Saturday, December 14, 2019

City Notes Magnificat Special '19 | Vintage Saints + Sinners: Fannie Lou Hamer: Stand Up, Sing Out!

"Christ was a revolutionary person, out there where it was happening. That's what God is all about, and that's where I get my strength." + Fannie Lou Hamer

In honor of Mary and her Magnificat (see previous Advent + The Magnificat posts: A Divine Disruption for Good, The Bold & Courageous First Christmas Hymn, and Exalting God Reveals the Power to Fill Us and Transform Us), I wanted to highlight 4 other women during these 4 weeks of Advent to showcase how others have followed in Mary's footsteps in giving up their lives and opening their mouths to sing a song of resistance that shines in the darkness: that Jesus Christ seeks to be born in us to share and show the Good News of God's Kingdom of mercy, justice, and righteousness, bringing flashes of heaven to earth when the world seems at its darkest.

"Fannie Lou Hamer: Stand Up, Sing Out!" excerpt adapted from Karen Marsh's Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith

Fannie Lou was an unlikely national leader. At forty-four years old, she and her family were just barely surviving; news of the emerging civil rights movement hadn't reached the plantation where they lived. Then one August night in 1962, she heard a rousing sermon, an invitation to claim the power of the vote and overturn the oppressive social order. Fannie Lou was "sick and tired of being sick and tired," and right then and there, she heard Jesus call her to work for civil rights. She didn't hesitate.

When they asked for volunteers to go down to the courthouse, she raised her hand as high as she could get it. "I guess if I'd had any sense I'd a-been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared?" she thought. White people had been killing her a little bit at a time ever since she could remember.

Fannie Lou joined a beloved community that promised liberty and empowerment, friendship and song. But from that moment forward, it would bring sacrifice, suffering, and persecution too. The very next day, Fannie Lou had been harassed by the police, fired from her job, kicked out of her sharecropper's house, and separated from her family.

She was homeless and jobless but determined. "I made up my mind I was grown, and I was tired," she said. "I wouldn't go back." Fannie Lou dedicated herself to the work of voter registration. For ten dollars a week, Mrs. Hamer recruited new voters out in the cotton fields by day, and she led mass meetings in African American churches by night. 

She organized, rallied, and traveled, urging her fellow citizens to seek long-deferred justice, no matter what the risk. And she sang. "Singing brings out the soul," she pronounced. Even tortured and locked up in the Winona town jail, Fannie Lou's voice rang out with songs of deliverance: Paul and Silas bound in jail, let my people go. Fannie Lou had no doubt that Jesus Himself demanded action in the struggle for civil rights.

Pious words were simply not enough. It's easy to say, "Sure, I'm a Christian," and talk a big game, Fannie Lou declared, "but if you are not putting that claim to the test, where the rubber meets the road, then it's high time to stop talking about being a Christian."You can pray till you faint, but if you won't get up and do something, God is not gonna put it in your lap."

Organizational meetings went far beyond operation strategy and logistics. The beloved community was no mere political affinity group; it was a spiritual, emotional soul connection. For the people who'd step out into the night, risking their very lives for justice, Fannie Lou lent divine significance to their cause. The 1964 Freedom Summer initiative brought college students to Mississippi, starry-eyed volunteers from all over the United States. When one group of student recruits arrived at a Freedom Summer orientation session, they found themselves at loose ends, anxious and tentative after all. As they stood around, a woman whose badge read "Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer" began to sing out in a majestic voice. She pulled the strangers together with rousing freedom choruses, songs that would carry them through the sweltering months ahead. The newcomers would be sorely tested but bonded by a common purpose. Black and white together, they too joined the beloved community. Fannie Lou mothered, admonished, and educated them all.

Fannie Lou and her compatriots were determined to give voice to people excluded from the electoral process, so they formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The group traveled all the way to Atlantic City to challenge the credibility of the official all-white Mississippi delegation to be seated as participants in the convention. Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, African American native of the Delta's Sunflower County, one of twenty children, the girl who was forced to leave school after sixth grade to work in the cotton fields — that same Fannie Lou took to the national stage for the cause of her community.

Though he arrogantly dismissed Fannie Lou as "that illiterate woman," Lyndon Johnson was fearful that the Freedom Party would disrupt his well-orchestrated bid for president. He saw to it that the Mississippi delegation was blocked, but not before Fannie Lou delivered an eloquent, televised account of oppression in the segregated South. In her speech, she told the vivid story of her own suffering and of her people's struggle for civil rights. She and her brothers and sisters had come all this way and they were fed up — but they would not be denied. Fannie Lou spoke the truth boldly in words that still inspire today. "I question America," she said. "Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?"

When you listen to Fannie Lou sing, "Go tell it on the mountain ... let my people go!" you just may be ready to raise your arm too. It's no wonder that a fellow civil rights activist, Annie Devine, said, "Why not follow somebody like that? Why not just reach out with one hand and say, just take me along?"

One pastor who knew her well told me that "Mrs. Hamer spoke of Jesus casually, confidently, and constantly." She showed us how to lead as Jesus led: she offered up her life for her brothers and sisters, for people of all races and ages — and all of us. Fannie Lou taught us that true unity is bought at great price, and she was willing to pay it, even at enormous pain to herself. In the hard places she stepped up first, leading before she asked anyone else to make a sacrifice. Fannie Lou always saw the fight for justice as a spiritual one. Her faith gave her the insight to say, "Christ was a revolutionary person, out there where it was happening. That's what God is all about, and that's where I get my strength." She prayed with assurance and an eye on the concrete things that needed to get done. She sang scriptural songs of encouragement, even in prison after a night of torture. When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought in far-reaching voting predictions for all Americans, Fannie Lou and her band of singers won the day. 

To see footage of Fannie Lou Hamer, check out these links:

+ Fannie Lou Hamer's Powerful Testimony | Freedom Summer (3:40 minutes)

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

Soli Jesu gloria.

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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