March on Washington Anniversary: Fannie Lou Hamer and the New Evangelization

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by Nichole Flores

This week, thousands gather in Washington D.C. to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington Anniversary (MOWA). This anniversary arrives at a crucial moment in U.S. national life, as racial conflicts surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death, George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and the SCOTUS decision to overturn key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among others, dominated U.S. headlines this summer. These conflicts exposed profound racial disagreements and prompted vitriolic exchanges between opponents. MOWA serves as both a rousing celebration of victories already won and a sobering reminder that racial justice is still a work in progress. 

MOWA and the Year of Faith converge at the intersection of justice and belief to reveal the necessity of an active, ardent, and apostolic commitment to the pursuit of racial justice expressing the New Evangelization. As Catholics, we are compelled by our passion for the dignity of human life, the call to solidarity, the commitment to the option for the poor, and the priority of the common good to dedicate ourselves more explicitly to the cause of racial justice. The New Evangelization provides a chance for the Church to raise the bar on this cause. I turn to the life and witness of Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights champion honored this week, to offer a concrete illustration of this intersection. 

If the civil rights struggle was largely a religious movement, then Fannie Lou Hamer was its evangelist. Hamer, who served as field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), empowered black voters through civic education and voter registration drives in the segregated south. Along with others in the movement, Hamer faced violence and imprisonment for her efforts. Once, after she was jailed and brutally beaten, the jailer’s wife and daughter secretly gave her assistance.  Moved by their concern, she reached out to her captives from the confines of her jail cell to invite their conversion:

“And I told them, ‘Y’all is nice.  You must be Christian people.’ The jailer’s wife told me that she tried to live a Christian life.  And I told her I would like for her to read two scriptures in the Bible…I tol’er to read the 26th Chapter of Proverbs and the 26th Verse [‘Whose hatred is covered by deceit, his wickedness shall be showed before the whole congregation’].  She taken it down on a paper.  And then I told her to read the [17th] Chapter of Acts and the 26th Verse [‘Hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth’].  And she taken that down. ”[1]

Hamer, in the midst of her suffering, refused to vilify or degrade.  Instead, she reached beyond her jail cell to enter relationship with those against her.  She did not seek reconciliation by ignoring conflict.  She did not manipulate her message for a false peace.  Rather, she strived to convert her opponents through respect and authenticity.  Fortified by belief in God’s love for her and the cause of civil rights, Hamer’s commitment to speaking truth to power transcended her own suffering. Hamer evangelized boldly by demanding that the U.S. live up to its national vocation of justice and equality. 

Hamer’s prophetic evangelization offers two challenges to U.S. Catholics this year, with MOWA, and beyond. First, Hamer is a witness to the necessity of openness and charitable dialogue in the struggle for racial justice.  Basic, simple, and humble conversation with those with whom we disagree can be overwhelming and intimidating, but it is necessary for cooperation and the pursuit of justice.  Second, Hamer’s witness challenges us in our own evangelical calling, to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth, with any who will listen, and with those who may persecute us for its cultural incongruity.  This facet of our faith means that our response to racism cannot be lukewarm:  complacence has no place before injustice. The great commission is, indeed, counter-cultural, especially where we might be tempted to remain silent out of fear of causing offense or facing retribution. The call to evangelization and conscientization, however, is central to our Christian identity.  We are called to fully commit ourselves to the cause of justice wherever human dignity is threatened. 



[1] Barbara Dianne Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 240.

Nichole M. Flores is instructor of moral theology and Saint Anselm College and a doctoral candidate in theological ethics at Boston College. She is Student Convener of the Latino/a Working Group of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE) and served as the Associate Member Representative to the Board of Directors for the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States (ACHTUS). She earned an A.B. in government from Smith College and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School.

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