Fannie Lou Hamer is not an immediately recognizable name. The Civil Rights Movement is full of well-known individuals who were part of the movement to bring justice and freedom to our country — people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, Medgar Evers, and Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley, among many others.
Individuals like Fannie Lou Hamer also made a significant contribution in the fight for civil rights, but most students are not familiar with her story. This is why The Touring Theatre of North Carolina’s founder and artistic director Brenda P. Schleunes wrote “The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer,” which was presented yesterday morning by the theater group to an audience of students and staff at Surry Community College.
The play told the story of Hamer’s life and how she began her fight against injustice, as well as the difficulties faced by black citizens who fought for equal rights.
Cassandra Williams shined in the role of Fannie Lou Hamer, with Juan Fernandez, Dauna Brown-Jessup and Stephen Gee transforming into multiple roles throughout the play. The actors, who stayed on the stage for the entire production, turned their backs or stepped aside as they moved seamlessly from one role to another.
Fannie Lou Hamer was born into a Mississippi sharecropper family with 20 children. She began picking cotton at age 6, which was described in the play as a way “people got locked into the system” of oppression in the South, with greedy sharecroppers who paid their female workers to give birth to future “field hands,” most of whom began working in the fields at a young age. Most farm workers were “paid” through an exchange of food and rent instead of money, which made most incapable of escaping the system of oppression.
Fannie Lou Hamer worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group that fought segregation and racial injustice in the South. Later, she became the leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and she ran for Congress in 1964, giving a speech during the Democratic National Convention that was televised nationwide.
The play incorporated details from her life and background, which inspired her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Hamer was one of the many black women and men across the country who were sterilized without consent (including many in North Carolina, through a state-sponsored eugenics program), after she had two still-born children.
Hamer felt that “life was just one hardship after another” and became interested in fighting for equal rights after attending several conferences and seeing the hardships faced by black citizens who were threatened, beaten, intimidated and arrested when they tried to vote, a right taken for granted by many Americans in modern times.
Hamer was known for singing Christian hymns, “freedom songs” and spirituals on the bus trips, and the songs became an important part of her activism. The play incorporated a capella-style singing, with the actors bursting into song at poignant moments throughout the play. The songs intertwined with the dialogue included “This Little Light of Mine,” “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Oh Freedom,” “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Let my People Go.”
After being arrested on a bus driving from a literacy conference in South Carolina, Hamer and other members of the group she traveled with were severely beaten in jail, and it took Hamer over a month to recover.
Cassandra Williams said playing the role of Hamer is an honor and she loves portraying a civil rights leader who “was highly respected but not well-known.” Williams enjoys working with The Touring Theatre of N.C. to bring an “educational experience” to young people throughout North Carolina, including the students at Surry Community College.
Juan Fernandez, an actor with the group, said he remembers seeing Hamer’s speech at the Democratic Convention when it was aired on television. He said Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson tried to pre-empt Hamer’s speech by holding a press conference, but it was Hamer’s speech that was “shown over and over” instead of President Johnson’s.
Stephen Gee said he enjoys working as an actor with the touring theater group because it is a way to bring awareness about diversity, culture and injustice from the past to young people, many of whom are unaware of matters of historical importance. “It is ancient history to them,” said Gee.
SCC and Surry Arts Council are both listed as “Presenting Partners” for the Touring Theatre of North Carolina.
According to its website, the Touring Theatre of North Carolina is “dedicated to providing unique and effective learning experiences through professional theatre” by presenting a repertoire that “calls attention to issues involving traditions, class, ethnicity, culture and gender.” More information about the group is available at www.ttnc.org.
“The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer” was sponsored by the Cultural Events Committee of Surry Community College and paid for through student activity fees. It was presented for free to students, staff, and members of the public. For more information about future events, visit the Surry Community College website at www.surry.cc.nc.us or by contacting the Public Information Office at 386-3269.
Reach Jessica Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1933.