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You may never have heard of Fannie Lou Hamer, but she was a giant of the Civil Rights movement, and her struggle to extend voting rights to African Americans inspired generations to take up her cause.
For her work, she was beaten and shot at. She lost an adopted daughter because a hospital refused to admit her on account of her activism.
For 19 years, actress Mzuri Moyo Aimbaye has been bringing Hamer’s extraordinary story to life in a one-woman musical. It’s coming to Prince George’s County Community College Performing Arts Center on Saturday, January 25.
We talk to Aimbaye about the show she created as a tribute to Hamer, and as a motivation for audiences to register to vote.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Mzuri Moyo Aimbaye Actress, The Fannie Lou Hamer Story; @_fannielouhamer
KOJO NNAMDIYou tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast a new survey ranks the D. C. region as number one for bed bug infestations. We'll find out what that means for the people that actually have to live through those infestations.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first in 1964 though President Lyndon Johnson tried to stop her, Fannie Lou Hamer delivered one of the more powerful of the Civil Rights Movement. Hamer was a giant of the movement fighting to bring voting rights to the disenfranchised. She paved the way for millions to cast ballots that had long been denied to African Americans.
KOJO NNAMDIOur guest today has spent nearly 20 years bringing the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer to audiences across the country in a one woman show that she wrote herself. The next stop on the tour is Prince George's Community College Performing Arts Center, where she will perform on Saturday. So joining me, to discuss the life of Fannie Lou Hamer and the ways her cause can be advanced today, is Mzuri Moyo Aimbaye. She wrote and stars in the Fannie Lou Hamer Story. Mzuri, thank you so much for joining us.
MZURI MOYO AIMBAYEGood afternoon. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.
NNAMDIAnd we're happy and happy and happy and happy that you're sick and tired or being sick and tired and that you've brought that here. You spend more than an hour on stage telling the story of Fannie Lou Hamer. For those who may not know in a nutshell, who was she?
AIMBAYEFannie Lou Hamer was a share cropper, the 20th child of James and Ella Townsend. She started out picking cotton, because somebody on the plantation gave her a piece of candy and that started her -- exchanged for her to come pick cotton. And at six years old she started picking cotton. And she wound up being the timekeeper. That's the person who weighs the cotton, who does a lot of things.
NNAMDIBecause she could read and write.
AIMBAYEThat's right. She went to the sixth grade and she was a very -- I would say a brilliant woman, because she also ran for Congress. And she started Freedom Farms and Pig Bank and she did so many things. But Fannie Lou Hamer was what people might consider a socialist. But what I call her is doing God's will, you know. That's another word for that.
NNAMDIExactly right. You grew up in New Jersey decades after Fannie Lou Hamer grew up in Mississippi. When and why did you realize that you wanted to write a play about Fannie Lou Hamer?
AIMBAYEI saw Fannie Lou Hamer on "Like It Is" -- Gil Noble, do you remember him?
NNAMDIYep, of course, on Channel 7 in New York, the ABC channel. Gil Noble for years.
AIMBAYEYes, Mr. Noble had Fannie Lou Hamer on one afternoon on a Sunday and I happened to pass by the television and Fannie Lou Hamer was on. And when she told about a beating that she took and I had never heard her name before. And I was so inspired by her, because what she said was, "Oh, you can't hate. Baby, we got to vote them out." That was what I heard.
NNAMDIWere you at that point a playwright or an actress?
AIMBAYEI was a want to be. Okay. All right. I had dreams and I was a nurse. But as a child I always knew I wanted to be an actress. And I'd say, oh, I'm going to work in the daytime as a nurse and at night I'm going to sing. Well, guess what? It happened. I got cast in the role of Lucy in "Sankofa" and, you know, after that I thought I was going to become a movie star overnight. Instant, right.
AIMBAYEAnd so, you know, that Fannie Lou Hamer story waited for me for like 10 years. You know, and said, come on, write me. Write me. Write me. Write me. And I, you know, didn't have a computer. And I happened to work for a friend one day. And I met a gentleman who was a colleague of hers and he was a very generous man, Steve. And so he said, what are you doing? I said, oh, well, I'm writing a play on Fannie Lou Hamer, but I need a computer. And he says -- I said, but I don't have one. He says, you got it. No more excuses.
