February 11, 2021
We must "keep [our] eyes on the prize, hold on"
Columbia Law School. Class of 2022
I grew up in the Mississippi Delta. And while I think about that experience often for various reasons, this Black History Month--and in this political era--I'm thinking about some of the courageous leaders who sprang up from that rich soil to defend American constitutionalism. Today, I would like to introduce Fannie Lou Hamer.
Born to sharecroppers in Ruleville, Mississippi, Mrs. Hamer became active in the civil rights movement in her early thirties after having learned about the right to vote from Freedom Riders who visited Mound Bayou in August 1962. Even though she had failed the so-called “literacy test” twice (before passing it on the third try), Mrs. Hamer traveled throughout her community teaching Black Mississippians how to read and write, so that they could pass these same tests and secure their right to vote. For her audacity, she was fired, beaten, and ran out of her home by the Ku Klux Klan. But like so many strong women, she persisted.
She brought national attention to the deprivation of civil rights in Mississippi by testifying at the Democratic National Convention of 1964, where she lamented being "sick and tired of being sick and tired." Fannie Lou Hamer's toil on the ground and before the cameras of the nation was pivotal to the passage of the Voting Rights Act and ensuring Black political representation in Mississippi and other intransient communities across the South. Though the circumstances that brought Mrs. Hamer to national acclaim were less than ideal, each time I consider her life, I am nevertheless filled with the sense that if our society and our system could create a soul as big as Mrs. Hamer's, then maybe there is hope.
I share this story today because we are in a moment that calls for more Fannie Lous. Fannie Lou Hamer was a nation-builder. She inherited a country that reneged on its most fundamental promise and instead of abnegating or abandoning the Constitution, she sought to make it more real. Today, we are inheriting a similar country, where injustice and inequality yet persist, and instead of confronting them head-on, our "leaders" prefer to incite insurrection and undermine constitutional democracy for personal gain. In the face of such recklessness, I think we are called to summon our inner Fannie Lou Hamer. We cannot give in to prolonged bouts of despair, hopelessness, or pessimism. These things will come, yes, but, in the robust tradition of the Black civil rights leaders of yesteryear, we must "keep [our] eyes on the prize, hold on."