Author Jacqueline Hamer Flakes recalls life as the daughter of a Civil Rights leader | Pittsburgh City Paper

Author Jacqueline Hamer Flakes recalls life as the daughter of a Civil Rights leader

click to enlarge Author Jacqueline Hamer Flakes recalls life as the daughter of a Civil Rights leader (2)
Fannie Lou Hamer

Those who follow the work of the late Fannie Lou Hamer know her as a Civil Rights leader and fierce advocate for the rights of Black voters and women. To Jacqueline Hamer Flakes, however, she was Mama Fannie, her devoted mother.

Jacqueline provides an intimate account of her mother’s impact both nationally and in the Mississippi Delta community in Mama Fannie: Growing Up the Daughter of Civil Rights Icon Fannie Lou Hamer. Published in February 2022, the book is touted as “an important contribution to the historical records written about one of the most significant and influential leaders in the 20th Century in America.”

Jacqueline will appear in Pittsburgh on Sat., Jan. 14 during a talk at City of Asylum moderated by Michelle Gainey, the city’s First Lady and wife of Mayor Ed Gainey.

Jacqueline spoke with Pittsburgh City Paper from Ruleville, Miss., where she and her older sister, Lenora, were raised by Fannie after being effectively orphaned. Born in 1966, Jacqueline was only eight months old when her mother, Dorothy Jean Hamer Hall, died.

When Jacqueline and Lenora, then just 18 months old, were at risk of being separated, Fannie, who had previously adopted Dorothy, stepped in and took the two girls in. To Fannie and her husband Perry "Pap" Hamer, Jacqueline came to be known affectionately as “Cookie.”

The City of Asylum event is beng promoted as part of the Pittsburgh premiere of FANNIE: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer on Fri., Jan. 13 at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. Presented as the first collaboration between the Center, City Theatre Company, and DEMASKUS Theater Collective, the production is described as celebrating the “indomitable courage of civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer — a leader in the struggle for voting rights whose activism was infused with spirituals, protest songs, and the conviction that nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Starring Robin McGee as Fannie, the performance promises to combine its subject’s passion for justice and music into a “hopeful rallying cry that honors the spirit of a true revolutionary.”

“It is difficult to advance justice, without a clear understanding of history and a deep connection to the Spirit that guided leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer,” says Shaunda McDill, founder and producer of DEMASKUS Theater Collective. McDill also expresses gratitude for the “tremendous gift” of welcoming  Jacqueline to Pittsburgh for the show’s premiere.

Even while Jacqueline acknowledges the various books, documentaries, and other works about her mother, she says she has up till now felt left out of the storytelling process and wanted to ensure that her memories of Fannie were recorded. She draws on decades of notes and memories to tell a more intimate story about an extraordinary woman who inspired countless people with her selfless acts.

Born in 1917 to Black sharecroppers, Fannie’s life was defined by segregation and the legacy of violent racism. Jacqueline chokes up remembering how Fannie spoke about being viciously beaten to the point where “she thought she was going to die” in retaliation for her voting rights efforts.

Fannie was also involuntarily sterilized via hysterectomy while undergoing an unrelated surgery, a practice that, at the time, was terrifyingly common for Black women in the United States.

“She didn’t even know it was done to her until one of her cousins said that’s what they did to Black women in order to keep them in the fields,” says Jacqueline.

Armed with a sixth grade education, Fannie would go on to aid voting rights efforts with groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She also helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a group instrumental in bringing attention to the intimidation and other obstacles Black Americans faced in trying to vote.

According to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee website, the Party traveled to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., where Fannie spoke during the televised event. The Committee claims her testimony was so powerful that President Lyndon Johnson “called a press conference to push her off the air.”

Jacqueline remembers traveling with Fannie as she gave talks and sang at events alongside other Civil Rights greats like Martin Luther King Jr. She says King, whose iconic “I Have Dream Speech” has inspired generations, admitted he did not like to follow Fannie on the podium due to her prowess as a speaker and vocalist.

“He would ask them to let him go first because he knew she was going to take the show,” says Jacqueline.

Jacqueline says Fannie also worked closely with Harry Belafonte, the actor and musician who became an outspoken figure in the Civil Rights movement. Jacqueline recalls how Fannie traveled to West Africa with Belafonte’s then-wife, Julie, where they were called upon by Ahmed Sékou Touré, then president of Guinea.

As Jacqueline tells it, Fannie hesitated to meet with him because he had arrived unannounced at her hotel when she still had rollers in her hair. She adds that Julie told her that “he came to her,” so she better get down to the hotel lobby to meet him.

Even as she traveled the country and the world, however, Jacqueline says Fannie stayed committed to serving the place where she grew up and raised her family. Her voice brightens as she talks about how Fannie created a daycare and Head Start program in Mississippi to help working mothers and young children, even going as far as to procure housing and cars for those who needed them.

Jacqueline hopes her book shines a light not only on Fannie’s activism work but on who she was behind the scenes.

“If you needed anything, she was going to get it for you,” says Jacqueline. “She was a great mother. You would think it would be hard for her adopting four girls. But it wasn’t hard for her. It came so naturally to her.”

Jacqueline Hamer Flakes — Mama Fannie: Growing Up the Daughter of Civil Rights Icon Fannie Lou Hamer. 3-4:30 p.m. Sat., Jan. 14. Alphabet City at City of Asylum. 40 W. North Ave., North Side. Free. Livestream also available. Registration required.

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