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Interview with Dr. Kate Clifford Larson

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McKiernan Interviews
Interview with: Kate Clifford Larson
Interviewed by: Stephen McKiernan
Transcriber: Lynn Bijou
Date of interview: 28 October 2022
(Start of Interview)

SM: 00:00
Great. All right. I am speaking with Kate Clifford Larson, who has written a brand-new book called, "Walk with Me," it is a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer, and thank you, Kate for agreeing to be interviewed.

KL: 00:16
Thank you for interviewing me.

SM: 00:18
Now, could you please tell me about your growing up years? Your, your when you were in elementary school, high school, college, and how you became interested in writing biographies.

KL: 00:33
So, I grew up in Lewiston, Maine, which is a mill town in South Central Maine. And, you know, I just, my dad was a lawyer, and he was a history buff. So, we were brought up very much interested in history. There were books all over the house and, and, you know, we go on vacations or trips, and our dad would take us to this historic site and tell us stories. So, I had that, that love of history growing up. So, when I went to college, at Simmons in Boston, I majored in Economics and History because I just, I loved history so much, but I also enjoyed economics. And I, you know, I followed the, you know, the tracks to, into the business world, and I worked for an investment bank, I got my MBA at Northeastern University. And, you know, I followed that path. But, I was always interested in history. I, you know, I used to love to go to old bookstores and get old books, and I did antiquing with my husband. And sometimes, I would find old diaries that people had written in, you know, people would sell them in their bookstores or antique stores. So, I amassed quite a collection of diaries, and most of them were women. And I just became fascinated by these women's lives that they were writing about in their diaries from the 19th century or early 20th century. So, I, it was just something that I was attracted to. And in the, I guess it was in the late (19)80s, or early (19)90s. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, had come out with a couple of books. One was, " The Midwives Tail," which was an amazing book about a midwife in Maine, which I really loved reading, because I came from Maine and I-I just, I knew those landscapes, and it was fascinating to me. And she also wrote, "Good Wives." And so, I read both of those books. And it just hit me that I loved history so much, and I love stories about women in the past, so I decided to leave the investment banking industry and, and go back to Simmons and get a graduate degree in women's history. So, I, it was like a, it was such a relief to admit that I really loved history. And I was privileged enough. And my, my husband and my, my family were very supportive of me, you know, moving on, and striking out in a new career path. And when I was at Simmons, in, I took an African American History course with a professor that I had back in the (19)70s. I adored him, his name was Mark Solomon. And he was teaching an African American History course. And I had never taken that, African American history as an undergrad. And in two weeks of taking that class, I knew that I wanted to study not only women's history, but African American history. And that set me on the path of learning about Harriet Tubman, who had not had a biography written about her since 1943. This was in the early (19)90s. So that was shocking to my professors, to me, to everybody. And I-I thought, "Well, gee, I will write my master's thesis on her," and my faculty members, my advisors were like, "Whoa, wait a minute, this is a huge project. Why do not you do your master's on something else, and then go on, and get a doctorate, and do your dissertation on Tubman and that way, you will have more training and skills to be able to take on such an iconic figure." And so, I did that, and I went to the University of New Hampshire to get my Ph.D. and that is where I worked on my dissertation of Tubman. And that hooked me on biography. I just love being able to tell history through the lens of one person's life and delving into that person, that woman's life, that person's life in a very deep way. I just love that emotional and intellectual connection that I have with my biographical subjects. And so that really, the Tubman work just changed my life and set me on this track of being a biographer.

SM: 03:58
Wow. When you wrote the Tubman book, and now you have written the book on Fannie Lou Hamer, what, do you, did you often compare them in terms of what they did, how, who they became, their experiences they had growing up? What were, what was common about both of them?

KL: 05:24
So, you know, I learned about Hamer in graduate school, I did not, was not aware of her as a young adult in well, I was a child during the (19)60s, a young adult in the late (19)70s and into the (19)80s. I did not know anything about her, but I learned about her in graduate school. And I admired her and I just thought there was something interesting, but I did not learn that much about her. I just learned the surface. She, you know, spoke at the Democratic Convention, she talked about being a Mississippi sharecropper, and, and the violence in the south. And that was about it. So, when I learned more about her, you know, over the years, I noticed they were biographies being written about her. So, I started reading more and more about her. And I began to get that feeling that yes, she was very similar to Harriet Tubman, just 100 years later. And, you know, it just took me maturing as a scholar, and, you know, becoming more and more aware of, of the diversity of the twentieth century because I focused very much on the nineteenth century. And I just I, it, Fannie Lou Hamer seemed like, someone that I really needed to pay attention to. And so, when I, after I wrote my book on Rosemary Kennedy, which was a long-long, long, process I came out of that, and I was thinking about the next project and Fannie Lou Hamer was really right there at the top of my head saying, you know, like, almost like knocking on my head saying, "Hello, hello." So, I decided to pay a little bit more attention to her. And it really was stunning to me. The similarities between Hamer and Tubman, how they came out of, basically, nowhere, even though that is somewhere and it was really important to them. They came out of a, it was a very difficult circumstances, deeply rural communities, they had limited access to education, actually, Tubman had- did not have access to formal education at all. Hamer had very little. So, I had to learn to, to look at their lives in a different way than I would at a traditional life of someone that had access to all sorts of privilege like a, Rosemary Kennedy. And how, how do women like Hamer and Tubman rise up out of those circumstances? And how, you know, are they natural born leaders, which I think they are, and I think there are many natural born leaders. But not every natural born leader, every leader actually ends up leading because they do not have the support and the circumstances around them that propel them forward. And in, in Tubman's life, she needed the support and care of her family in the community there that helped raise her and protect her in slavery, and then taught her the skills she needed to be this incredible leader. And the same thing with, with Hamer, she had limited education, she lived in a community that was incredibly oppressive against Black people, and the violence perpetrated against people in Mississippi, people of color in Mississippi and elsewhere, was just horrific. And so, she came out of that because of the fierce strength of her family, to protect her help her grow and learn. And the community that you know, by out of necessity and out of survival, the community had to be strong together to protect each other. And so, that was the similarity between Tubman and Hamer. This really strong community and family, and powerful faith that help them survive their darkest moments. They turn to their God to guide them, to comfort them, to give them a sense of moral certainty, and makes them feel that they were loved and protected at times when that really was not happening. So, the similarities are striking. And it made me think of, of paying attention to other leaders in this world that do not come from Ivy League educations, or privileged background, or all white, and because leaders can come from anywhere and they are here today in our communities, and how do we recognize them, because they need support, they cannot do it on their own.

SM: 10:02
One of the things that, after reading your book, in every area of her life from her childhood to early adulthood to adulthood. And finally, when she passes, she believed in one thing and, everything she did it was work, work, work, get the job done. And I was, even she had health issues and everything in her life. But, could you talk about that strong work ethic that she had when she was a child working in share, as a sharecropper. And then later in life when she was involved in certain causes and was snick, and everything, she was just a hard worker.

KL: 10:47
Yeah, so I think that was the essence of life in Mississippi at the time period. I mean, work meant food, work meant, you know, being able to have clothing, or a roof over your head. So, it was, I do not know, if it was a work ethic, it was out of necessity. If she had a choice to work at something else, she would have found something else that would have been more satisfying to her. Being a sharecropper is incredibly difficult, back-breaking work. And in that environment, it was abusive. You know, the plantation bosses tried to cheat the sharecroppers constantly. So, it was not, I would not say it was an ethic. I mean, it certainly is an ethic. Yes, it is an ethic. But it is, it is rooted in the need to eat, and have clothing, and a roof over your heads. And, but she, what her, her pride in the ability from a young age from the time she was a teenager to pick 200-300 pounds of cotton a day, is that speaks to that work ethic that you are talking about. But it was one of the few places that she could find tremendous pride, this young girl, being able to pick the same amount of cotton as an adult man and an adult woman. So, that work ethic comes out and is displayed in different ways. And of course, you know, she just was a high energy person, she had this, this incredible, like the-the young civil rights workers that worked with her talked about her kinetic energy and her inspirational movement, she just was on the move constantly. She was always moving forward and thinking what, what is the next thing to do, how to do it, she had passion to make change. And that is what drove her to work so hard. It was not, once she was able to feed herself, and have a roof over her head consistently. Her next drive, that ethic to, to work to make change is what drove her. So, she moved from food and housing insecurity, to, you know, civil rights insecurity and-

SM: 13:14

KL: 13:14
Making the world a better place. So that is, those were the drivers of her passionate work ethic, if that is what you want to call it.

