43: Fannie Lou Hamer

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA, the 40th anniversary of women of color, and the 10th anniversary of LGBTQ+ siblings.

It’s an incredibly important marker for the ELCA, though it is only the beginning for the Church, as women are still denied ordination across the denominations and hold less than 15% of the leadership positions in the worldwide church! Therefore, in 2020, we in the Oregon Synod will highlight one woman from Christian history every week. Some you may know, others you may not, but all worthy of our respect and gratitude.

#43: Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer had a voice and a story so powerful, the president of the United States conspired to silence it. In 1964 Hamer was part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic delegation which was challenging the all-white segregated delegation in front of the Credentials Committee of the National Democratic Convention. At the exact moment of her testimony—not Martin Luther King Jr.s—President Johnson held a press conference. He did not want her story heard. His tactic backfired when his choice to hold a press conference over nothing became a national news story. Hamer’s testimony was replayed for days. Her testimony, detailing her own experiences of racism and violence, electrified the nation. Hamer became a national figure in the Voting Rights movement. What was so powerful about her story? Hamer, the daughter of sharecroppers, grew up in Mississippi. She left school at a young age to work in the fields to help support her impoverished family. Her life changed in 1962, at the age of 44, when she learned of the political rights guaranteed to Black Americans by the US Constitution. She hadn’t known her rights before, and she couldn’t unknow it now. She became an activist. This cost her her job and her home, but it didn’t stop her. One year later, she was targeted by police—she committed no crime—and was taken to the Montgomery County Jail. She listened as her two companions—one of whom was only 15 years old—were beaten. Then came her turn. The white police officers forced two Black inmates to beat her until they were too tired to continue. The beating was so severe it left her with permanent kidney damage and almost cost her her sight. The following day she remained silent in her cell. During this time she drew on her faith. She believed in God’s call for equality and justice. She believed in a God of liberation. She believed in the scriptures which said “The things that have been done in the dark will be known on the housetops.” When she next used her voice, the voice which had been screaming in pain the day before, she began to sing: “Paul and Silas was bound in jail, let my people go. Had no money for to go their bail, let my people go. Paul and Silas began to shout, let my people go. Jail doors open and they walked out, let my people go.” When she was released, she asked the white officers: “Do you people ever think or wonder how you’ll feel when the time comes you’ll have to meet God?” This experience of brutality did not stop her from continuing to call for justice saying: “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.” The racism and violence directed towards continued. But she didn’t stop. She spent the rest of her life advocating for equality. In 1971, when she spoke at the founding meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus, she said: “As I stand here today my mind goes back to the problems that we have had in the past, and I think about the Constitution of the United States that says, ‘With the people, for the people, and by the people.’ And every time I hear it now, I just double over laughing because it’s not true; it hasn’t been true … But we are going to make it true.”