On August 31, 1962, a group of young African Americans involved in the Civil Rights Movement traveled to the Sunflower County in Mississippi to attempt to register to vote. They were denied and returned to the bus under the discouraging darkness of discrimination.
Traveling back, undoubtedly shaken with fear and disheartened in despair, one brave young lady started to sing. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine….Ohhh, this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Everyone joined in the song and they were strengthened to keep on goin’ just a lil’ bit longer. Who was this young lady? Fannie Lou Hamer.
Sister Hamer was born on October 6, 1917 into the ugly world of sharecropping as the youngest of twenty children. As sharecroppers, her family endured many trials due to this new form of slavery dressed in the wardrobe of partnership. Despite the lack of opportunity and education, in the midst of daunting obstacles, Hamer would go on to be one of the most influential civil rights figures.
She dedicated her life’s work to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. Over her career, she endured much suffering but continued to let her light shine in a dark place. Celebrated for her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, her greatest contribution is the model she gave on the Christian life.
A Christian’s Life in Suffering
As the Apostle Paul shared, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). Fannie Lou was deeply educated in the school of suffering. Touching on her Civil Rights work, one author noted that “such bravery came at a high price for Hamer.”
She was fired from her job and driven from the plantation she called home, arrested, shot at, and beaten so bad in a Mississippi jail that she suffered permanent kidney damage. She knew she was called to suffer for the cause of Christ. We live in a day that is increasingly hostile to the Christian gospel. As Karen Ellis noted, “We are moving from being American Christians to realizing that we are Christians in America.” We are realizing we are aliens in a strange land and that means living in the context of suffering. There will be horrible things done and said to us but we can know as with Fannie Lou that our suffering has been granted to us. And if our suffering has been granted to us by God, we know it will be used for his glory and the good of others.
A Christian’s Life in Love
Fannie Lou loved those good ol’ doctrines of the Gospel. She shared, “Christianity is being concerned about [others], not building a million-dollar church while people are starving right around the corner. Christ was a revolutionary person, out there where it was happening.”
Out there for her was identifying with those who were hurting, as well as challenging practices that are inconsistent with the character of God. In her life, we witness a beautiful picture of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. She knew if we are to love others, we should “trust God and launch out into the deep.” Consider Christ’s love. He was the one whom was eternally in relationship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Yet he did not think it too much to identify with sinners in order to save them, at a tremendously cost to Himself. She knew that if he went that far then surely, “you have a responsibility and if you plan to walk in Christ’s footstep and keep his commandments, you are willing to launch out into the deep and go to the courthouse—not come here…to see what I look like, but to do something about the system here.”
Christians don’t love by just speaking about it or sitting around while people suffer unjustly. Christians speak up, Christians live out, Christians love well. This is the picture of love we get from Sister Hamer.
A Christian’s Life in Endurance
Nearing the end of her speech “We’re On Our Way,” Fannie Lou proclaimed, “We shall overcome means something to me tonight. We shall overcome mean as much to me tonight as ‘Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.’ Because if grace has saved a wretch like me, then we shall overcome.”
Fannie Lou knew that while living out the Christian life in suffering and with love, there would be need for endurance. But she, as Paul said, “considered that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (Rom. 8:18; 32).
This is what was so powerful about her singing. Through it, she walked brothers and sisters into victory and triumph with the grace of assurance. This is what she is doing for us today as Christians. She leads us with her life in marching to the tune of final hope of glory where every wrong will be made right.
It’s by that glory that shapes, impacts, and grants us endurance in the present. We desperately need the example of Fannie Lou and the grace God gave her. As the redeemed Church of Christ, let’s remember and reflect on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Let’s model a life of compassionate love and endurance for the glory of God and the good of others. It will cost us but hear the words of our Lord Jesus, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).