From the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta came one of the most powerful champions of the civil rights movement. And you may not have heard of her. But after watching Fannie Lou Hamer’s America: An America ReFramed Special, you’ll never forget her.
Born the youngest of 20 children in 1917, Fannie Lou Hamer received only an eighth-grade education, but she dedicated her life to speaking out against injustice. Her famous catchphrase, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” served as a rallying cry for those who joined her in the fight for equal rights.
The film—produced by Hamer’s great-niece Monica Land and Selena Lauterer and directed and edited by Joy Davenport—tells the story of the grassroots activist who used stories from her own life to call out racism wherever it existed. Its premiere on Tuesday, February 22, kicks off the 10th season of GBH WORLD’s award-winning documentary series America ReFramed.
Although Land visited her Aunt Fannie Lou as a child, she didn’t understand her importance in the civil rights movement until much later. “I didn’t really start researching her life until it was too late because the people who could have helped me know her—those who were close to her like my grandparents, my aunts and uncles—they were all gone. So I missed that opportunity,” she said.
When Land first got the idea in 2005 to produce a documentary about her aunt, she reached out to her cousin, film roducer Sulla Hamer, who connected her with Keith Beauchamp, who had just produced The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. That introduction allowed Land to join forces with historians Davis Houck, Maegan Parker Brooks and Davenport to seek out more information about Fannie Lou Hamer’s life.
What they knew and feature in the film is remarkable: Hamer was the mother of voter registration, co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the National Women’s Political Caucus, speaker at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, community organizer and humanitarian. In all those roles, she would not be silenced.
“My first reaction was why don’t we know more about Fannie Lou Hamer,” Lauterer said. “I think everybody needs to know who she is, and we need to listen to her words.”
But finding archival material about her was not always easy. On many of the documents and a lot of the footage, Hamer’s name was misspelled or mislabeled, Land said. “Back then, quite a few media outlets didn’t think what she had to say was important, so they didn’t bother to preserve it accurately,” she said.
Even some within the civil rights movement tried to marginalize her, Davenport said. “She didn’t have a formal education, and she was older than a lot of the people who were being showcased at the time,” she said. “They felt like the way that she presented herself was an embarrassment to their cause.”
But others were moved by her passion and commitment. “Malcolm X said that she was America’s number-one freedom-fighting woman—and she was,” Lauterer said.
After they had compiled an enormous archive through the groundwork laid by Brooks, Davenport created an audio-only rough cut of the film, combining Hamer’s words and songs into the soundtrack of her life. “I felt like a kid in a candy store,” Davenport said. “Just to have this wealth of information—it was exhilarating.”
Initially the filmmakers got pushback because they didn’t include any talking heads saying how great Fannie Lou Hamer was, Lauterer said. “But we were very serious in our mission that it be only in her voice,” she said. ”She needs to have her time in the sun.”
Eventually the film found a home with America ReFramed and Executive Producer Chris Hastings.
“We didn’t have to explain anything to Chris,” Land said. “He immediately got it and ran with it.” To keep Hamer’s memory alive, Land made it a priority to keep all of the team’s archival material online and accessible in the Fannie Lou Hamer Resource Center. “Years from now, students and researchers won’t have to search like we did—it’s all preserved on the website.”
Land also wanted to make sure that young people didn’t miss out learning about their own families the way she did. So, through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Sunflower County Film Academy was created in 2018 to teach high school students from the Mississippi Delta to document the history of their grandparents and other relatives who were involved in the civil rights struggle through short films and video. Davenport is the founder and director of the workshop. And two other instructors, Pablo Correa and RJ Fitzpatrick, were videographers on Fannie Lou Hamer’s America.
Throughout this 10-year process, Davenport said they felt an urgency to finish the film so people could hear Hamer’s powerful message of justice for all.
“Voting rights, food rights—everything Fannie Lou Hamer fought for in the 1960s is now under renewed assault,” she said. “She was speaking the truth then, and that truth has only become more resonant today.”