SM: 13:21
Yeah, there were two things on, early in the book that, that really kind of upset me. And it was, learning about this, Senator Eastland. And who he was, he was such a racist, and he was a very powerful senator. And then, of course, John Stennis, who, you know, we know later in years, he was pretty much similar. Their attitudes toward people of color was so, not shocking, because if you study it, it is part of what you expect during that period. But still, to hear it. And to know that Lyndon Johnson had to deal with him on a daily basis, and some of the other senators in the South who believed in white supremacy and keeping the people of color down. Just your thoughts on Senator Eastland and the senators of her state.

KL: 14:08
Oh gosh, they were horrific human beings, and they were in the Senate for a really long time, which was not so long ago. And, you know, we are hearing the echoes of that racism today. People are more clever about how they use that language when they are in public, and they give speeches, but it is the same violent, racist rhetoric, that is just, you know, twenty-first century style. And he was, he was a, he was such a bigot. And so was Stennis, and it is interesting, you bring up Lyndon Johnson, so when I did my work for this book, I spent a lot of time listening to those Oval Office tapes. You know, he set up that system to tape everything in the office. He could not stand those senators, he could not, he just thought, he knew they were wrong. He talks about it on, in some of these tapes, how they are wrong. And you know, Black people deserve to vote, and they should have their, you know, representation and etc. And he was trapped in a world, at that time, that was struggling to move into the twentieth century and overcome these racist strangleholds on the-the beauty of freedom and equality in this country. And he needed those southern votes in order to become the president elected in, for, after Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson becomes president. And then the election is right after that in-in 1964. And Johnson wanted to be the nominee, so that he could move forward Kennedy's agenda and his own agenda for the country, a more progressive agenda, including civil rights, but he could not really come right out and say that to the world, especially to southerners, because Southern Democrats because they would not have voted for him. As it turns out, many of them did not, but he still won. But he-he faced these intractable racists who saw, they, their world was just literally black and white, and any person of color was ignorant and beneath them and had no, no place in the political sphere, in a govern, place of government, to, you know, make laws and make, they you know, that he just believed that white people knew what was best for Black people. And it was just disgusting. It really was disgusting. And this is what Hamer and her community and Mississippians lived with. And there were white Mississippians who did not go with this thing. They were trying, they were very supportive of the civil rights movement. But a great majority of them were definitely in favor of Stennis and Eastland. They were horrible people.

SM: 17:00
You had another example of this at the time that Fannie Lou Hamer was going to run for Congress. And she and another citizen of the state went to the Capitol, and they were going to register to run for Congress.

KL: 17:17

SM: 17:17
And the-the young white woman, could you describe that, the young white woman who met them and was going to give them a form that goes back to the corner of the room and starts talking about them? She used the n word.

KL: 17:30
Right. So, and, I think this is what Hamer heard everywhere she went, the N word, it was not, you know, an African American, or Black person, they, the white people use the n word constantly, just it was everywhere. But, I think it is the-the tone that Hamer heard, when that happened, this, she was trying to file her papers to run for Congress. And, she was there with an associate. And she-she, they were, they-they were, they were missing some papers that need to come from elsewhere in the state. So, the civil rights activists are gathering those papers and trying to race them down there in time. And the white woman there, the counter is, you know, whispering to her coworkers. But of course, not really whispering, they can hear everything that the white woman is saying, and she uses the n word. And there is this tone to it. Like, it is, it is just this, there is evil intent in it. It is just, you know, I cannot say it. I do not, I do not want to repeat the words-

SM: 18:37

KL: 18:37
But you know, the tone, the people know [crosstalk] that tone. So, that is what she lived with. That is what she faced, but it made her more determined, you know, she was getting that reaction in the clerk's office. And she was getting it out on the streets, but she knew that she was hitting a nerve. And it was important that she show everybody that you need to stand up and, and do something, you cannot just keep complaining. And it is funny, because at one point in her life, she was going along and doing what she could to make a difference, you know, for her family, and maybe right there in the community. But at one point, she realized, and we can talk about that point in her life that, that, change had to come, and that she needed to be the change she was looking for. And that was an important moment. I think many people come to that moment. And they-they, there is a crossroads, are they going to be the change? Or are they going to continue to go along the path that you know where nothing is going to, you know, change?

SM: 19:03
Like Rosa Parks.

KL: 19:06
Yeah, exactly. Making that decision, that moment in time.

SM: 19:34
For those of you that are, would be listening to this interview, could you really go into detail about the definition of white supremacy in the south, particularly in Mississippi? Because it is, it is so, it is, even though you know what is happening, the more you read about it, and the more examples you stated in the book, the more upset you become, that this can happen, that human rights as like Fannie talked about, eventually human rights.

KL: 20:16

SM: 20:16
And, you know, treating people as human beings. Could you talk about how serious it was, even in the justice system, even when people could not, you know, could not vote.

KL: 20:29

SM: 20:30
Just talk about that white supremacy.

KL: 20:32
So, the white supremacy, it was, and it was a lot of white male supremacy that was the overarching, I do not want to call foundation, but the-the crown of this white supremacy pillar, of white supremacy. And so, it, it permeated everything in Mississippi. Literally, everything was affected by white supremacy. So not only did Black people not have the right to vote, they did not have many rights at all, they could not enjoy the public library because the libraries were segregated, and there was no money to build Black community libraries, restaurants were segregated, bus stations were segregated, everything was segregated. Public buildings were segregated, there was a line in a clerk's office for, you know, Black people and a line for white people. And of course, the water fountains, and the bathrooms, and all of that. So that is just a visual that you could see every single day. It was in hiring, you know, Black people were hired for the menial jobs, paid as little as possible, cheated. You know, white supremacists could get away with, gee, not filing those taxes to pay for Social Security for Black people that they hired to work for them. So, Black people would go and retire and they would find out there was nothing in Social Security for them, because the people they work for, for decades, never put into the Social Security system for them. And, and then those employers never got in trouble. There was never, there were never repercussions. Loans to purchase, homes were denied, schools were segregated and the Black schools in Mississippi, only 12 cents out of every dollar, went to, an education dollar, went to a Black school, the rest all went to white schools. Black teachers were paid less. The transportation to schools was spotty in like, say the Mississippi Delta, you know, where children were scattered, you know, miles and miles apart. And to get to school, it was very difficult. They needed bus service, but that might not be provided by the town. Medical services were segregated, hospitals often would not treat Black patients in the same room, you know, emergency rooms or clinics that they served white people, some doctors would not even treat Black patients. Black women were denied access to hospitals to deliver babies, they relied very much so on midwives. Whereas white women, 80 percent of, of childbirth, white children were born, born in hospitals, delivered by doctors, whereas only 20 percent of Black women had that benefit. So, the child survival rate, the mortality rate for Black children, by the time Hamer was born in 1917, and into the 1920s and (19)30s, 1 out of 5, 1, a quarter of all Black children died before the time they were five years old. That is horrific-

SM: 23:53

KL: 23:53
Because there was no access to health care. Sanitation was poor. You know, of course, they would set up you know, good sanitation systems in white neighborhoods, but they would not do that in Black neighborhoods. And particularly out in the fields, where, like in the Mississippi Delta, the sharecropper cabins were on the low point of the property, the worst soil and that is where they would have the, sharecroppers and their outhouses, and in rains, then everything would flood and disease would spread rapidly. It was, it was a horrific, horrific place. And then just the sheer intimidation, of Black people who try to aspire, to do something more to get ahead in the world. You know, Hamer tells the story of when she was young, her family had started to make a little bit of money being sharecroppers, it was a, during the 1920s, the prices of cotton were high. Their father, her father was able to buy a used truck and some farm animals, like a cow and a steer, etc. And, a white neighbor was jealous and he poisoned the food trough for the animals and within a matter of hours, they all died. And there were no repercussions to that. Mississippi has the highest lynching rate of any state in the country, one of their counties, Hinds County has the highest lynching numbers of any county in the country. It was a very violent, violent place. And, you know, the-the efforts that white people went to, to prevent Black aspiration, Black rights. Just it knew, it knew no bounds, and there were no repercussions to whatever white people wanted to do.

SM: 25:43
And we're talking about the justice system as well, because two of the major events you talk about in the book is, the Emmett Till murder.

KL: 25:53

SM: 25:54
And certainly, the murder of Medgar Evers and you know, the trial and, how they are all let off in short periods of time, the people who committed these terrible crimes.