AIMBAYENo joke, no more, no more.
NNAMDIHit the keyboard.
AIMBAYEYeah, hit it.
NNAMDIYou got to start writing.
AIMBAYEThe computer sat for another year. Okay. I was running from my destiny and my calling, right? Auditioning, got nothing, got nothing. So God said, this is waiting for you. I got a gift for you. So anyway one day I started writing. I quit nursing. My mother had a fit and I got a job as a receptionist and I'm an RN. You know, mom didn't like that, right?
AIMBAYESo I started writing. I would write at my jobs in between answering phones. And finally I came up with a little script. And I had a friend, who worked at Ramapo as a professor and her name is Sandra Ramos. So I says, Sandy, can I come up and do a little bit of my play? She said, Oh yes, you know, feminist rebel. And so I came up and I did it. Mommy went with me. And she said after the show after I finished she said, Lorraine that was good. I said, Really, Mom? She said, Yes.
AIMBAYESo that gave me my permission to really go for it. And I went to the Schomburg and I did so much research. I read a book by Dr. Chana Kai Lee called "For Freedom's Sake." I read "This Little Light of Mine," by Kay Mills. I went down to Ruleville. I met the black female mayor who's -- you know, I think she's still there. And I met one of Fannie Lou Hamer's -- I think it's adopted daughter, you know.
AIMBAYESo I met people like Matt Jones who was a New Yorker at the time. He had a coffee shop. He was a part of SNCC.
AIMBAYEAnd Matt had this coffee house on Monday nights. And I would go there and sing. And Matt knew Fannie Lou Hamer. And he would give me the Fannie Lou Hamer stories. I think I worried Matt to death, you know, asking him.
NNAMDIWell, two things we apparently share in common. And one of them is that Matt was a SNCC worker. When I first came to Washington all of my mentors were SNCC workers and they talked about Miss Hamer all the time, because they had all worked in Mississippi and Alabama and they all revered Fannie Lou Hamer. The second things is, who the heck is Lorraine?
AIMBAYELorraine. Lorraine Teresa Pope that's my other part of me. That's who I was.
NNAMDIMeet Rex Orville Montague Paul. That was my other name before I changed it.
NNAMDISo we do have that in common. Tell us about the show, which has won an Audelco Award, which is an award for excellence in black theater. I looked at some of the video of you doing it. At what point in her life is Fannie Lou Hamer supposed to be when she's talking to the audience?
AIMBAYEWell, you know, she comes back from the dead. So I kind of advance her. She comes back as an older woman even though she was a young woman when she passed away. And I did it for this reason, Kojo, because coming back as an elder female gives me rites of passage. And people will listen. So I come back as a sage even though she was a sage in her own right at 59. I have advanced her age a little bit more, you know, so, but I do scenes where she was a six year old child starting to pick cotton. So I have to go back and I have to become a little child as well in the play. And that's thanks to my new director, Byron C. Saunders. And I thank him for that.
NNAMDII got to tell you. I saw as I said a video of a performance you did in a church at one point and had I walked into this room and seen you, I would have not thought that you were the same person. You transform yourself into an old Fannie Lou Hamer remarkably. How many times have you performed the Fannie Lou Hamer Story and has it changed over time?
AIMBAYEYes. Oh, I would say over 500 times. And it recently changed when Byron Saunders directed me this past March. And we've been doing it since March this new updated version of the Fannie Lou Hamer Story. It's got a lot more meat to it, a lot more special moments that we've created. Fannie Lou Hamer lost her daughter, because they wouldn't allow blacks into this hospital. So they had to travel 127 miles to a hospital and Dorothy passed away in her arms. So, yeah, there are very special moments now that Byron has director the play.
NNAMDIThis performance is also a musical in which you sing about a dozen songs. Let's take a listen to one of them.
AIMBAYE(singing) Glory, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, Hallelujah. His truth is marching, marching on.
NNAMDIWhat role does music play in telling the Fannie Lou Hamer Story?
