I’d never heard of this woman until today, but what a remarkable story. That last quote in particular is a dead-set corker. From a Baptist Alliance site:
On March 20, 1977, inspired by members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who had come to Ruleville, Mississippi, Fanny Lou Hamer volunteered to register to vote. She was turned down, of course, because she could not explain “de facto” laws. When the owner of the plantation where she and her family lived as share croppers and where she had worked for 18 years learned what she had done, he fired her and evicted from the plantation. Undaunted and with the pluckiness that characterized her throughout her life, she said to him, “I wasn’t trying to register for you. I was trying to register for me.” She knew her life was in danger, but she was determined, she said, to become a “first-class citizen,” and she spent the rest of her life convincing “everyone she knew to do likewise.”
Her life was a saga of courage, audacity, and determination. But it was also a tragic drama of harassment, suffering, and a too-early death. Her phone was tapped. Her house was bombed. She was jailed and beaten mercilessly. When told that her friend and colleague, Medgar Evers, had been murdered, she responded, “Killing or no killing, I’m sticking with civil rights.”
She was one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She defied President Lyndon Johnson to come to Mississippi to see things for himself, “because if this is a Great Society, I’d hate to see a bad one,” she said. Fanny Lou Hamer spent her life mobilizing people at the grass-roots, all over the South, to assume responsibility for their own liberation. Her list of activities and achievement is daunting.
She helped start the national Women’s Political Caucus. She initiated Head Start programs. She founded farm co-ops. She pushed for integration in higher education. She filed successful voting rights cases. She fought for prisoners’ rights saying: “We’ve been waiting all our lives and we’re still getting killed, still getting hung, still getting beat to death. Now we’re tired of waiting.”
When warned that she was likely to be killed, Fanny Lou Hamer replied, “If I fall, I’ll fall five feet, four inches forward in the fight for freedom.”
I read an essay recently on Sojourners about Jesus’ image of a grain of wheat: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24) Death can actually have a profoundly regenerative effect. How else do you explain the explosion of Christians – literally “little Christs” – after Jesus’ death? While I wouldn’t argue that is the only sense in which Jesus was resurrected and lives on, it’s certainly one of the most powerful and inspirational senses for me. By dying, in a sense, the leader frees the followers to become leaders themselves, perpetuating the cycle.
This is how Deanna Murshed of Sojourners put it in her essay:
“Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life'” (12:23-25).
The version of the Bible called The Message states the last verse this way: “In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”
The part that really struck me recently (though I’ve surely heard it read a hundred times) is that the dying of the grain is not for the resurrection of the seed itself – you do not die simply to be resurrected into a better you. You don’t give up that bad habit or attitude, greed or grudge, simply to come out on top. (Though I suppose that’s not a bad place to begin). No, the grain dies so that it can produce and reproduce life. The passage says, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it is no more than a single grain.
The answer as to why the grain needs to die is for it not to remain alone. In other words, Christ died so that he could bear more Christs and grow his reign!
Though this way of living for others seems like such a radical (re)orientation, all of creation seems to be screaming this message. Every part of the wheat is living for the spread of life, wants there to be more wheat. The most basic cycle of nature reflects the divine order.
It is simply astounding, when I think about it, that the God of creation does not live for direct self-satisfaction! The God of creation who has all power and all might is in constant submission to another purpose. And God is inviting us to follow.
Something tells me Fanny Lou Hamer’s death advanced the cause of freedom more than five feet, four inches.