KL: 26:03
Exactly. It is a, it is a blood, a stain on Mississippi. It really is a stain on Mississippi. And, and as we are talking about Emmett Till, there is a film coming out today, I believe it is the day that it is premiering, about the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till, a Chicago boy who was sent by his mother down to Mississippi to spend time with relatives and he was murdered by, these white supremacists who ended up being in law enforcement, believe it or not, just it is stunning. But, they murdered him about six miles from where Fannie Lou Hamer was living at the time in, in, in 1955. And, and the same thing with Medgar Evers. He was assassinated in his driveway, in June of 1963, the same day that Hamer and her colleagues from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, that had been arrested and put in the Winona County Jail. They were released after being terrorized and beaten for four days. They were released on, the same day that Medgar Evers was assassinated.

SM: 27:09

KL: 27:10
And the, you know the-the white supremacist who killed Medgar Evers, all these people they got off, they did. It was like a joke. And, and the authorities in Mississippi often knew that violence was going to take place and they did not do anything about it. In fact, they had, they had like a secret service group, it was like a KGB, it was the sovereignty commission that had its own investigators and spies, that would spy on the Black community and keep records on people in, in the Black community and their white sympathizers, much like the FBI did. And, and they knew about plots to, you know, kill people, harass people, fire people, chase them out of town, that kind of thing. And they did nothing. It was just, it was state-sponsored violence, terrorism, murder, you name it, the state was complicit. And when people were caught, white people were caught, you know, doing, committing violence, murder, etc. They-they universally, were not convicted. It is just you know, I do not know, I, it is just stunning to me. And it was such a short time ago. That is what is shocking. It is one thing to write about Harriet Tubman and slavery. That was 150-170 years ago. People just really cannot get their head around it. But this happened 50-60 years ago, and it still happens across this country, too.

SM: 28:36
I think I, sent, I go back to Senator Eastland. I believe after World War Two, when the African American troops came home, I think it is in your book, you state that, they were coming back and hoping you have equal rights-

KL: 28:52

SM: 28:52
-in, back at home after the war, after serving their nation. And his commentary was, that the African American troops had been raping women in France-

KL: 29:01
Right, and-

SM: 29:02
-trying degrade them as, in any way he could.

KL: 29:05
Exactly. And of course, that is the old stereotype, the trope, that enraged white southerners that, that made them want to fight the Civil War to keep slavery. And also, after the Civil War to prevent Black people from getting rights is by, portraying Black men as rapacious beasts who all, the only thing they wanted to do was rape white women, and Eastland fed right into that, he told lies, he should have been sued. He should have been barred from the Senate for that kind of comment. And, and so you know, and it did not happen, but when Black soldiers came home to Mississippi, they were attacked. There was one man that was murdered pretty quickly. And you know, because they came back they have been fighting for freedom around the world for liberating, oppressed peoples, they come home and they have to go to, you know, the segregated, whatever, even if it was available, they had to go to the segregated places, they could not sit at the front of the bus, they had to sit at the back. You know, they were spat on-on the streets. I mean, who does that? It is just, it is just incredibly awful. And we, as a nation have forgotten it. And it was not so long ago, it has been percolating, it is still there. It is not wide out in the open, like Eastland used to talk and behave. But the tones are still there. And some of the words are still-still there. And it is frightening, very frightening.

SM: 30:33
Now, this is important because you talk about this, too, that even though Fannie Lou Hamer only went, I think sixth grade education, she was very well informed. And, a question I want to ask you, and please explain, is how informed was she about what was happening around the state of Mississippi with all these things, not just locally, but through the state and through the nation on these terrible things that were happening to people of color?

KL: 31:01
Right, so of course, through the grapevine she would hear about what was happening of, to people of color in her community, it would just, you know, the church, out in the field, people would say, "Oh, did you hear what happened to so and so." She, when she became, nationally known, and she would give speeches, she would say she knew nothing about the Civil Rights Movement, until 1962, when Snick came to her church. That isn't true, she was actually extremely well informed. And she was part of a, national, sort of underground civil rights movement that was going on in Mississippi during the 1950s. And, it was very dangerous to be involved in civil rights activities because you could be murdered for it. You could be harassed, you could be evicted, you could lose your job. So, but she was, she-she was, she tried to get memberships in the NAACP, she would go out and canvass and, and there was a big event that happened every year in Mississippi it was called, mine, "Mound Bayou Days," it was like three or four days in May. TM Howard, he was an insurance salesman, and also a doctor who ran this big event in Mound Bayou, and they would invite outside speakers, like Thurgood Marshall came to speak there in, in the 1950s, and Mahalia Jackson would sing there. And, they would have this huge barbecue and people, African Americans would come from all over the state, and Tennessee, and other states, to you know, listen to speeches, and to gather, and sing, and things like that. So, she was part of that, actually, one of her relatives told me about how she would work with, this relative's father, and they would cook up 500 chickens for the barbecue and, and so she was there. And they would have secret meetings, while the mine, Mound Bayou days were going on and everyone was celebrating and listening to speeches. She was attending private meetings about civil rights and how to move them forward in Mississippi. So, she was very well aware. And she did talk about how she was made aware, it is almost like she would tell two different stories out on the campaign trail trying to get people interested in, in civil rights, she would say that she used to clean the house of the plantation owner where she was a sharecropper. And she would see magazines and newspapers discarded in the trash, well she would collect them all, and bring them back home and read them all. So, she did keep up on current events and, and also in the church, you know, someone would have a copy of "The Crisis," or the "Chicago Defender, “newspaper. And so, she would get to read it there, or the barbershop might have some, some things that people could, could read. So, she was informed. But you know, living there on the ground in Ruleville is different than reading what is happening on the, in the, on the national level, and the national level does not know what is happening to her in Mississippi.

SM: 34:14

KL: 34:14
So, there was that, that is why she, in part of her compulsion to make a change, like people needed to hear about what was going on in Mississippi. And that was her voice, once she decided to be the change and she got up on stage. She let people know what was happening in Mississippi and they listened.

SM: 34:35
One of the things that was taking place if things were not bad enough in Mississippi, and in the south is when the Citizens Councils were formed.

KL: 34:44
Yeah, right.

SM: 34:44
Could you talk just briefly about that, and what they were and, and why they were formed? They had the KKK already, I just-

KL: 34:52
I know [chuckles].

SM: 34:52

KL: 34:53
It is, it is insanity when you think about it. So, after the-the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Education and the order to desegregate schools came down. The, white southerners flipped out, they freaked out and started coming up with ways to prevent this from happening. And so immediately, there was a man in, in Mississippi and his name is escaping me at this moment, I apologize. He started the Citizens Councils, because they wanted to make sure. And he used language like, "You know, our white daughters were not prey to Black men in the classroom." You know, we did not want, and they used horrific lane, language, about you know, middle school and high school Black boys as "monkeys and apes," and they were going to "attack their white daughters if they were allowed to be in the same classroom." So, they formed the Citizens Councils, and white citizens, you know, vowed to, it was like a, it was like white collar clan, actually, you know, it was, because some people did not want it, some more elite people in Mississippi, white people in the south did not want to join the clan, they see, that looks more like low class to them. So, the Citizens Council gave the elites something they felt looked more respectable, but it was the same evil, it was the same horrific attitudes and racism. It was just, you know, it was painted a prettier color. And, and more powerful people were part of it. But they did work with the Klan. And so, there was a very fine line between the two of them, if, or maybe a dotted line between the two organizations. And, you know, Fannie Lou Hamer said something really interesting about the Klan, and I would love to quote that for you right now. Hold on one second, let me just find it.

SM: 36:48

KL: 36:49
She, you know, she was such an astute observer of human beings and their-their belief systems. And she just, I do not, I just find her to be, because she, it is a lived experience for her, she was able to articulate it in a way that a Martin Luther King could not. He inspired in one way, and she inspired in another because she could talk about something so personal and what was happening on the ground in Mississippi. So, this is what she said about the Klan and, and white supremacy. And because of her deep faith, she always had this as a theme that she did not hate anybody, despite what happened to her in Mississippi and how she was treated by white supremacists. But she, so she said, "I really do not hate any man. There is got to be something wrong psychologically with the person to have me beaten because of the color of my skin. Hate is like to cancer," she said, "It eats away at a human being until they become nothing but a shell. That same hate will make you stay up at night. That is the reason you have the Ku Klux Klan, and all these other hate groups, that a man should stay up all night trying to figure out how he can fix a sheet to make a point in it, to go out and terrorize another human being is really stupid. The point is not in the sheet. It is in his head." It is such a powerful, powerful statement, and it is true. So, this is, this is what she lived with. And so, while the Citizens Council was, you know, legitimized by the state in a sense because it, you know, it had officers and it was, you know, they had an office and they hired people to coordinate the different councils, but it started in Mississippi, it spread throughout the South. And so, while they had contact with Klan members, and sometimes Klan members were members of the council and vice versa, they also became tightly interwoven with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which was like that KGB organization I-I mentioned before. So, the Citizens Council was privy to the-the spying that these, the sovereignty commission investigators did on Black people and then civil rights workers. And so then, they would let you know, white employers know, "Hey, your guy was at this civil rights meeting," and so that white employer would fire that employee the next day. Wow. So, it was just a vicious, vicious circle of hate and, and terror, and manipulation that was going on there in Mississippi and other southern states.

