“There will come a time, I know, when people will take delight in one another, when each will be a star to the other, and when each will listen to his fellow as to music. The free people will walk upon the earth, people great in their freedom. They will walk with open hearts, and the heart of each will be pure of envy and greed, and therefore all humankind will be without malice, and there will be nothing to divorce the heart from reason. Then life will be one great service to humankind! His/her figure will be raised to lofty heights–for to free women and men all heights are attainable. Then we shall live in truth and in beauty, and those will be accounted the best who will the more widely embrace the world with their hearts, and whose love of it will be the profoundest; those will be the best who will be the freest; for in them is the greatest beauty. Then will life be great, and the people will be
great who live that life.”* Maxim Gorky, from Mother
I was flying home from a meeting in Atlanta last weekend, reading “We Didn’t Come All This Way for No Two Seats,” an article about Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer in the Spring issue of American Legacy magazine. It was an inspiring article, until I read these words:
“Fannie Lou Hamer died on April 14, 1977, at the age of 59. She and her husband, Pap, were penniless, and friends had to raise money to pay for her funeral. At the end of her life, she sometimes felt as if no one remembered her or cared about what she had done. . .”
For days I’ve been thinking about this. I wondered, how could a woman who meant so much to so many people have an ending so sad? How could she not know, not feel the importance of her life? How could she die “penniless?”
I called Victoria Gray-Adams, one of the three women, with Ms. Hamer and Ms. Annie Devine, who were the national spokespeople for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1964-65, the MFDP, with Ms. Hamer as the main spokesperson, electrified the country by their open challenge to the racist white power structure that controlled politics and economics in the state of Mississippi and beyond.
When I asked Ms. Gray-Adams if it was true that Ms. Hamer died without money, she said that it was. When I asked why, she explained that it was because, until the end of her days, Fannie Lou Hamer thought of others before she thought of herself, stayed active in one way or the other for as long as she could, and as a result she just didn’t have any money when she died.
How many of us have the depth of commitment of a Fannie Lou Hamer? How many of us are willing to give so much that we literally would not have the money to pay for our burial expenses?
And make no mistake about it, Ms. Hamer had options. Following the national exposure she and the MFDP received in the mid-60s, she could have done quite well if she had wanted to. She could have continued to struggle for justice, in some way, while drawing a nice salary from an organization, or taken in money from public speaking. But she continued to work in Mississippi, involved with her people until the end, never losing that contact, never being seduced by fame or potential fortune.
I think of Ella Baker. I had the privilege of getting to know this heroine of the Civil Rights Movement in the latter years of her life. I visited with her several times in her small apartment in Harlem. She, also, could have used her gifts and talents to live much better, much more comfortably, while still staying involved with the pro-justice movement. But her deep commitment to her people, to the cause of justice and freedom for all people, would not allow her to do other than what she did for decades, at the expense of personal comfort and security.
Ms. Hamer, Ms. Baker and Annie Devine were exceptional people, but they were not exceptions. There were then, and there are today, people who, in their own ways, are living similar lives. They are doing all that they can, giving all that they can, risking job, income, security, personal health, for the greater good. They may or may not be drawing a decent salary; that is not the most important thing to them. What is important is that they follow their hearts, their consciences, do the right thing, put the needs of suffering humanity and a threatened ecosystem before personal need. Indeed, such people have come to understand that our lives are the fullest and the greatest when we give them for and with others.
Ms. Hamer loved to sing. One of her favorites was, “This Little Light of Mine.” She understood that it is only by shining our lights, the best within us, for as long and as strongly as we can, that the world will become a better place for all its people. There is no better way that we can honor this giant of our history than to draw strength from her example so that we can get to that time when “the hearts of each will be pure of envy and greed, and therefore all humankind will be without malice, and there will be nothing to divorce the heart from reason.”