AIMBAYEYou know, everybody says that she was a great singer. And I happen to be a singer. I studied opera for, oh geez, 15 years. Never really did a lot, you know, grew up in the black church singing. But I believe that doing that studying that I did with -- I had about five different teachers helped me to be able to sing more powerfully. You know, I have a kind of a deep voice anyway. So and Fannie Lou Hamer's voice was so powerful not so much, because of studying but because of the life that she led, her commitment to change and to her people.
NNAMDIWhat are some of the songs you sing -- some of the other songs?
AIMBAYE"This Little Light of Mine," which was her favorite song. And I sing "Strange Fruit," because I engineered --
NNAMDIBecause that's a Billie Holiday song.
AIMBAYEThat's a Billie Holiday song.
NNAMDIWhy "Strange Fruit"?
AIMBAYEWell, I'll tell you what happened. I was at the computer one day writing the play and I happened on an article where a young man was hung in his front yard and I was outraged. And I said, you know what? I'm going to find a way to speak out against this lynching stuff. And so I called a friend of mine, Joan Cartwright, who's a jazz singer. I said, Joan, can I put "Strange Fruit" in my play? She said, You can do anything you want. I said, Okay. So I've added "Strange Fruit" and there's a moment in there where there are lynchings and it starts with Laura Nelson, which a lot of people don't understand that women were hung as well. And her son hung there for two months. And so I sing "Strange Fruit" during that lynch scene. And also connect it to the fact that Fannie Lou Hamer didn't have children from her own womb, but -- because she was sterilized.
NNAMDIWe'll talk about that in a second, but how do you embody Fannie Lou Hamer on stage. Today you're wearing a beautiful African outfit and that's why I said had I walked into this room and seen you I would not have recognized you as the person I saw playing Fannie Lou Hamer. What do you wear? How do you walk? How do you talk when you're playing Fannie Lou?
AIMBAYENow, Kojo, I love you, but you want me to tell you all my secrets.
NNAMDINot all. Just how you make yourself over to be Fannie Lou Hamer.
AIMBAYEYes. She had a limp, because, you know, she had polio. And there's some other things that I do. I build a suit, you know, under it and then I put on a little makeup. The older I get the less makeup I need. So yeah, and I think it comes more from spirit, because Fannie Lou Hamer was 4'11" and I'm 5'8" and a half. And a lot of people say to me, "You shrunk." So it's my spiritual connection to her I believe and listening to her. I listen to her.
NNAMDIBecause you looked on the video smaller than you are in real life, but I hear you're updating the costume to include a dental prosthetic, why?
AIMBAYEBecause she had a little gold on. Yeah, she had that gold tooth.
NNAMDIYes, she did.
AIMBAYEAnd so, yeah. So I need that, you know.
NNAMDISo you're going to get the gold tooth.
AIMBAYEGoing to get that.
NNAMDIHere is Norma in Washington D.C. Norma, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NORMAHello. I'm Norma Anderson and I am very eager to see the play. I am 74 years old and I saw Fannie Lou Hamer when she was at the Democratic Convention many years ago.
NNAMDIIn 1964 Atlantic City.
NORMAHer power, her strength, her resilience, I tell you, I can't tell you how many times I have dealt back, dreamt back, thought back on that strength when there were times in my life, when I needed to reach out and pull some of it into myself.
NNAMDIMzuri, is that one of the things you noticed about Fannie Lou Hamer, the lasting impact she had on people?
AIMBAYEYes, because she had it on me, you know. I've dedicated 19 of my years of my life, because of the impact that she had on me.
NNAMDIFannie Lou Hamer was herself an experience. Let's play a clip from the very beginning of the play to get more of a sense of that experience.
AIMBAYETamir Rice, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner and so many countless others. I don't want you all to forget how they died. Some say it was justified, because the bullets that killed them was blue and trigger happy policemen lie. Today young black men still live under daily and constant threat. Tell me, how did we forget Dr. Martin Luther King? You see I believe with all of you all help, we can still realize his dream. My name is Fannie Lou Hamer and I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.
NNAMDIThat from the Fannie Lou Hamer Story. Mzuri, what inspired you to start the show with the names of the African Americans who have been killed by the police?
