I was at the Library of Congress last week, and while it was utterly grand to be there, I rolled my eyes so hard I nearly snapped a couple of cables when I spotted that pernicious Thomas Carlyle quotation high up on the wall: “THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD IS THE BIOGRAPHY OF GREAT MEN.” Look, I understand that it was put there over a century ago, and I wouldn’t expect simple values dissonance alone to be a sufficient reason to alter something so historical, but it was still a drag to see that in 2015 (the exhibit lionizing Columbus and Cortez’s New World explorations without mentioning the word “genocide” anywhere was also a disappointment—the USA still has a loooooong-ass way to go).
One of the deep faults of the “Great Man” theory of history is that it excludes the contributions of thousands, if not millions, of unheralded activists who, though they didn’t happen to be the marquee names who got to make speeches that were recorded for posterity, still committed much of their resources and lives to the causes and movements that shaped the world we live in. A more obvious flaw is the continually maddening omission of great women. For example, I hold it as a significant demerit (among many) of the public education system that I never knew the name of the amazing Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman and the first major-party black candidate for President of the United States, until my late college years, when I was channel-surfing and I randomly caught a doc about her on PBS.
Another such figure I’m salty about never learning about in school, also from the US Civil Rights Movement, as it happens, is voting rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer, a crucial activist and orator whose contributions to freedom in America are not, by my reckoning, sufficiently heralded—she not only endured being beaten and shot at, she underwent a non-consensual hysterectomy as part of a eugenics program. Justifiably furious at such shocking abuse at the hands of her doctor, she dove headlong into activism, helping found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and giving a powerful and pivotal speech to the 1964 Democratic National Convention Credentials Committee, challenging the legitimacy of Mississippi’s all-white delegation, and describing the horrors she endured for merely trying to register to vote. Presumptive nominee Lyndon Johnson, in a total asshole move, tried to keep the speech out of the news by calling a specious press conference. Hamer got crazy amounts of news coverage anyway.
The speech failed to get any black delegates seated for her state in that convention, but it helped galvanize support for the Voting Rights Act that would pass Congress in 1965. Here it is. Fair warning, if you’re particularly sensitive to descriptions of beatings, sitting through this might make you very uncomfortable.
Here’s a bit of motion footage from that speech, in a documentary context:
Guy Carawan, Hamer, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Len Chandler performing at the Newport Folk Festival, 1965. Photo: Diana Davies. So, uh, who’s got THAT recording?
Within the movement, Hamer was known also as a singer—she’d lead singalongs of Christian hymns to boost fellow activists’ spirits and resolve. But very little of her singing has been preserved. Three tracks featuring Hamer appear on 1980’s amazing Folkways 3XLP box Voices of the Civil Rights Movement (A CD version was issued in 1997, and remains in print), but the grail of her recordings is a ridiculously limited edition cassette from 1983, called Songs My Mother Taught Me. The usually authoritative discogs.com doesn’t even note the tape’s existence. It wasn’t entirely a musical release; it contained monologues recorded in 1963, relating her reminiscences of experiences growing up as a cotton field hand and her participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Even trying to find an image of the insert artwork has been vexing, so non-existent is that tape, but that’s being corrected later this month, when Songs My Mother Taught Me will be reissued by Smithsonian Folkways, as a CD with a 32-page booklet full of photos and notes. The Smithsonian was generous enough to share with Dangerous Minds these two tracks—Hamer talking about her youth as a sharecropper, and a rendition of “Pick a Bale of Cotton.”
Unless you’re so fortunate as to have a copy of the tape (or work for the Smithsonian), you’ve never heard these recordings.