.
Blain’s half-hour lecture — let alone this short column — cannot do justice to Hamer’s life. Readers are encouraged to delve into Blain’s recently released book titled “Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.”