This July, our Chautauqua living history series goes virtual as Maryland Humanities raises the voices of four notable women who took action to secure their right to vote. Communications Specialist Sarah Weissman spoke with Arthuretta Holmes Martin, the actor-scholar who will play Fannie Lou Hamer. At Wednesday at 1:00 p.m., we will stream the performance and host a live Q&A with Martin starting at 2:00 p.m. The performance of Hamer will be available July 27–August 1 and the stream and Q&A will occur Wednesday, July 29. (CW for racist violence, reproductive injustice)
“She [Fannie Lou Hamer] helped to raise me to womanhood,” says Arthuretta Holmes Martin, who will portray Hamer. “There are some people whose personas were a part of my entire life. Fannie Lou Hamer is one of those people,” she says “I grew up in the sixties and seventies. The battle to end segregation, obtain voting rights, and stop racism was led by Fannie Lou.”
Martin’s work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer may be making an impact on the performer even without Martin always noticing it. “I became a Virginia State Delegate not thinking about the connection between this Chautauqua work and my advocacy work,” she says. “It didn’t connect until I authored a resolution on Racism being a Public Health Crisis that I made the connection.” Martin says she and Hamer share a “similar churning inside that keeps me strong—despite the hardships and struggles.”
Martin first performed as Hamer five years ago, at the request of the National Baptist Convention, to reenact Hamer’s speech to the Mississippi Democratic Convention 1964 Freedom Summer. “At some point, it felt like Fannie Lou showed up and I was observing.”
Hamer was arrested after returning from a voter registration workshop when she sat in a segregated bus station restaurant. Jailers force two Black inmates to beat Hamer, which gave her a limp and liver damage. Hamer is lauded, but her place in disability history is not always highlighted.
“This erasure speaks volumes about how our society recounts stories of disabled people and the narrow lens through which stories are told, particularly those involving disability,” writes social worker Vilissa Thompson, a Black disabled woman, in ReWire News. “Our history is forever incomplete if we fail to highlight and respect the identities of Black and disabled heroes and trailblazers.”
Before Martin began her research on Hamer, she didn’t know of other violence Hamer faced. “I didn’t know she was sterilized,” says the performer, who finds inspiration in Hamer. “To find out that a woman was beaten as she was and still had the courage to speak truth to power, and to know that structural racism did its best to stop her from procreating as I knew it had done to other women was heartbreaking. Finding out it happened to Ms. Hamer, too, validates the reality of the strength she and others whose names I do not know [had].” Martin is also inspired by how Hamer had “the priceless support of the community. Her life reminds me of the power of community and the power of love. Her ‘why’ was the unconditional love she had for Black people.”
Martin was also unaware of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s fear of Hamer and calls it “the most interesting facet to me….” Hamer spoke about her beating before a credentials committee of the 1964 Democratic National Convention: the speech was televised. The hearing was to decide “whether the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party or the all-white Mississippi delegation of party regulars should be seated,” wrote Nicolaus Mills in The New York Times, shared by Martin. Johnson “worried that his re-election chances would be hurt by a Southern walkout over the Mississippi question and tried to divert attention from her by calling an impromptu news conference while she was still speaking.”
Martin says that “This woman with a 6th-grade education was so powerful that the President of the United States pre-empted her testimony.”
Despite all the obstacles Hamer faced, Martin makes sure to take a cue from Hamer and inject humor into her portrayal. It’s what she says is the most enjoyable part of the performances. “Her testimony was gut-wrenching,” Martin says. “But as she evolved as a speaker, she was able to speak to everyone [by] infusing lightheartedness.”
Martin discusses today’s voting rights struggle. “The battles she had for voting rights continue. While disenfranchisement isn’t race-based in law, it is race-based in practice,” she says. “Barriers to voting continue to be erected. State, Local and Federal Governments are unequal and inconsistent in their responsibility to ensure all people eligible to vote can vote in this country. The humanity of Black people is as much a matter of public crisis as it was 40 years ago. It was the police that brutally beat Fannie Lou Hamer. And it is the police who continue to brutalize and murder unarmed Black people for doing everyday actions. She, like the host of witnesses like her today, speak to those of us still here: ‘keep pressing forward’.”
Please note that the opinions expressed by guest contributors to our blog do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of Maryland Humanities and/or any of its sponsors, partners, or funders. No official endorsement by any of these institutions should be inferred.