AIMBAYEWell, Amadou Diallo when he was killed in New York, young man coming from the store.
NNAMDIOr entering his home.
AIMBAYEEntering his home and my good friend Baba Sid went up there and saw the space where he was shot. And it was just this tiny space. And I added -- he was in the play as well. But so many were killed, Kojo, I had to update. I had to keep updating. And I unfortunately had to take Amadou Diallo out and I said to my husband I said, you know, he's no more relevant. He's not relevant to us. And it's so sad because this young man was killed from Guinea West Africa. You know, and also Anthony Valles, you know, the list goes on and on and one. And I said, I have to speak out. I have to speak out.
NNAMDIAnd indeed in the Fannie Lou Hamer Story Mzuri Moyo Aimbaye does. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. You can still join it by calling 800-400-433-8850. What do you think of theater as a tool to teach history and civics? 800-433-8850 I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Mzuri Moyo Aimbaye who wrote and stars in the Fannie Lou Hamer Story. Let's go to the phones again. Here is Michael in Fairfax, Virginia. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELOh, hi, Kojo, a really great program. Thank you. One thing that's really critical I think is the spiritual aspect of Fannie Lou Hamer. My daughter did Teach for America in the Delta, Mississippi Delta and I went down to see her and be with her. Coming back I stopped at Indianola at Fannie Lou Hamer's graveside. I didn't know a lot about her, but I started researching. And at one point she took a busload of people to register to vote and that was at a time when you literally could be killed for that. And on the way back they were stopped by a deputy sheriff. It was on a dark country road. And that would have been a time to really panic. And what she did was start singing "This little light of mine is going to shine, shine, shine."
NNAMDIAllow me to have Mzuri talk about how she addresses that in the performance.
AIMBAYEYou know, Fannie Lou Hamer never let anything get her down. You know, she would always go beyond the circumstance and it was with her songs, because she had such a powerful powerful voice. And she had the command even though she was only four feet eleven. So thank you for that. We remember her through her songs. Her niece is coming out with a movie on her and she's only using Fannie Lou Hamer and her songs in it.
NNAMDIBut speaking about what you talked about Michael, Fannie Lou Hamer in 1961 attended a meeting led by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee known as SNCC and became a SNCC organizer. The next year she led a group of black Mississippians to register to vote. Here is a clip from Mzuri's play about that chapter in her life.
AIMBAYEMe and Pat worked on this here W.D. Marlow plantation where I was the timekeeper for 18 long years. And after several attempts to go register to vote I was called in to come see him. Mr. D that's what we had to call him. And with hatred dead clean up in his eyes he looked up at me, Fannie Lou, did you go down there and register to vote? I took and addressed him, Yes, sir, Mr. D., I did. Yes, I did. Well, you know, we aren't ready for this down here in Mississippi. Mr. D, sir, now I did not go down there to register for you. I went down there to register for myself.
NNAMDIMzuri, what happened to Fannie Lou Hamer after she defied Mr. D?
AIMBAYEShe was runoff the plantation. And she went over and stayed at her friends, Mrs. Tucker's house and they fired 16 shots into that home where she stayed. And Mrs. Hamer never stopped doing what she was doing.
NNAMDIDid she get to register to vote?
AIMBAYEOh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And ran for Congress as well.
NNAMDIExactly right. There's a very moving scene in your play where you as Fannie Lou Hamer talk to the audience from behind bars. What's happening in that scene?
AIMBAYEThat's where she was taken to jail after they were coming back from South Carolina voter's registration workshop, her and some children -- actually were teenagers, Euvester Simpson, June Johnson, 14 and Annell Ponder. You know, it wasn't a lot of them. And they got -- some of the workers got down off the bus to use the restaurant -- go to the restaurant and some went into the bathroom. And when they came out, you know, the police started arresting people. And Mrs. Hamer was on the bus and she got off. They took all of them. Made them get down off the bus and arrested them and took them to Wynona Jail there. And they put some in cells and some they left in the booking room. And Mrs. Hamer started hearing them beat people. And then they came to her cell. Eventually took her and put into what they call the bullpen where they would beat negros. And so as she put it, and they had two young boys beat Mrs. Hamer.
