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Episode 70: Until I Am Free with Dr. Keisha N. Blain

podcast Dec 28, 2021

In this episode, Dr. Keisha Blain joins Sharon to talk about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. In her new book, Until I Am Free, Dr. Blain chronicles the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, a change-maker who has been set on the back shelf of history. Fannie Lou gave a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 at a time when Black voter suppression and violence against Black Americans was practiced across the country, especially in the South. Learn about how the Civil Rights Movement isn’t an event we can leave to history, but a significant era that’s still impacting Black American voters today.

Links to Full Episode:

This Episode Will Teach You:

  • Black poverty in the South after the abolition of slavery
  • Sharecropping and the reliance on white landowners
  • Fannie Lou Hamer’s early experiences with voting
  • Voter registration literacy tests
  • Other forms of voter suppression at the polls
  • How access to information equals power
  • Percentages of black voters in Mississippi before and after the Voting Rights Act
  • Why we learn about certain people in history, but not others
  • How the Civil Rights Movement is still relevant today

3 Biggest Takeaways:

  • Fannie Lou Hamer was a working-poor Black woman from Mississippi who was disabled and had limited formal education, yet she pushed beyond her challenges to make a difference in the lives of others. Fannie Lou’s formative years were spent working for white landowners in sharecropping fields, which often left Black people in a place of dependence and debt. She began picking cotton at age six and grew up in a time when lynching and violence against Black citizens was common and widespread in the Mississippi Delta. Fannie Lou was 44 before she learned that she had the right to vote in the United States. When she went to register to vote in 1962, she encountered resistance, including the requirement of a literacy test.
  • Literacy tests were not easy tests; they were designed to ensure the failure of the Black test taker. Literacy tests asked questions about the U.S. Constitution, state laws, etc.--subjects that disenfranchised poor Black Americans who did not have the same access to education as white Americans, especially in the South. Keeping Black Americans from gaining education, literacy, and knowledge was a way to stymie their access to information. If they did not have that access, they were less likely to organize with each other and even think more broadly about their rights. Withholding information was a way white people controlled Black people, even after slavery was abolished.
  • Fannie Lou Hamer’s message and legacy has endured through the decades because she questions how we can enjoy freedom while others are still bound or held back from experiencing the same rights we have. We can not think only of ourselves because all of our fates are connected. She calls for more empathy, unity, and a shared vision. No matter what our backgrounds and resources, there is something we can all do to improve our communities. Small actions can have big impacts on the world.

About the Guest:

Keisha N. Blain, a 2022 New America National Fellow, is an award-winning historian,  professor, and writer. She is currently an Associate Professor of History at the  University of Pittsburgh, president of the African American Intellectual History Society,  and a columnist for MSNBC. Her writings have appeared in popular outlets such as The Atlantic, The Guardian, Politico, and Time. She is the author of Set the World on Fire:  Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle of Freedom and Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.

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