Media Resource

Voices of Democracy: Women Leaders of the Civil Rights Struggle

Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, August 22, 1964.
Photo caption

Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, August 22, 1964.

The NEH-funded website, Voices of Democracy (VOD), includes a wealth of resources for studying the role of women in the civil rights movement—from the early nineteenth century through the 20th century. In addition to this resource on Fannie Lou Hamer, VOD's “great speeches” in American history curriculum materials also include Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Maria W. Miller Stewart, Ella Baker, and Shirley Chisholm, among others. 

Classroom Connections

One of the more interesting artifacts on the site is an audio recording of a speech by Fannie Lou Hamer, an important yet often overlooked civil rights activists from the Mississippi Delta.  Born in 1917, Hamer was the youngest of twenty children in a family of sharecroppers working a plantation outside of Ruleville, Mississippi.  After being threatened, harassed, beaten, shot at, and jailed for her repeated attempts to vote between 1962 and 1964, Hamer helped found the Democratic Freedom Party in Mississippi and was invited to speak at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Subsequently, she returned home to tell her story at a civil rights meeting near her home, in Indianola, Mississippi.  

In the first segment of the audio recording (39:12), Hamer recounts two powerful stories. In the first, she recalls how she was prevented from registering to vote in Indianola on August 31, 1962.  In the second audio recording (3:54), she reflects back on her arrest in Winona, Mississippi in 1963, after she returned from a civil rights meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. 

Part One: "Can’t you see justice in disguise?"

Audio file

Guiding Questions

As you listen to the first part of Fannie Lou Hamer's speech, follow along on the printed text on VOD , and reflect on these questions:

  • What difference does it make when you hear as opposed to just reading the speech?  How would you describe Hamer’s voice and her style of delivery? From the reactions of the audience you can hear in the recording, would you say the speech was well-received?
  • How would you characterize Hamer’s demeanor, persona, or ethos as she delivers the speech?  Does she sound intelligent?  Well-educated?  Credible and believable?  Sad? Angry?    
  • What stands out in Hamer’s account of how she was turned away from registering to vote in the very town where she was speaking, Indianola, Mississippi?  How does she describe the local police?  What were some of the consequences of her attempt to register?
  • How does Hamer invoke biblical stories and scripture in the speech?  What points does she hope to make with her various biblical references?  How does she portray black preachers in the South and their role in the fight for racial justice? 
  • What stands out in Hamer’s account of being arrested and beaten in Winona, Mississippi?  How does she describe both the physical and mental abuse she endured?  Does she offer an explanation for why she was singled out for such horrendous treatment? 
Part Two: "We’ll go up this freedom road together"

Audio file

Guiding Questions

As you read and listen to the shorter second part of the speech (beginning at line 47), reflect on these questions:

  • Why does Hamer feel that African Americans in the South have been betrayed by their own teachers and preachers?  What made them, in her words, the “scariest two things we got in Mississippi?” 
  • How does Hamer talk about the US Constitution?  Does she view it as a “proslavery” document, as some contemporary scholars argue?  Or does she view it as an asset in her fight for African American voting rights?
  • Hamer concludes by quoting from an “old hymn” her mother used to sing.  What is the point of the line she quotes from the hymn?  What is she urging her audience to think, do, or feel?