Forty-nine years ago I was popping my buttons with pride. High school was a tough time for me with peer pressure dampening any spontaneous expression of individuality. But inside I was exploding with satisfaction, pleasure, even a dash of adolescent smugness. My big brother was marching in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King. No one else at my elite, all-male, JESUIT Creighton Prep could share that distinction with me.
Lest we forget, it was illegal for whites to marry a black person or an Asian during my seemingly idyllic childhood in Nebraska. That barrier fell two years before Selma but it was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all such prohibitions remaining in recalcitrant states. Unjust laws were crumbling and a wave of much-needed reform was sweeping our nation. My brother was atop that wave. Not until last Sunday afternoon, March 7 was I reminded of the anniversary. I regretted not having honored that momentous event on these pages.
This weekend provides another chance. Today, March 14 is the anniversary of the death of a famous icon of the civil rights movement. Fannie Lou Hamer died on this day in 1977 from breast cancer at the age of 60. She lived most of her life as she was born – a poor black sharecropper in Mississippi with a fourth grade education. The system persisted well beyond emancipation as nothing more than a system of “debt slavery” enforced through insidious segregation and intimidation veiling all too real brute force. This began to change for Hamer when at the age of 45 she heard a preacher encourage blacks to defy racist repression by doing something as radical as registering to vote.
It remains difficult for us to accurately recall the shame and injustice of these years and admit the oppression and degradation that was part of the air we breathed in America. But somehow, somewhere this poor, black, uneducated woman had the inspiration and courage to decide that subsisting by sharecropping a “master’s” land was not what God had in mind for her or for others like her. She would pay a heavy price! In 1963 Hamer was one of a group arrested in Charleston, South Carolina for having the temerity of illegally entering the side of a bus terminal reserved for whites. While in jail she was savagely beaten and left with a damaged kidney and eyesight permanently impaired. In 1964 she would be part of a “Freedom Delegation” from Mississippi challenging the credentials of that state’s slate of all-white delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Though thrown out, Hamer’s eloquent defense touched the conscience of a nation.
A few weeks back I wrote on this site about a friend who teaches at a Catholic high school. Regulars here will recall she wanted stories about the great men and women of faith her students needed to know about. Today I nominate Fannie Lou Hamer. Yes, she was powerfully motivated by the unspeakable injustice she and others like her had to endure. But, she was empowered and sustained by her faith! She cited Ephesians 6:8-9 as her touchstone: “Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Isn’t this the sort of hero, mentor, role model, woman of faith, saint we would want our young people to emulate?
And what about us? Are we willing to confront the structures of injustice that permeate the familiar “world” that props up our seemingly secure and predictable lifestyles? Are we willing to courageously change course even in mid-life – Hamer was 45 – when suddenly we hear the Word of God calling us to live lives of integrity and self-transcendence. Are we willing to pay the price that all God’s children are rendered the equal dignity, inalienable respect, practical opportunities and legal protection which we would demand for ourselves and for our children?
Fannie Lou Hamer died of breast cancer at age 60. She freely gave her life for causes far greater that we might put an end to human degradation and structures of violence. We are blessed that her compelling witness comes to us during Lent. We, too, are called to repentance, conversion, and transformation in the way we give flesh to the Word of God. Like Hamer, my brother was just an ordinary sort of guy. We have heroes, mentors and role-models all around. What about us? What about today?
I was inspired by and recommend to you the story of Fannie Lou Hamer for today, March 14 in All Saints: Daily Relfections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time by Robert Ellsberg. Crossroads, 1999.