ruleville

You used to say, “June?
Honey when you come down here you
supposed to stay with me. Where
else?”
Meanin home
against the beer the shotguns and the
point of view of whitemen don’
never see Black anybodies without
some violent itch start up.
                                      The ones who  
said, “No Nigga’s Votin in This Town …
lessen it be feet first to the booth”  
Then jailed you  
beat you brutal  
bloody/battered/beat  
you blue beyond the feeling  
of the terrible

And failed to stop you.  
Only God could but He  
wouldn’t stop  
you
fortress from self-
pity

Humble as a woman anywhere  
I remember finding you inside the laundromat  
in Ruleville  
                 lion spine relaxed/hell  
                 what’s the point to courage  
                 when you washin clothes?  

But that took courage

                 just to sit there/target  
                 to the killers lookin  
                 for your singin face  
                 perspirey through the rinse  
                 and spin

and later  
you stood mighty in the door on James Street  
loud callin:


                 “BULLETS OR NO BULLETS!  
                 THE FOOD IS COOKED  
                 AN’ GETTIN COLD!”

We ate
A family tremulous but fortified
by turnips/okra/handpicked
like the lilies

filled to the very living  
full
one solid gospel
                       (sanctified)

one gospel
               (peace)

one full Black lily  
luminescent  
in a homemade field  

of love

—  1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hammer by June Jordan

Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper, changed this nation’s perspective on democracy. She worked for political, social and economic equality for herself and all African Americans. She fought to integrate the national Democratic Party, and became one of the first black delegates to a presidential convention. Fannie Lou Townsend was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, in 1917, the youngest of 20 children. By the age of six she was working in the cotton fields. She became known in the civil rights movement as a captivating preacher and singer, inspiring others with her moral and physical courage. In 1962, the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to Hamer’s town and encouraged blacks to register as voters. Hamer volunteered, even though she had not previously known that it was a Constitutional Right for blacks to vote.  After registering herself and working with SNCC, she lost her job, received death threats, and was severely beaten by the police in an effort to intimidate her.  Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964 because blacks were not allowed in the all-white regular party delegation. Although Lyndon Johnson refused to seat the MFDP, the Democrats agreed that in the future no delegation would be seated from a state where anyone was illegally denied the right to vote. Hamer also worked towards achieving financial independence for blacks. In 1969, she helped to start Freedom Farms Corporation, which lent land to blacks until they had enough money to buy it. She worked with the National Council of Negro Women, organized food co-operatives, and helped convene the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1970. Though Hamer wanted children, a white doctor had sterilized her without permission, so she adopted daughters instead.  In her last years, she received many honors and awards. Engraved on her headstone in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, are her famous words: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights leader instrumental in organizing Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. Black Southerners registering to vote faced serious threats including harassment, loss of jobs, beatings, and lynchings; nonetheless, Hamer was one of the first to volunteer in Ruleville, Mississippi. Later she admitted, “.. what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember."  She became Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and spoke at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Through her work in the civil rights movement, she  gained a reputation as an electrifying speaker and powerful freedom fighter.