Learning From Experience: Maria Varela’s Perspective, SNCC Field Secretary, 1963-1967
All of the adult education materials we created, regardless of topic, highlighted Black people in leadership roles making social and economic change. This focus was the result of our experience with the Selma Literacy Project and applied to subsequent work in Mississippi. One of our goals in 1963 was develop adult reading materials “out of the experiences, needs and aspirations” of Black adults in the Black Belt South, to help adults “turn inward and see his own strengths…”
There is great value contained in the style of life of the blackbelt Negro adult which has helped him to survive and endure in his circumstances and which has given him the wisdom he now possess.
In the booklets and filmstrips we created, Black people, using their own words, shared how they changed their communities. We found Black identity and pride was essential fuel in encouraging leaders and learners to take risks and act. People would find it difficult to actively participate in the decisions affecting their life if they thought their opinion was worthless, or that their people were not to be trusted as elected leaders, and/or white people are by the fact of their skin color born leaders and automatically ‘qualified’ to tell people how to conduct their lives.
As we moved deeper into this work, we began to realize that the absence of Black images in mainstream print media, on television and in the movies, undermined the Movement’s work of empowering Black people to control their own destinies. So we started thinking about creating other types of materials in addition to the “how-to” booklets. The first idea that came up was suggesting to Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer that she do her autobiography. We would tape her life story and then print it up into a booklet.
Mrs. Hamer’s Autobiography
Mrs. Hamer’s life was a testimony to that kind of leadership in the Black community which draws strength and purpose from its heritage of resistance to oppression.
Mrs. Hamer’s mother (Ella Townsend) was indefatigable in finding ways to feed her children. She would ask plantation landowners if she could have the cotton left in the fields.
“When they would tell her we could have that cotton, we would walk for miles and miles and miles… We wouldn’t have shoes on…because we didn’t have them. She would tie our feet up with rags because the ground was froze real hard. We walked from field to field until we scrapped a bale of cotton. Then she’d take the bale and sell it and that would give us some of the food we would need.
Then she would go from house to house and help kill hogs. They would give her the intestines… sometimes the feet and head and things like that would help us keep going. So many times for dinner she would mix flour with a little grease and try and make gravy out of it.
My mother was a great woman. She went through a lot of suffering to bring the twenty of us up, but still taught us to be decent and to respect ourselves, and that is one of the things that has kept me going. (excerpt from To Praise Our Bridges)
Julius Lester and I worked together on the autobiography. Julius taped interviews of Mrs. Hamer; I transcribed the tape. I brought the transcript up to Ruleville for her to read and, at the time, she indicated it was fine. To show the times when she was growing up, we found some Farm Security Administration photographs from the 1930s. From her words, with very little editing, I designed and laid out the book for Mr. Kirksey, our printer, to finish.
When I brought the finished copies up to Mrs. Hamer, I was so excited. This was a labor of love for Julius and I …. and we hoped Mrs. Hamer would feel the same way. She leafed through it and then read it. Then said she didn’t like it. She felt the book didn’t reflect how much she loved people.
In her taped sessions she honestly expressed her feelings about white segregationists:
We have to build our own power. We have to win every single political office we can, where we have a majority of black people. Some folks now are talking about sharing some of these offices with the whites who have been holding them down for the past hundred years. Just because this cracker is starting to show us a few teeth and talk nice doesn’t mean he’ll move over and let us have some of that power…
The question for black people is not, when is the white man going to give us our rights…if the white man gives you anything…just remember…when he gets ready he will take it right back. We have to take it for ourselves.
But one thing a lot of people don’t know about Mrs. Hamer that she was colorblind when it came to helping poor people.
When volunteers from the North would bring truck-loads of food, clothing and medicine down to the Delta, Mrs. Hamer had a number of white families she made sure got what they needed. She also felt that there were white people and those of other races who made important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.
Here’s a poem I wrote about her husband, Pap:
We spoke of…
corn bread/corn tortilla
black eye peas/ pinto beans
the age-old bridge
across cultural divides
Perry ‘Pap’ Hamer
1967, ©Maria Varela
She asked that we not release the autobiography. I was, of course, crushed because she did a masterful job not only talking about growing up but also illustrating, with examples from her life, just how brutal and terrorizing American Apartheid was.
But there was no way that we wouldn’t honor her request. We in SNCC were to take direction from the Movement’s indigenous leaders. That being said, I’m so glad we did this book. Mrs. Hamer stands head and shoulders above the mainstream narrative of the history of the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders. Her autobiography captures the inspiring life of a leader whose commitment and integrity kept us going when at times we hung our heads and wondered what we were doing. Because of her, we could “keep on keeping on.”
Maria Varela explains why she decided to release Mrs. Hamer’s autobiography now: