Billie Jean Young, a graduate of Samford University’s Cumberland Law School, remembers meeting the great Fannie Lou Hamer in 1971 at Tuskegee University.
The meeting was eight years before Young entered law school.
“[Hamer] was speaking in Tuskegee University and I had never heard anybody speak the way she spoke,” Young recalled. “She spoke without fear, but that wasn’t the most noteworthy thing to me. It was that she called the names of powerful people who were oppressing her without any hesitation whatsoever.”
Hamer was a voting rights activist, women’s rights activist, community organizer, and a leader in the civil rights movement. She also served as the vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Hamer had a large part in organizing Mississippi’s Freedom Summer along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was also a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization created to recruit, train, and support women of all races who wish to seek election to government offices.
Young, a Samford alumna, will present her one-woman show, “Fannie Lou Hamer: This Little Light” on Feb. 13. Young was in the first class of African-American students to graduate from Judson College in Marion, Alabama. She currently serves on its faculty where she teaches drama. She has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Fellow Genius Award for her community development leadership. This free event is at 6 p.m. in Brock Recital Hall on the Samford campus.
Samford is commemorating the 50th anniversary of integration during the 2017-18 academic year with a series of special events and recognitions. The commemoration kicked off during last fall’s homecoming weekend and continues through the spring semester.
“I’m very excited to be coming back to my alma mater to be performing, to have been invited back,” said Young, who graduated from Samford in 1979. Hamer died while she was in law school.
Young said she wasn’t able to attend Hamer’s funeral, but felt she owed her something.
“What I have been able to do for 35 years is carry her story, to lift her up to what is now over 800 performances,” she said.
Young said she wants to preserve Hamer’s “truth.”
“I didn’t want people to dress her up as this educated woman who was soft spoken,” she said. “I wanted her to be the hell-raiser she was and tell the truth.”
Samford’s 50th commemoration is important for a number of reasons, Young said.
“In Selma, AL, where I lived before I came to the law school, we commemorated 50 years of the Voter Rights Act, and all of those [commemorations] happened two years ago, three years ago. All of those things were jumping off at the same time, 1965 up to ‘68, ‘69. It was a time of change.”
“The 70s was an important part in our lives, those who were part of the civil rights movement . . . and Hamer’s life shows that that change can happen, and it happened in her life time,” Young said. “She and others like her are the reason that we have so many of the privileges that we have today.”
Young was one of the first black women at Judson College, the institute she attended before going to Samford.
“I entered college at Judson College, then Selma University,” she said. “At Judson I was integrating, along with two other black women. We were in the very first class to graduate blacks in 1974. It’s a time for us to appreciate what people like Fannie Lou Hamer went through, the people who stood up and were brave and willing to suffer for us to have these rights.”
Attending law school was big for her, Young said.
“I went to law school with $100 in my pocket,” she said. “I went and registered, and then went to the dean . . . he knew my story and I received a full scholarship for my tuition. It was the biggest win of my life at that time, it was phenomenal.”
As for the time she met Hamer, Young remembers speaking to Hamer afterwards.
“I asked her why she chose to this work,” Young said. “She said, ‘Baby I didn’t choose, I was chosen.’ And I was enticed by that.”