SM: 39:39
One of the things is that Fannie Lou was a really good organizer. And with that work-work, work, mentality. Could you talk about before she made links with Snick and worked with them? Could you talk about any other organizing she did when she was younger? Whether it be as a sharecropper or, during, people that were having problems with poverty, with food, with clothing, and she always seemed to be doing something, even though she did not have hardly anything, she was always thinking about helping others.

KL: 40:13
Right-right. So, there was an interesting part of her life. I mean, there were so many things she did, whether it was through her church, you know, the church women doing fundraising to raise money to buy food for starving families in the community. You know, those are the basic things that she would do, but in the field. So, this was a common thing where the bosses, the field bosses, or the plantation boss would try to cheat the sharecroppers and weigh their cotton and underweight it. And they had these contractions, they would bring up these scales, they would bring out in the fields, and they had weights that they would attach to a counterweight, and they were called peas. And so, Hamer noticed that some of these peas had been altered so that they miss, read the weight on the cotton that the sharecroppers would pick each day. And so, they were being cheated, so they would get paid less. So, Hamer noticed this, so she got a hold of her own pea. And when the plantation boss was not looking, she would switch out the altered one for the actual, real one. And so that she would be able to make sure that people were paid accurately. And her fellow sharecroppers thought she was crazy to do that, because if she gets caught they figured she would get not only fired, but she could have been killed. So, she was very brave that way. And, you know, she was, she would negotiate in the morning. So, they would travel around once they were, one plantation, if they picked all the cotton, one place, then they would hire themselves out to pick in other plantations. And so, sometimes they would arrive in the morning, and so they would bicker with the plantation boss, or the field boss about how much they were going to get paid per pound. And Hamer, what, it was said, would bicker the best deal for those pickers, and so, she was admired. She was already a leader, in a sense, in the community for-for justice. And so that, that carried her forward so that when Snick did arrive in Ruleville, Mississippi in 1962, they recognize pretty quickly that she was an emerging leader in that community.

SM: 42:31
Yes, she is unbelievable. I-I wrote something down that I just want to share. I put down here that her astounding ability to deal with life and death issues while never losing her focus to achieve very positive deeds for others. She was always seemed to be doing things for others, which is, she was a selfless person from the get go. And, and I want to talk about this too, because I want to get into the areas where, really divided into sections in the book, "The Mississippi Appendectomy," the Winona, whenever she was beaten, and certainly there was even the time when her house was shot at, she was not there, but she could have been killed. Just, her mental health. When you think about what African Americans were going through, not just, not just Fannie Lou, but everybody there that, you know, their mental health, how they could even survive that. Could you talk a little bit about her mental health throughout her life and how she was able to recuperate, and I know she had a lot of faith, her faith in God was strong. But still, she had a makeup, to refocus after-

KL: 43:46

SM: 43:47
-tragedy and continued serve others.

KL: 43:49
Right. So, she did, she continued to weather storms and to face down violence, experienced violence and, and grief, and all of that, and rise up afterwards. And, and a big part of it is, her faith that, you know, her, her psyche, her mental health took many punches. But she found her way out of darkness, through her faith. But also, I credit her mother and her father. She, and the tight family and community she lived in, you know, they-they, she had a very strong mother that was a model for her. And-and there were other women in the community that were models for her. And so, she-she had that sense of security in, in the community, that there were people there that loved her not only just her family, but other people in the community, and that they were survivors and she could survive too. And of course, she was raised to protect herself. You know to, to pay attention to the landscape of white people because you never knew when a white person was going to attack you or do something awful to you. So, she had that radar so, she was insulated in a sense, because she was so prepared. And that is awful that you have to grow up being acculturated, and prepared, for anything that might, violence or whatever comes your way, perpetrated by a white person that hates the color of your skin and what you represent.

SM: 45:20

KL: 45:21
So that was, that is how she survived. Of course, not every person of color did survive, the things that she survived. And that is why, what I write in the book is, "The Mississippi Appendectomy," in 1961. She went to the hospital and Dr. Charles Durrell there, in Ruleville, was supposed to do surgery on her, to get, to take out some uterine tumors. Benign ones, but he gave her a hysterectomy, and never told her. And this was a, it was so common that white doctors did this to Black women that it was called, "A Mississippi Appendectomy." And you know, a woman would, could go into the hospital, this was reported at the time, went into the hospital for, a, an appendicitis attack and came out without her uterus. This happened to Black women and poor white women at the time. So, Hamer comes out of the surgery, thinking the tumors are gone, and maybe she possibly could get pregnant because she and her husband, Pap Hamer, had been trying for years to have children of their own, and she would have several miscarriages, stillbirth, and it was having difficulty getting pregnant. And so, they wanted to their family to grow beyond the two girls that they had adopted. So, she gets home to recuperate, and it is a long recuperation from a hysterectomy. And, the cook of the plantation, in the plantation bosses house comes to her and says she overheard the plantation boss's wife, Mrs. Marlow, speaking to her friend telling her that Dr. Daro had sterilized Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie was crushed, she was angry, she was filled with hate and, and, and just went to a very dark place, her mother died the same year. So, she was filled with this pain, and grief, and loss of her mother, the loss of her ability to have babies. It was all taken from her. And she just, she really hit the depths of depression. And, she worked her way out of it. She had two little girls at home, she had the beef, therefore her husband, Pap, the community. And when, that, shortly thereafter, in 1962, that is when Snick arrived in August of 1962, in Ruleville, and she decided to go because it was that moment that I mentioned earlier, when she decided that she either, you know, had to just exit and not participate in anything anymore. Just be at home and do her sharecropping, and that was it for the rest of her life. Or, she had to look for a way to make change in her life. And when she went to the meeting of those young snick people, she realized that not only did she need to be the change that she needed to see, those young people were the change that she was looking for. And so, that was a moment in her life. And it, it sent her brain into this recovery mode, and it, she became energized and passionate because she had seen the darkness. And she did not want to live there. She wanted to move towards the light and, and find a path to freedom and equality. And that is what happened.

SM: 48:53
Another tragic moment was, that time when she was at the Staley cafe, bus depot-

KL: 49:01

SM: 49:01
-and Nona, could you talk about that? And I think, there is, the one, you mentioned in the, describing the situation that she did not want her husband to know about what happened.

KL: 49:13

SM: 49:13
She kept that kind of a secret because she feared that he would go out and shoot somebody-

KL: 49:18
Again, right, yes.

SM: 49:18
-and then he gets killed- -just your thoughts. Right.

KL: 49:20
So-so after Snick came and she tried to register to vote, and of course she could not because those literacy tests in, in Mississippi were unpassable and only 5 percent of eligible Black voters were registered to vote because they-they had so many barriers to voting. So, Hamer tried to register to vote, went home, the Marlowe's evicted her, and so, she had to find another home. And Snick immediately hired her because they recognized her leadership and oh, from the fall of 1962, into the spring of 1963, they sent her to various classes to learn different techniques on how to be a civil rights worker, to encourage people to register to vote, how to pass the test, all that kind of thing, and to practice nonviolent protest techniques. And so, in June of 1963, she and some Snick colleagues, young people that were half her age, were coming back from a training session in South Carolina. And they were on a continental Trailways bus. They, the buses and the terminals across the South were now integrated by law, they had to be integrated. So, these young people were testing the integration. They sat wherever they wanted to on the bus, despite the anger of the bus driver who wanted them to sit at the back of the bus. And then at each bus terminal, they tested the new laws that said each interstate bus terminal had to be integrated, no more separate lunch counters, no more separate bathrooms, or drinking fountains, and separate waiting rooms. So, they had no problems going out there and then coming back until they hit Winona, Mississippi, and they hit the bus terminal there. And the young people went in to sit at the lunch counter and then to use the bathrooms, which they were denied. And so, someone at the-the Cast Dailies Cafe, the bus terminal restaurant, called the police who arrived and arrested all of them, including Hamer, who was not even trying to test any of that, she was on the bus and she came off the bus to see what was happening and they arrested her. And the local police and the state police took them to the Winona County Jail. And for four days, the young people and Hamer were terrorized, and assaulted, and violently so, and Hamer was also sexually assaulted. And, they nearly killed her with the beatings that they gave her. She suffered permanent kidney damage as a result of the beating, her eye became permanently damaged too, because of the way they hit her head. And the, bruises on her were horrific. And she, she really almost died. And in the, in the jail cell that she shared with a young Snick worker, Sylvester Simpson, she was laying on her stomach on the cot because she was so badly beaten. And she asked Sylvester to sing the gospel song, the spiritual "Walk with Me, Jesus Walk with Me." And that is, by, why I called the cover of my, I put that as the title of my book is, "Walk with Me," because she needed her faith to help her survive and not lose consciousness. She was so afraid. But she came out of that, she, they were released from-from jail on the same day. As I mentioned before, Medgar Evers was assassinated in June of 1963. And I think the sexual assault and the beating was so brutal. She did not want Pap to see-

