This Light of Ours: A Call for Hamer Democrats
More than fifty years ago, brave and noble black Mississippians stood up to a totalitarian government and demanded full citizenship. These everyday people were daughters and sons of sharecroppers, day workers, and maids. Great souls like Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, a Baptist preacher’s daughter and herself a sharecropper, possessed the light of freedom and shined it radiantly into the ever-midnight of Mississippi. They faced terrorism and tyranny from white segregationists committed to the fantasy that the old South, the Confederate South, would rise again. Due to their unwavering faith in God and courage against all odds, they integrated the Democratic Party via the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, helping to pull the Democratic South away from segregationist politics toward a more, yet still imperfect, multiracial political coalition. Of all of the freedom fighters who made this possible, Mrs. Hamer stands out like a city on a hill.
Of course, several other notable and noble souls contributed to this transformation, among them young organizers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). What is most compelling about Mrs. Hamer, however, is the why and how of her political agitation. What gives me inspiration is her unapologetic Christian witness in a nightmarish, closed society. Too many have glossed over how deep and abiding her faith in Jesus Christ was and how it was that faith that gave her the light of freedom. Seeking to take nothing away from other activists—many of whom were not religious like Mrs. Hamer— I must say that I don’t believe this Mother of the Mississippi movement has received the just historical interpretation warranted by her freedom struggle. As many who know me know, I feel that in some ways Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. is my spiritual mentor and I continue to be inspired and challenged by his ministry. What some of you may not know is that I have studied him alongside Minister Malcolm Shabazz, finding similarities and points of departure between these two giants. So many scholarly books have been written comparing their visions, attitudes, and activism. However, I have not seen any books that compare the theological visions of Mrs. Hamer and Rev. Dr. King. And for me that comparison is the most natural for at least two reasons: both are children of the black South (Hamer from Mississippi and King from Georgia), and both were Christians shaped by the black Baptist evangelical tradition.
What I want to offer here is something that I believe articulates elements of her visionary action and what can be appropriated for our struggles today. I am calling for a new kind of political imagination in Mississippi—indeed, in the nation—one that is new only in the sense that it is being revived. As I read about Mrs. Hamer, I become more convinced that there is something prolific about her and her witness that attracts me to a more excellent way of loving a new world into being.
Mrs. Hamer, who worked with Pastor King on his poor people’s campaign, was unlike King in two very important ways. First, she was a poor black woman whose economic prospects were condemned to sharecropping; King was thoroughgoing middle class. Whereas King, an educated middle class man, was led to walk with the poor, Hamer was poor and therefore embodied the dignity of many impoverished blacks in ways that King never could. Second, whereas King would at one point repudiate the revivalist elements of the black church, Hamer was very much in that revivalist stream, with all the shouting, hand clapping and stirring hymnody that makes up that liturgical experience.
What Hamer teaches us, then, is the power of deeply Christian (and here I mean of a black evangelical kind), rural poor black women and men to transform society when they feel called of God to spiritually and literally resist the powers. A native of Mississippi, I believe Hamer is an exemplar of the best of our political tradition. That is why I’m calling for Hamer democrats. There are other configurations of what may be meant by being a Hamer Democrat. For instance, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which still exists, employs the term to mean something similar to yet different from what I am offering here. By Hamer democrat I mean lowercase ‘d’ democrats who believe in the power of people, especially everyday people, to be engaged in the political process, and they believe this precisely as an article of theological witness. Said differently, a Hamer democrat is an evangelical Christian who fights for the little people, because Jesus commissions them to do so. Beyond the reductive left/right binary, Hamer democrats offer a prophetic resistance to a closed society primarily because they believe that God created us equally and desires for all of us to flourish as God intends.
Furthermore, a Hamer democrat is unapologetically Christian and generously welcoming. Hamer democrats are those of us who love the Lord and don’t mind calling his name in public. At the same time, we are welcoming of those who do not hold this same conviction and are willing to be in coalitions with any and all who believe in responsible freedom. (Just don’t try to put our little light under a bushel.) So Hamer democrats move beyond the false bifurcations of piety and protest, revival and reform, holiness and justice and engage people where they are, no matter who they are. Because God created everybody, then all of us are precious, even when we don’t agree.
Hamer democrats also believe in the political worth of women. Any movement by Hamer democrats takes seriously not only ideological and racial diversity, but also an insistence on women, including poor black women like Hamer, being involved in the process of transformation. Mrs. Hamer, had she lived on beyond 1977, may have been considered pro-life and pro-woman, representing one of many perspectives on women’s rights. But her towering influence reminds us that sometimes a Barak can’t go to battle without a Deborah (Judges 4). Maybe more than ever Mississippi needs women of color, holding diverse views and strategies, involved in electoral politics and political advocacy.
Hamer democrats don’t forget that we must have the strength to love our enemies because ours is a spiritual battle. Mrs. Hamer saw the Mississippi freedom struggle in spiritual terms, often citing Ephesians 6:9-18. Our struggle isn’t reducible to the materialistic realm, as both progressives and conservatives would have us to believe. It’s a spiritual battle than requires spiritual armor and attitudes. Just as we are to unapologetic about our Christian faith, we must be equally vocal about believing in an enchanted, non-secular world of spiritual powers and possibilities. This, too, is a form of resistance in a nation increasingly uncomfortable with things not explained or verifiable by modern empirical sciences.
Hamer democrats believe that our struggle is both local and global. Mrs. Hamer, a daughter of the Mississippi soil, understood the struggle in international terms. Ours has to be a cosmopolitan pilgrimage; because this world is not our home, we can be in it while not of it, thereby resisting the restrictive nationalism or regionalism that divides us. What happens in Iraq is connected to what happens in Indianola. And we can believe this because God has the whole world in his hands.
Lastly, Hamer democrats possess prophetic patriotism. Like Mrs. Hamer, we love America and love it enough to question her when she fails to live up to her creed. We must also apply this prophetic tension to our political loyalties as well, knowing that as lowercase ‘d’ democrats, we are more concerned with a true republican democracy than we are Republicans or Democrats. We must call everyone to higher ground.
No matter how insignificant we may feel, God has given each of us a light and we must let it shine. And no matter how little that light is, it’s at its brightest in the dark.
May our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, give our nation a remnant of Hamer democrats, enlightened and enlivened by illuminating liberation. Amen