What Manner of Woman Is This?
I was born one year and nineteen days after a fatal bullet nearly decapitated Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I never knew Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I did not have the privilege of seeing him at a rally or hearing him preach. My acquaintance with his stentorian voice only rings through mp3 recordings, YouTube, movies or books. I was not in this world to witness his leadership. My generation has to rely on secondary sources, on the eyewitness accounts of our parents and grandparents. For the truth of the matter is that I never knew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, I have come to “know” him. Commemoration of national holiday in his honor animates my getting to know him.
On my bookshelf is one of many King resources–Lerone Bennett’s What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr (1964). This book is distinguishable in that King’s mentor and former Morehouse College President, Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, introduces the work. This time of year, many will read or refer to this and other volumes on the King’s mission, the civil rights movement and its respective marches.
As a New Testament scholar the title of Bennett’s work teases me. It mimics a reference to Jesus after the stilling of the storm as noted in the Gospel of Matthew (8.27). As a womanist positing the intersectionality of race, class and sex, Bennett’s employ of the phrase pushes my gender juices. While there is much deserved laud for King’s leadership, I cannot help but ponder, “What manner of woman in this?” Meaning as this nation pauses to reflect on King and hopefully refuel in the battle for justice and mercy, we cannot overlook the role of women in movement work. The holiday bears the name–Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. History bears the imprint of women who also risked life and security for the common good. What manner of woman dares to stand toe-to-toe with raging dogs, water hoses, and police-wielding batons for the rights of her people?
Fannie Lou Hamer was this manner of woman who also walked in proto-womanist ways—she was talking about race and class through her gendered view long before we named it “womanism.” I chose to highlight her because of the influential presence of her mother. As a curator of womanist maternal thought, I am intrigued by the manner in which black motherhood becomes the lens for not just discussing but embodying the interplay of racial identity, economic status and gender being. The story of Fannie Lou Hamer mirrors this approach.
Fannie Lou Hamer “was sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She was the last of twenty children born into humble beginnings in Montgomery County, MS. Her parents were sharecroppers in addition to her father being a Baptist preacher. Watching her mother, Lou Ella Townsend, negotiate racism and sexism was Hamer’s foray into the fight for freedom. She learned early through her mother’s voice and prowess the value of respecting who she was a black person and specifically as a black woman.
After the passing of Hamer’s father, Lou Ella Townsend bore the burden of providing for her children. An accident chopping wood caused her to go blind and was the beginning of her failing health. Hamer refused to put her mother in a nursing facility. She cared for her ten years until she died at the age of ninety. Three years post her mother’s death Hamer ran for Congress representing the newly founded Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She later garnered much respect and renown as she addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1964 demanding seats for these said delegates. Giving herself and much of what she earned to others, Hamer died a pauper and in poor health in 1977. Although her mother’s stamp in her life was profound, Hamer’s own journey into motherhood was complex. She endured several stillbirths, and a “Mississippi appendectomy” or non-consensual sterilization prevented any future attempts to conceive. She and her husband, Pap Hamer, adopted two daughters.
Fannie Lou Hamer was unique. Yet, she was not the only one. Ella Baker, founder of SNCC, Viola Luizzo, Dorothy Cotton, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, Maxine Smith, Coretta Scott King and so many less known women did not turn a blind eye to injustice or offer a stammering tongue to discrimination. Their presence alone brought attention to gender inequity even within the civil rights movements. For the truth is “if it wasn’t for the women” where would this nation be. Just last month threads of #BlackWomen hailed the force with which this group spearheaded efforts giving Alabama its first Democratic Senator in almost three decades. I would dare to guess that one of the state’s civil rights heroines, Amelia Boynton Robinson, planted the seeds that yielded such a harvest. Oprah recently noted that Recy Taylor, a black woman raped by six white men in 1944, was also from Alabama. What manner of woman was this? What style of women are these?
No, I never knew Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His speeches, prayers and presence only come to me through secondary resources. Still as I appropriate him, I bring close to me the manner of women who too sought to still the waves of racism and calm the storm of classism.