SM: 53:01

KL: 53:01
What happened to her, or to know the extent of what happened to her because, as you said, he would have gone out and shot somebody. He was, he was a man, that was his wife. And he was at great danger and she knew that. So, she did not go home for a couple of weeks, she traveled to Atlanta, to New York City and to Washington, D.C., where she gave testimony about what happened to her. And I pieced together the details of her beating through the FBI files, through her interviews with civil rights workers, NAACP folks, and then the trial of the men in the jail that beat her so badly. Of course, they were acquitted of any- -assault charges. But the testimony during that trial was horrific. And the details that emerged are just horrifying. So eventually, I am sure Pap learned, maybe he did not learn about the rape. I do not know. She confided that, into, with friends of hers, you know, civil rights workers. But I do not think, I do not know if she told Pap or not. I do not know about that.

SM: 53:50
Right. Yeah, her life was in danger many times throughout, throughout this period. And, I can remember two items you state in the book, one of them was, one, she was not at home one day and someone came by and shatter, shattered her house. And, and where she normally sits, I think was only like a foot above where she would normally would have been sitting if, if she-

KL: 54:39

SM: 54:39
-was at home. And then, there was another scene where she came home one day and the entire street was dark, all the lights are off. And, and she did not know, if like there was a power outage and no, it was not a power outage. They all turned the lights off because they were, they had been threatened.

KL: 54:56
Right. And there was one instance where white supremacists drove down the street, shooting at any and all houses, they would do this in the Black community, particularly during the (19)50s and (19)60s, when the civil rights movement started, you know, gaining traction, and every civil rights gain was met with tremendous violence by white southerners. You know, every time there was, like the March on Washington in August of 1963, a couple of months after Hamer was brutally assaulted in Mississippi, the response was the bombing of the-the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and four little girls were murdered. So, you know, every celebration, every movement forward was met by some massive resistance. Well in Ruleville, Mississippi, tiny little, Ruleville, the resistance was white yahoo racists, going around in their cars and blasting their shotguns into Black homes.

SM: 55:55

KL: 55:55
And there was never any police presence to stop it. Never. So, it this is what she lived with, you know, people were killed, hurt maimed. It was, it was horrific. It was really horrific.

SM: 56:07
I am going to get into this section, very important part of your book and important part of her life was her work was Snick, which was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the people she worked with. She worked with some unbelievable people, and, and they had faith in her as well. So, it was a two-way street. Could you talk a little bit about time that she linked up with Snick? Bob Moses, was the, I remember, I think you said, someplace in the book, somebody had made a comment that, it was right to have a man named Moses. [laughter]

KL: 56:42
Yeah, right-right, right.

SM: 56:43
And that, was that, was a great to put that in there.

KL: 56:45

SM: 56:45
Because it is so true, because he was an unbelievable person, he had been a teacher, up in New York. And, and you know, Ella Baker and, and certainly John Lewis, and Julian Bond, and of that unbelievable group of people from Snick. That begin, could you talk about the beginning where they met?

KL: 57:03

SM: 57:04
And then we will go into some of them, what they did.

KL: 57:06
So, I am glad you brought up Ella Baker, because Snick, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee with her, her vision, and she was an older Black woman that worked for Martin Luther King, brilliant woman. And during the, sit-ins in, you know, 19- in the 1959, 1960, where students would go into these segregated lunch counters, like Woolworths, and they sit down and try to integrate it and they would be attacked. And then, they started the Freedom Rides. You know, John Lewis is famous for the freedom line ride, rides, where they would take buses from northern states into the south and test the interstate laws that said these buses had to be integrated, and so are the stations, but the southern response was bombing these buses, attacking them. When they came to the terminals, people were killed, and Louis was badly beaten. So, she is watching these young people willing to put their lives on the line and do all this stuff. And so, she decided she should organize them. So, Bob Moses was noticing the same stuff as he was teaching math in, in New York City. And he goes down to Atlanta, he meets Ella Baker, and with John Lewis, and as you said, Julian Bond and all these amazing young people, she organizes them into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or Snick. And they decide they are going to go to the worst of the worst, and that is Mississippi. And they are going to, she tells them, you know, you are all these young, bright, energetic people go into these communities, and do not tell them what to do, or tell them what you are going to do for them. You find out what they need, and how you can help them get what they need. And try to identify local leaders, because you have to nurture local people, you cannot insert yourself and tell everybody what to do. So, that was brilliant on her part. So, Bob Moses goes to Mississippi, and he starts, you know, building a community there with other organizations like the NAACP, and the Council of Federated Organizations and, you know, other civil rights organizations, they are in Mississippi, and then other civil rights workers follow him there. And so, that is how he ends up meeting Fannie Lou Hamer, when they decide to have a meeting in Ruleville, to talk to local residents, as they had been doing throughout Mississippi a great rest of their lives about registering to vote. And that is when she went there. And she saw these young people and she could not believe what they were saying. And you know, one of, they taught, they used biblical language, and they are in Hamer's church, William Chapel in Ruleville, and they are using biblical language to say, "You know, God meant for everybody to be free and, and equal." And, and then there were young people talking about the law, the Constitution, the law is "You have these rights, you need to fight for it. It is, these things that they are doing to you are illegal, it is wrong, we need to fight, because it is in the Constitution that we should be equal." So, she was like, "Wow." And I would love to tell you what she said about Snick. Once she became involved with them, she said, "Snick is the type of people that regardless to what they say, call them far left, because a lot of people call them, like hippies. And you know, they were way too far left," quote, and radical and she said, "Call them far left and radical and beatniks, and all kinds of things, but they are still willing to go into areas with the people that is never had a chance to be treated as a human being. And some have given their lives for the cause of human justice." She said that Snick volunteers showed, quote, "More Christianity than I have ever seen in a church." That is powerful.

SM: 1:00:54
Wow. Yep. The, one of the things. Another one of these examples when she worked with Snick, was what happened in Hattiesburg, where it was the whole issue of voting. Could you talk about the issue of voting? And here we are talking about it again, in 2022. I just cannot believe we are talking about it again. And, you know, what was the issue in Mississippi with respect to voting, and if you could give some of the statistics and numbers of those who, how many citizens are were of color in that state at that time? And how many were actually voting and what they were doing to try to prevent people from voting because that was one of the reasons why Freedom Summer evolved? Still there? [silence] All right, we are back.

KL: 1:01:57
Okay. So, I think we were talking about Hattiesburg and the rallies there. And so, I, you know, she, the- the rallies that started so she, you know, becomes part of Snick and, and night, the winter of 1963. They start with these rallies. And they have one in Hattiesburg, where they try to get people to register to vote. And so, the resistance in Mississippi is that so there, there were, half the population was Black and Mississippi at the time, but only between 5 and 6 percent had been able to register to vote because Mississippi had all these barriers, which included the literacy test. Poll taxes, you had to pay poll taxes, if you pass the test, then you have to pay poll tax for two years before you are eligible to vote. That is only really for Black people, because they did not, they did not require white people to do that. There were illiterate white people that were registered to vote. And but, when it came to Black people, they used every excuse, and they would have to answer questions about the Mississippi State Constitution, interpret these arcane laws, and rules, and things. It was just, it was ridiculous. And then if by chance you were able to pass it, then if you went to try to vote, sometimes the-the, the towns would give misinformation to the Black communities about where you could go vote. So, people would go there and there would be no polling station, or they would go to a polling station and there would be armed white people outside to intimidate you from going to vote. And some people they watched who went to vote and if they voted, they would get fired from their job the next day.

SM: 1:02:05
Yes. Wow.

