As Gabby Dixon ’22 noted while introducing Dr. Keisha Blain on February 11, it was fitting that the inaugural lecturer for the Kenneth E. Whitlock, Jr. Black History Month Speaker Series should be an educator and American historian. Since 1986, when he became Middlesex’s first Black faculty member, Ken Whitlock has readily shared his passion for history with his students; still, he was surprised and honored last fall when an annual lecture was established in his name to recognize his expertise and commitment, as well as his pioneering role in the School’s history.
An associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Blain is currently also a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and a columnist for MSNBC. In addition to having co-edited four books concerning the dynamics of race, gender, and politics, she has written two well-received works of her own. The most recent – Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America – was the subject of her talk, which introduced many at Middlesex to a courageous and influential Black woman who deeply believed in the power of voting and dedicated her life to helping Black and other marginalized citizens claim their right to vote.
Born in Mississippi as the grandchild of slaves and the youngest child of sharecroppers, Fannie Lou Hamer was already 44 in 1962 when she attended a meeting that was organized at her church by civil rights activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The gathering proved “lifechanging,” Dr. Blain observed, for the SNCC’s message resonated with Hamer, inspiring a political awakening. From that time on, Hamer gave her all to helping to register underrepresented voters in Mississippi. She enjoyed working with and learning from her fellow, mostly younger activists – and steadfastly refused to lose hope. “She believed that we could build an inclusive democracy that lived up to the promise of the Constitution,” Dr. Blain affirmed.
It was dangerous work, as Dr. Blain detailed. Activists frequently faced harassment and assault by adversarial whites and police. In June 1963, Hamer herself was arrested and viciously beaten, leaving her with lifelong injuries, including permanent kidney damage and a blood clot in her eye.
But she remained undeterred, as Dr. Blain recounted. Becoming the co-founder and vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party (FDP), Hamer was instrumental in the effort to diversify the Mississippi Democratic Party and spoke at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. While only two non-voting seats were ultimately offered to the FDP, her passionate speech was effective nonetheless; she highlighted the enduring issues of voter suppression and state-sanctioned violence, sharing her own harrowing experience of being arrested and beaten. Steadily, the numbers of Black voters in Mississippi increased from 28,000 to 280,000. In turn, the number of Black elected officials in the state doubled by the 1966 elections.
“This would not have been possible without Fannie Lou Hamer’s tireless efforts,” Dr. Blain stated, “and her legacy lives on in other ways.” That one of her best-known statements – “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free” – remains meaningful today, Dr. Blain pointed out, is proof of the enduring power of Hamer’s ideas, generations later.
“The work of democracy is unfinished,” she concluded, “but I believe that Fannie Lou Hamer’s message offers a way forward.”