The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It like It Is

Article excerpt

The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is. Edited by Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck. Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011. Pp. xxxii, 221. $38.00, ISBN 978-1-60473-822-3.)

It always seems easier for those of us in the chattering classes to recognize brilliance when someone is literate, middle-class, and speaking what my mother called the King's English. However, it takes the average modem culture decades, and sometimes centuries, to recognize an unlettered genius in its midst. Fannie Lou Hamer described herself as hailing "from the ruralest of the ruralest, poorest of the poorest U.S.A." (p. 75). She did not receive formal education growing up in the Mississippi Delta. Yet by the time she turned fifty, she had acquired enough political experience and knowledge to beat Lyndon B. Johnson in a television duel, lead the charge to haul the Democratic Party into line with the U.S. Constitution, and recruit thousands of young people into the twentieth century's most important political movement. Her life's work has been deftly chronicled by historians Chana Kai Lee and Kay Mills. The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is goes further; it makes a decisive contribution to Hamer studies by rescuing from dusty archive shelves and attic corners recordings of twenty speeches Hamer made between 1963 and 1976 and transcribing them in this edited collection.

And we in the fields of U.S. history need Hamer studies every bit as much as we need Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X studies. Yes, her speeches will be excellent sources for rhetoric courses, African American and women's history courses, and courses on the post-1945 world. But listen to Hamer reframe Malcolm X in December 1964, or the Vietnam War in 1969, or international human rights in 1971, and suddenly she appears a giant on the twentieth century's stage. …