KL: 1:02:27
So, there were all these ways that white Mississippians found to, to prevent Black people from exercising the franchise and it was just disgusting. So, the Snick was there they heard loud and clear, that Mississippians, Black Mississippians wanted to be able to vote and they needed to vote. And but, the white Mississippians were not going to let them, so they would have these rallies and then they would encourage people to go down to the courthouse and register to vote. And so, in Hattiesburg this happened and you know, this was one of the earlier moments that Hamer was part of this movement and, and people flew in from around the country to help the people in Hattiesburg register to vote but they were threatened by white supremacists. And, there was the state police there and National Guard that was brought out and, and it was, it was just, it was, it was so intimidating. And there is Hamer just marching with everybody else and facing down the intimidators and trying to help people exercise their right to register and make a difference.

SM: 1:04:52
I think there was a man there too in that building in this, in the courthouse that was well known for not registering African Americans. I think that you have told me.

KL: 1:05:04
That is right.

SM: 1:05:05

KL: 1:05:05
Yeah. Sarah and Lind were this notorious court clerk in Hinds County, Forest County, excuse me, and he refused to register any Black people. And he had for a very long time. And, and so he was, you know, a focus of, of efforts to get Mississippi to start letting Black people vote and get rid of these ridiculous tests. And even after, asked and the federal government stepped in and said, "You got to stop doing this you have to register Black people to vote." Theron Lind continued to defy court order, after court order, after court order to register Black voters, he was so defiant. He was sued, he was hot, you know, he was brought into court time and time again. And he continued to refuse, he became the poster child for you know, these. It was almost a carrot.

SM: 1:06:09
Oops. Still there. Oops. Okay we are back.

KL: 1:06:15
Okay, so we were talking about Hattiesburg, which was actually, the winter of 1964. And so, the interesting thing is, by 1964, she was really beginning to take a more pivotal role in what was going on in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. And with the help of the Snick workers, activists, she is having access to stages. And it is, it, her voice on the stage inspires so many people. And if you listen to these recordings, there are recordings in the moon collection at the Smithsonian, for instance. And they have some of these, like the Hattiesburg rally and other rallies. And you can hear some of the speakers usually middle class, men are up on the stage talking. And the crowds get very restless. And then all of a sudden, you know, they will call Fannie Lou Hamer up to sing, they always had her singing. And the crowd would always "Hush," and they would be so excited when Hamer came up. And she watched how they reacted to her versus how they reacted to all these men. And eventually, she started talking on stage and she spoke the language of people who were experiencing the same thing that she was. And so, it she had a tremendous impact on the movement there in Mississippi. And Snick, really, they just were in awe of her, these young students were in complete awe of her. And so, you know, she helped found with local people. And with the support of Snick, they founded a new Democratic Party in Mississippi called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And she became their vice chair and that set her off on this incredible path to changing the world.

SM: 1:08:15
Yeah, the whole thing about Freedom Summer was the idea that Mr. Moses had and others was to bring in college students from around the country, but black and white students from you know, prestigious schools, Ivy League schools, some of the prestigious state universities and-and African American colleges, and it kind of worked. There are a lot of people that, that came could you talk about that, because I know Fannie Lou was in, in Ohio, which is where they did their training. I think-

KL: 1:08:45

SM: 1:08:46
James Forman was in charge of the training. And, and she, they did a lot of speaking there. And-

KL: 1:08:52

SM: 1:08:53
And, yep.

KL: 1:08:53
So-so the-the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and in conjunction with Snick, and other organizations in Mississippi decided on this concept of Freedom Summer, and they would bring in young people from around the country to help people to register to vote, because this was the big thing and white Mississippians had been telling. And actually, white southerners had been telling the rest of the nation that Black people were not interested in vote, they could register to vote, but they were not interested in voting. So, the MFDP, and Snick, and all these groups got together and held mock auction, elections so that they could prove to the world that Black people, yes, wanted to vote. And so, but they really needed to try to register the people to vote, to really be able to vote in, in elections. So, they had a training session for 800 students. More than 800 students signed up to be part of this Mississippi Freedom Summer, and they were trained at Western Reserve University or Western College for Women in Ohio. And Hamer went up there to do the training sessions along with people like Bob Moses, and John Lewis, and James Forman ran the-the whole thing. Some of the students, so they were taught nonviolent techniques, protest techniques, etc. And three of the civil rights workers, young Snick workers that were part of this group, some of them had already been working in Mississippi. Another one was part of this new wave of students, Andrew Goodman coming out of New York, and they were down in Mississippi while the training sessions were going on in June. And these three civil rights workers, Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, were abducted and murdered by the Klan in outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and they went missing and they were missing. And of course, everybody knew in their gut what had happened to them, even though their bodies were not found for two months. And so, the young people in, in Ohio, some of them decided not to go to Mississippi, they were frightened. They realized, well, this is real, this is really serious. The violence that is down there. But more than 800 ended up going down there and spreading across the state. And they went into communities. They lived in the communities, they were harassed by white supremacists, but they stood strong, because they had leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, who endured far more than they were enduring. And, she motivated them and excited them. And they helped people try to register to vote. They also built freedom schools, because education, as I said, so little was spent in Mississippi on education for Black students. They opened up freedom libraries, they opened up libraries so that Black residents could go and, and experience a library. And they held classes so that adults and children could take English, and math, and science, and things like that. So, it was an amazing summer and they built community centers. These young people were incredible, and they stared down danger every single day. But the disappearance of Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney was a reminder of how dangerous that place was. And, they really changed the landscape in Mississippi. And in the meantime, Hamer became more and more dedicated to moving the needle forward and challenging the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party that had no Black people in it and did not represent half the population of Mississippi. And that is what propelled her to the-the, the national stage is when she and her colleagues from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, elected delegates, and they went to Atlantic City where the Democratic National Convention was being held that August. President Lyndon Johnson was hoping to be the nominee for the right, for the presidential election in November. And so, Fannie Lou Hamer and the MFDP wanted to challenge the delegates that were being sent by the all-white Mississippi party. So, they met in the Credentials Committee meeting in August, and they challenged those white Mississippians and NBC News was filming the whole thing, live coverage of the national convention. And they taped this challenge to the Mississippi delegates. And Fannie Lou Hamer got on stage and gave a speech that was about eight minutes long. She had no notes. She spoke from the heart about what was happening in Mississippi, what it was like to be a Black Mississippian, and the violence that was perpetrated on her, and what the white supremacists were doing, and what democracy was not like in Mississippi. And, Lyndon Johnson heard her speaking on the television that he was watching in the White House at the time. And he got very nervous. He knew her voice had power. That her story would resonate. And he needed those white southerners to vote for him. And so, he had NBC pull away from her coverage. And they went to the White House where he was standing at a podium. And he made like a three-minute little speech about John F. Kennedy dying, nine months before, it was something he just made up on the, on the fly. And then they go back to the convention room and Hamer had just finished speaking. And Lyndon Johnson thought he had dodged a bullet, that it would be okay. You know, they were challenging, but they would not win the challenge and then he could keep the southern white Democrats in the party long enough to get through the election. What he did not expect was that NBC News would replay her testimony that night to a national audience. And people were stunned, and they were moved, and they were activated. And he realized, uh oh, and you know, to make a long story short, the white delegation was seated, but they refused to take their seats. They were so ticked off that anybody paid attention to Fannie Lou Hamer and her colleagues. They are from Mississippi. And so, they left and most of them I believe ended up voting for the racist candidate, Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. So, that is when she really hit the national stage and everyone took notice. And she had a voice, and she had learned to use it. And she continued to use it for years and years in pursuit of civil rights, and equality, and justice.

SM: 1:15:50
Well, because of that, I think in 1968 at the next convention, which was in Chicago, that historic convention where all the protests were against the war. She spoke again.

KL: 1:16:02
That is right. So, four years later, those white Mississippians were not giving up. And they sent an all-white delegation to Chicago, and Fannie Lou Hamer is reconstituted, Freedom Democratic Party. Challenged them again, only this time the Democratic Party rejected the white southern Democratic Party candidate delegates and accepted Hamer's group, it was diverse, and in gender, and in race. And so, they were seated. And Famer received a standing ovation at the convention that year. And it was a powerful step forward, and her voice, she stayed an active part of the National Democratic Organization Committee, because she insisted that there be not only race parity, in delegations from every state coming, moving forward, but gender parity, and she insisted that they start conversations about food insecurity, and housing insecurity, and access to medical care, and, and so on, and so forth. She really was, preschool education, etc., she just was a powerhouse, she just did not stop. And, you know, the civil rights movement was waning in a way that the anti-war movement was becoming front and center. A lot of those young activists were going back to college, graduate school onto professional physicians. So, she started focusing a lot on the local community back in Mississippi, while still maintaining a presence on the national level and becoming involved in the women's movement, etc. But her heart and soul was really back in the fields, and in the towns, and villages, and communities of Mississippi. And, she was continuing to try to make a difference there.

