Undergraduate Finds Inspiration in America's Segregated Past

In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer became active in the Civil Rights Movement. Thanks to her dual leadership style, she would prove central to the African-American struggle for civil rights. In 2015, fascinated by Hamer’s leadership, Johnny Barber embarked on a journey into the violent history of segregation in America, building a bridge between past and present, and uncovering a reason to hope for universal equality in the future.

What first attracted you to this research project?

Last semester, I took a class taught by Tobin Shearer called “Prayer and Civil Rights,” in which we wrote a paper on a topic that analyzed some aspect of prayer in the civil rights movement. I wanted to focus on the leadership of a woman.  A lot of times when people think of the civil rights movement, the people that come to mind are Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ed King and all these men. You might hear about Rosa Parks, but that’s about it. As I started my research, I discovered Fannie Lou Hamer. I was immediately drawn to her. From that point, everything just opened up.

How did the project start?

Everything I read was centered on Hamer’s experiences from a public record standpoint. They might start going into her leadership style, but it was always a played down aspect of her history because she was a woman. It occurred to me that there had to be more. I thought that by digging a little deeper into the past I could provide some insight into her leadership motivations and philosophies. Next thing I know, I’m on my way to Jackson, Mississippi.

From Montana to Mississippi...Sounds like an expensive trip.

I ended up winning a couple of scholarships that made it possible to take my research to Jackson, Mississippi. First, I received a scholarship from the Davidson Honors College. I got an additional research grant from the African-American Studies program. I was incredibly fortunate, because together the awards essentially covered all of my travel and hotel costs.

Fannie Lou Hamer protesting image from NPR

(Above: Fannie Lou Hamer speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on September 17, 1965. Image credit: National Public Radio, "While Unsung in '63, Women Weren't Just 'Background Singers'")

What did you discover about Hamer that made her such an effective leader?

I split her leadership style into two parts: The Pastoral style and the Prophetic style. The Pastoral I defined as centered on her singing. A lot of times when African-Americans were facing violence or stress or at a meeting that needed energy, Hamer would use this community-building style where she would sing. She’d use spirituals that were familiar to the African-American community, but would change the lyrics to fit their situation.

Her Prophetic style came through in her public speaking. She felt that she knew God’s plan for America and that was equality for all Americans. She would equate a lot of biblical stories, mostly those affiliated with the Old Testament Exodus stories, and she’d use them to say this is what God wants. None of us will be free until everyone is free.

Who was your favorite teacher during your time at UM?

Anya Jabour, Tobin Shearer and Beth Hubble. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all superheroes. In every one of their classes, not only did we cover topics that I was interested in, but they always made sure we were covering multiple perspectives. Learning these historic stories to bring our current society into context, that’s what most cultivated my passion. Kyle Volk and Sara Hayden also teach this way. They’re also my superheroes. They’re also amazing.

If you could give society one insight that you learned during your time researching Hamer, what would it be?

I think sometimes when you are in a minority community you get tunnel vision. Same thing happens when you’re in a place of privilege. People want to believe their group has it harder than anyone else. When it comes to minorities, you’re like, “My group is the most oppressed.” You want to feel like you’re the most “othered.”  When you’re in a place of privilege, you say, “What’s everyone complaining about? It isn’t really that bad.” It’s only when you’re forced to look at these other perspectives you start to realize, oh, maybe this is a humanity problem. Instead of competing for who has it worst, maybe we need to listen and learn from all these different backgrounds. That’s how we really start to solve some of these problems. There are so many ways we can work together to make life better for everyone.

*Interviewed by Ian Withrow, H&S media and information coordinator