INTO her mid-40s, Fannie Lou Hamer weighed cotton for a white
plantation owner in the Mississippi Delta. Uneducated and dirt
poor, she lived in a small frame house that had no working indoor
toilet, "while her boss's dog had its own bathroom in the main
house," according to a new biography.
So in 1962, when civil rights workers arrived in her tiny
hometown of Ruleville, Miss., urging blacks to register to vote,
Mrs. Hamer needed little prodding. She had seen and experienced
enough injustice and violence toward blacks that she was willing to
challenge and defy decades of restrictive laws.
"I always said if I lived to get grown and had a chance," she
said, "I was going to do something for the black man of the South
if it would cost my life; I was determined to see that things were
In "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,"
journalist Kay Mills has written an extensive, carefully documented
biography of this remarkable woman, who became one of the heroines
of the civil rights movement. The book briefly traces Hamer's
humble beginnings and then focuses on her efforts until her death
in 1977 to change a repressive system that controlled blacks
politically, socially, and economically.
Mississippi remained the most stalwart state in the Deep South
in its opposition to giving blacks equal rights. Blacks who tried
to knock down the steel walls of white resistance there often lost
their jobs, had their homes set on fire, were jailed and beaten, or
lynched. Hamer experienced some of this treatment.
After she tried to register to vote, she was banned from her
home on her boss's plantation and forced to live with relatives in
another county. In the summer of 1963, she was jailed and brutally
beaten by Mississippi police after she and other civil rights
workers traveled home from a bus trip to South Carolina for
voter-education training. Hamer's health never fully recovered from
Her account of this incident at the 1964 Democratic National
Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., helped put her in the national
spotlight. But even before she testified, Hamer had become an
important figure in the civil rights struggle. Though she had only
a sixth-grade education and her grammar was poor, her speaking and
singing ability captivated people.
She had "the capacity to put together a mosaic of coherent
thought about freedom and justice, so that when it was all through,
you knew what you had heard because it held together with wonderful
cohesion," remembers Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of
Columbia's delegate to Congress, who worked for the civil rights
cause as a law student. …