SM: 1:17:49
Her voice was always very important, even for the Snick, when they had the issues between white students and the Black students, certain members of the Snick, who are African American had concerns about having white students involved in this, because they should be in the leadership roles, not them. But she said, if, I am correct me if I am wrong or right, that, you know, we were fighting to integrate, and not segregate. And we are trying to end segregation and what we do not want to do that to the people, the white students who want to work with us. Let us work together.

KL: 1:18:25
Right-right. It is exactly what she said. And that started causing a rift between her and some members of Snick. As they moved in through the (19)60s. 19(60), by (19)65, (19)66, some of the young Black males Snick workers were becoming more attracted to the like, the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers. And, they felt they had no patience for Fannie Lou Hamer. And when I was doing the research, I was looking at the Snick meeting minutes, it was, that she would might not be there. Sometimes she was there. And sometimes they would complain that she was too old. She was not, she did not represent them anymore. They did not want to deal with her. They wanted to go and be you know, it was Black power. Only Black people could be in the movement, no white people. And so, they cast her out basically. And, and she, you know, she understood their point of view, but she thought it was wrong. And so, she moved away from them, and they moved away from her, and went on their trajectory. So, but there were other civil rights activists that still stuck by her and she worked with them. And then, as the movement really grew and embraced, you know, women's rights too. There were young Black women who wanted to be part of this second wave feminism and, and so, she was part, she was friends with Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug, and Shirley Chisholm, and, and Dorothy Height, and all these you know, rising Black female, and white female activists that were fighting for feminine, for female rights as well. And so, she, she wanted to be part of that because she knew that women were discriminated against even though she was very defensive about Black men, she felt that they were targeted more than Black women were, so she had a more traditional view of you know, the men should be able to be protected more than the women kind of thing, they needed their rights too. And so, she clashed with young Black women activists like, Medgar Evers's wife, Myrlie, she-she clashed with her. She clashed with Eleanor Holmes Norton, even though they were very-very close, and very good friends, and other young Black women activists because Hamer became very-very, a very-very conservative feminist. She was anti-abortion and anti-birth control. And so, we can understand the anti-abortion point of view, but the anti-birth control issue, just, no one could understand that, and especially the young women, they just had no patience for her and they grew very intolerant of her voice, they thought she was irrational and, and not considerate of their point of view as young women in their reproductive years. So, part of her, the way she looked at it, as, as a direct result of her own hysterectomy, without her permission, and her denial of her ability to have babies. And so, the anti-abortion thing, I think, was a more of an older person point of view. Because I know as a young woman, she helped facilitate X women getting access to illegal abortion services there in Mississippi. She was the go-to person that young women would go-to, and then she would help them access those services. But after her, her hysterectomy, her sterilization, she did not do that anymore. So, you know, she just she, she still was a powerful voice. But, there were other voices that were contrary to her voice, and they were all struggling to be heard.

SM: 1:22:09
I know Eleanor Holmes Norton stated that she thought that, Fannie Lou Hamer was the second-best speaker she had ever heard behind Dr. King.

KL: 1:22:20
Yeah, I actually, other-other, yeah. Others said that too. Even some of the people that I spoke to interviews with some of the Snick workers and young activists, they said, yeah, she was just an amazing speaker. And you know, I-I point to her Baptist minister father, and her own innate abilities, her sensibility about an audience, and her own passion. She knew how to deliver that she knew how to speak softly, and then raise her voice. And had, she had a tempo, to the way she spoke. And there was a pattern to her lectures and her speeches. And people really were very, very motivated and attracted to her, through her voice. And she would always add music too, and get people singing and energize that way. So, she-she was incredibly gifted.

SM: 1:23:12
Talking about her stand down, those students who are white, who came down to the south to work with Snick. One of those students was Mario Savio. And of course, he went back to Berkeley, you talk connecting the dots, you know, here you got Fannie Lou Hamer, very vocally supporting the, you know, working together, not just Blacks-Black, Black Americans. And what happened is, Mario goes back to Berkeley, and then he is where the other students there at Berkeley. And, of course, we know the whole history there, but the free speech movement, because they tried to take literature away that was being handed out in Sproul Plaza. And because they thought, we are not supposed to hand out political literature, and the students went against this. And a lot of the literature was about Freedom Summer, about going back, and helping with the voting in the, in the south, and other issues-

KL: 1:23:17

SM: 1:24:01
-around the country. So, in a sense, her presence, fighting for those white students, directly linked to the free speech movement that took place in Berkeley in the fall of 1964. So, there is-

KL: 1:24:23
Right-right, exactly. And I met people who were young students, and she would go, she did a college circuit, she would go around to different colleges and give speeches. And I met a couple of people who said that they heard her speak, they quit school and went to Mississippi, because they were so influenced by her, they just were wowed by her. And, she really had that power. You know, so there was a, one of the young people who was a high school student getting-getting ready to go into college. He met her in Mississippi, he was from Mississippi, it was Dr. Lesley Burr Macklemore. He was a civil rights worker. And he met her in (19)63. And he said, she was the star that they all as young Snick workers, she was the star, the person that all of them were wowed by, no one equaled her storytelling, he told me. He said that she testified, she preached, she led them in rousing freedom songs, she was always the center of attraction for them. And another civil rights veteran wrote that she was a power, that Hamer was a powerhouse. And they quote, "She would shine her light and people caught the spirit." And that is, I think it is a beautiful way to express that. She just, was this incredible inspiration for people and she inspired them to risk their lives to bring civil rights, and equality, and freedom.

SM: 1:24:24
-a connection. Another one, another one of those white students I believe was Tom Haden. So-

KL: 1:25:58
Oh, right-right.

SM: 1:25:59

KL: 1:25:59
Oh, yeah.

SM: 1:26:00
And also, you know, the-the other powerful people that were with Snick. James Forman is historic, he was one of the leaders of the training and everything and, and I got to know James Bevel, because we have rounded-

KL: 1:26:12
Oh, yeah.

SM: 1:26:12
-Westchester University twice, and he was a fiery person. But, I think-

KL: 1:26:18
He inspired, he inspired Hamer that day in William Shapel in August 1962, when she heard him speaking from the pulpit, and talking about God and, you know, equal rights, and freedom, and quoting from the Bible, she was like I am in. He, he really moved her and influenced her.

SM: 1:26:38
-Yeah, he, James Bevel used to say, he, when people talked about him, he was often times punished more than anybody else and beaten more than anybody else, because he would never give in.

KL: 1:26:51

SM: 1:26:52
You know, so, I got a question here just about you in terms of, of all qualities that Fannie Lou, Fannie had, what skills or what, what would you like to emulate from her in your life?

KL: 1:27:14
Her persistence, her perseverance, even when, you know, the road was really hard and dark, she, she, she kept moving, much like Tubman too, and so I, you know, with all my privilege, I would like to be able to do that, and, and keep moving, and keep fighting, and keep trying to make the world a better place. And not stop. There is no reason for me to stop. And, I think that is the inspiration that I get from Hamer and from Harriet Tubman.

SM: 1:27:50
Would you say the same thing, those same things for future students, current, and future students? [crosstalk] Young people, what can they learn from her so they can emulate it in their lives to make the world a better place.

KL: 1:28:08
So, you know, young people, particularly really young children are deeply inspired by Harriet Tubman. There is something accessible about her, Fannie Lou Hamer, we need the world to know about her, and make her accessible because she was accessible. And we need to, to bring that forward and talk about it a lot. Because if she could inspire people, young people who became activists and who were activists back in the (19)60s, we can do that today. And these were young, you know, we complain in politics today that young people are not really interested. Well, we need to, it makes them interested and get them inspired. And learning about Fannie Lou Hamer, what she fought for, and struggle for, and we are still struggling, and fighting for some of those same things. Let us use her as the vehicle to get kids motivated. And, and also identify the Fannie Lou Hamer is in our communities today, who can-can go out, and inspire more people to make change, and to make a difference, and to make sure that everybody has access to the ballot.

SM: 1:29:14
Could you talk about her life, after her time with Snick? And after she actually ran for Congress, and, and her speech in (19)68 at the Democratic Convention, what were the causes she was involved in the rest of her life?