NNAMDIWhat lasting harm did that beating do to her body?
AIMBAYEShe had a clot to her eye, a kidney injury and she never -- I've heard people tell me like Matt Jones said that Mrs. Hamer was never free of pain after that beating.
NNAMDIPrior to that beating she had already been permanently hurt by a surgeon. What happened and why did she coin the term "Mississippi Appendectomy"?
AIMBAYEWell, because Mrs. Hamer heard one of her friends -- her friends heard the doctor that she worked for as his housekeeper tell somebody that he had sterilized Mrs. Hamer. And that's what they used to do to young black women in the South. You know, they called them "Mississippi Appendectomy," which is sterilization. And she didn't know. Isn't that something? She found out through her friend telling her.
NNAMDIFannie Lou Hamer told the story of the beating she suffered in jail to the entire country in 1964 at the Democratic National Convention. What was she trying to do there?
AIMBAYEShe was trying to get seats and to get the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and they didn't get it. They didn't get seated. But, you know what? Her story was heard. And President Johnson after Viola Liuzzo was shot wrote -- passed the 1965 Voters Rights Act.
NNAMDIBut at that convention in 1964 -- well, we have a clip from the speech that Fannie Lou Hamer gave to the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention, the real Fannie Lou Hamer. Let's hear what she said.
FANNIE LOU HAMERAnd if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now I question America. Is this America the land of the free and the home of the brave? While we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hook, because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings in America? Thank you. (applause)
NNAMDINow the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party may not have been seated, but Fannie Lou Hamer had the opportunity for the entire country to hear her. Lyndon Johnson, then President of the United States, had gotten word that Fannie Lou Hamer was going to speak on television at the convention. How did he try to stop her?
AIMBAYEHe announced the ninth month of President Kennedy being killed. And, you know, when the news media got wind of what he was trying to do, they played her testimony over and over and over. So it backfired. And it really gave her a platform.
NNAMDIFor the nation to hear her. Here is Kurk in Cottage City, Maryland. Kurk, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KURKHi, Kojo. I first became aware of Mrs. Hamer a couple of years ago in a blog post on the website of Consistent Life, which is a progressive organization that's opposed to war and abortion and capital punishment and other forms of violence as solutions to human problems. And in 1971, Mrs. Hamer gave a speech in which she said, "The War in Vietnam must be ended so our men and boys can come home. So mothers can stop crying, wives can feel secure and children can learn strength. The message used to take human lives such as abortion, the pill, the ring, etcetera amount to genocide. I believe that legal abortion is legal murder and the use of pills and rings to prevent God's will is a great sin."
KURKI was so happy to find out about Fannie Lou Hamer to know about another progressive voice that is pro-life. There are many of us who are progressive pro-lifers, who are horrified that a racist like Donald Trump has become the face of the prolife movement in this country. And I'm glad to know about people like --
NNAMDIDon't want to cut you off, but we're running out of time in this segment very quickly. And, yes, Fannie Lou Hamer did attach herself to a lot of causes. Like Dr. King, she fought for African Americans economic rights, as well as civil rights. But you're trying to carry on the work of Fannie Lou Hamer not only by telling her story, but by helping to register people to vote. How do you do that?
AIMBAYEYes. After each performance we ask -- we invite the NAACP or the League of Women Voters to come out and register people who are -- we feel will be encouraged to do so. And not only register, but to vote after they see this performance. On Saturday the NAACP -- Prince George's County NAACP will be there to register people to vote. And that's really getting me excited. So we have some tickets for students that want to come that don't think they should vote. We think that this play is going to change their mind.
NNAMDIMzuri Moyo Aimbaye, she wrote and stars in the Fannie Lou Hamer Story this Saturday. Tell us time and place.
AIMBAYEThis Saturday it's going to be at Prince George's County in Largo, Maryland 3:00 p.m. And I also wanted to invite Beyoncé to come.
NNAMDIPrince George's Community College in Largo, Maryland.
NNAMDIThis Saturday. Thank you very much and it was wonderful talking to you.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back a new survey ranks the D.C. region as number one for bedbug infestations. We'll find out what that means for the people who actually have to live through those infestations. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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