KL: 1:29:28
So, I already talked about like the, National Organization of Women, the National Women's Political Caucus, and those kinds of organizations. But, she really started focusing a lot on Mississippi, and her own community, and she established a cooperative farm so that sharecroppers could grow food because some plantation bosses would not allow sharecroppers to plant their own gardens for food. They wanted that cotton growing right up to the cabins. So, she provided that farm, so that people could grow food. They had a pig bag where people could get piglets in the spring and then in the fall, they could slaughter the pigs for food. And then, so she did those kinds of things. She helped bring in, you know, head start, and, you know, children's preschool, education, and housing, and things like that. So, she was very oriented locally. She tried to stay relevant on the national stage. And, she continued to give speeches and things. But her relevancy was supplanted by the war movement, the anti-war movement, which she was against the Vietnam War. And also, you know, the Civil Rights Movement changed and altered. And so, she struggled in her health, her health, just deteriorated, from you know, (19)63 until the day she died in 1977. So, in the early to mid (19)70s, she had many health problems, she was in and out of the hospital, she was exhausted. And she, you know, she struggled financially. And eventually, she developed breast cancer, and died from complications of that, and her kidney disease, and hypertension. And she had basically been abandoned by the Civil Rights Movement, and all those workers. Pat was very angry about that, that he felt that she had been abandoned, considering everything that she had done for the movement, and for all of them. And so, it was a, it was bittersweet. It was really sad when she died at the age of 59. And almost alone, just her family around her and a couple of friends, so. [crosstalk]

SM: 1:31:33
[crosstalk] You know, another part of the-the story of Fannie Lou Hamer is-is her health. Because one of my heroes is FDR, and we all know what he went through and in 1920s, with Polio, and then he became president, he was in a wheelchair, and he had a lot of issues, but he still did-did a lot for humanity. And, he was a leader. And I look at Fannie Lou Hamer, in the same way, she had diabetes, she had all these issues, but it goes to show that just because someone has health problems-

KL: 1:32:09

SM: 1:32:09
That does not mean you cannot go out and change the world for the better.

KL: 1:32:14
Right-right. People with disabilities deserve the respect and, and, and honor that everyone else does. And the disability does not define them. It is just part of who they are. But if they are a leader, they are a leader. And we should follow them and support them. And, you know, this is, this is, you know, really relevant right now with the election that is going on in Pennsylvania-

SM: 1:32:39
Oh yes.

KL: 1:32:40
With John Fetterman, who has suffered a stroke, and he has some auditory delays, etc. And that is a disability right now, and he is being mocked for it. Just like the-the newspaper man back in, in 2016, during the election, when Donald Trump mocked the disabled newspaper reporter. You know, we have to just, we have to stop that there should be no limitations on anybody.

SM: 1:33:06
I agree.

KL: 1:33:07
If they have the energy and the desire and the, you know, the-the want to do things and work and change, make change, then they should be allowed to do that. And we should support them. And we should all be part of that movement forward.

SM: 1:33:23
Yeah, the- I guess one of the last questions, well I got two more questions. But what, the next to last question is about if you could list for those people that are really into leadership. And we, and I have worked with a lot of students who the first thing they want to know, what were the leadership qualities of a person that made them be a leader, could you just list some of the qualities?

KL: 1:33:45
So, that is a fascinating question. And I think there are some, there are some qualities, but I think that we need to really look at leaders and where they come from. And we have this image of the leader as someone who is polished, and who has elite education, often has a privileged background, etc. And, they have access to resources. But many leaders actually do not come from that background. And like a Hamer, sixth grade education sharecropper, no financial resources whatsoever, but she had something about her and it comes out of her childhood and her young adulthood. On those landscapes in Mississippi, she learned while she did not have perfect diction, and she did not have perfect penmanship and, and literacy, you know, traditional literacy skills like that. She had other literacies, like many other leaders who do not have the benefit of those elite educations, they have literacies. They have literacies, they develop on, out in the fields, in the forest, on the water, in a community, in the church, in segregated bathrooms, you know, in difficult environments, they have literacies they learn from those places, and those experiences that not everybody has. And so, Hamer with her tremendous people literacy, she could read people, she could read an audience, she could, she could, you know, read the landscape of a room, and of the-the pulse of people. And, that is her gift. And she brought that to the stage. And she knew how to, to enunciate, and, and talk about the things that were important to other people. Whereas a Martin Luther King, who had tremendous, you know, great education, a beautiful voice, he, he spoke and inspired people, but he did not speak to them on, this, in the same way that Hamer could speak to people at their own intimate, interpersonal, very personal level. And, that was her gift. So, leaders are not all the best educated with the most, you know, access to resources.

SM: 1:36:11
You mentioned that-

KL: 1:36:11
And so-

SM: 1:36:12
You mentioned that in the book about some of the civil rights leaders said she did not look the park.

KL: 1:36:17
Right, that is right. Especially some of Martin Luther King's colleagues, Ralph Abernathy and others. They were disgusted by Hamer. She, first of all, you know, there was lots of misogyny going on anyway, and women had second class status regardless, but you know, they-they criticized her. Ralph told her, you know, he was embarrassed by her because, you know her, she was, her clothes which were borrowed. And when he met her, she was wearing clothes that she borrowed for the Democratic convention. And that her diction, her speech embarrassed him. And he wanted her to go home, and go away, to leave the business to him and other men. Basically, that is what he said to her. And, and other civil rights activists, elite civil rights activists, felt that way about her. And she did not identify with them at all, either. And she just told them to, you know, you know, no man is going to tell me what to do. Only my husband is going to tell me what to do. So, she just fired right back. But there was class prejudice against people like Fannie Lou Hamer.

SM: 1:37:17
Yeah, she was, she is something. I am glad you wrote the book. It is a tremendous book. And I hope more and more people read it. And I hope this brings her, up the pedestal, I know, you are described, the very end of the book, her death, when she died, and she was kind of alone. And, people taking care of her. But, when the funeral happened, there were a lot of people there. Yeah, there were [crosstalk] some big names were there. So, they cared about her.

KL: 1:37:51

SM: 1:37:52
But they should have cared about her when she was near the end as well.

KL: 1:37:55

SM: 1:37:57
Are there any other thoughts, you, that I did not raise that you might want to state about Fannie Lou Hamer?

KL: 1:38:03
Just know that she is just one of my heroes, and I hope she becomes heroes to the readers of my book because she is incredible. And we need to celebrate her. We need a national park in her honor, by the way.

SM: 1:38:17
Wow. Count me in if you are going to get a group.

KL: 1:38:20
All right, great. [laughs]

SM: 1:38:22
Yeah, and let us see. You are probably going to write another book soon. Have you chosen who that might be?

KL: 1:38:31
I have, but I am not ready to talk about it yet.

SM: 1:38:34
Is it Ella? [laughter]

KL: 1:38:36
No. Oh, my God, I would love to do that. But no, no, there is a great book about Ella Baker already out there.

SM: 1:38:41

KL: 1:38:42

SM: 1:38:44
My last, my last question is what, I, the question I ask to everybody, and that is, since people are going to hear this 50 year from now, long after we are both gone, and many in this, in their lives, they are gone. What words of advice would you like to give to students, faculty, national scholars, people who listen to this interview? What words of advice would you like to give them?

KL: 1:39:10
So, to keep the records, preserve the records, tell the stories and, and do not erase anything. Just preserve it all and carry it forward and honor the people that are carrying, you know, freedom and democracy forward because this is a perilous time. And I hope 50 years from now, people will listen to this and go back another 50 years to when Hamer was battling the same issues, and find the heroes in our past and celebrate them.

SM: 1:39:44
Okay, well, I have been speaking with Kate Clifford Larson, author of "Walk with Me," a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer. Thank you very much. And, you have a great day.

KL: 1:39:56
Thank you very much, Steven. Bye-bye.

SM: 1:40:00
You still there? Thank you.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Stephen McKiernan


Dr. Kate Clifford Larson

Biographical Text

Dr. Kate Clifford Larson is a historian, author, and consultant. She is the author of several books including Walk With Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter; and Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. Dr. Larson is a specialist in 19th and 20th century U.S. Women’s and African American History and a consultant and interpretive specialist for numerous museums, and community initiatives related to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in Maryland, Delaware, and New York. She earned a Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Simmons College in Economics and History, an MBA from Northeastern University, and a Ph.D. in History from the University of New Hampshire.





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Mississippi; Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer; White; Women; Black; Sharecroppers; Community; State; People; Vote; Mississippians; Book; Students


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Stephen McKiernan's collection of interviews includes more than two hundred interviews with prominent figures of the 1960s, which were collected between the mid-1990s and 2010s. The collection provides narratives of people who were actively involved in or witnessed events in the 1960s, an era which spurred profound cultural and… More

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“Interview with Dr. Kate Clifford Larson,” Digital Collections, accessed May 28, 2024,