The time is the summer of 1963, and a bus of freedom fighters travels from South Carolina to Mississippi. The thick and sticky heat from the southern sun makes the trip less than comfortable for the people on board, but their spirits are high. They are just coming back from a program on black voter registration and citizenship involvement. Though they have seen the hardship of the Jim Crow Era, segregation, restrictive poll requirements, and violent intimidation tactics, the civil rights activists are motivated to tackle the inequality of America. Their strength comes from their faith–a belief in the imago Dei, the idea that every human being has an innate value from God's design and a belief in Christ's kingdom, which cares for the marginalized and calls out the unjust. A voice rises up through the wind blowing in from the open windows. It is the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer, and she sings the gospel song, "This Little Light of Mine." The riders clap and hum to Fannie Lou's powerful vocals. Her God-given spirit of freedom and hope helps to carry them forward on their mission. But their mission is challenged when the freedom fighters stop for lunch and sit at a whites-only caf√© counter.
As a result of their seating choice, Fannie Lou and other activists are arrested and taken to jail. At the jail, the police officers relentlessly attack Fannie Lou's 5' 4'' black body. They beat her so severely that they damage her eye, legs, and kidney. Bloody and bruised, she sits in jail. She feels the weight of sin. The chains of racism and hatred tie her up, keeping her captive in a fallen world. During the night, having heard of the attack on Ms. Hamer, a jailer's wife and daughter secretly come to give her aid. She raises her head and through her swollen eye, looks at the white women. She weakly utters, "Y'all is nice. You must be Christian people." Her humor is biting. In truth and love, Fannie Lou points out their hypocrisy and public complicity to injustice, and she then preaches to them. She recites Proverbs 26:26 and Acts 17:26, Scriptures that bring light to sin and declare unity among all of God's people. These Scriptures show the spiritual need for a Savior to expose the world's wickedness and the harmonizing resolution that only comes through His redemption. The women write the verses down but never return to the jail again.
Though history does not tell us of the impression she made on her visitors, Fannie Lou Hamer left an impression on church history as she joined the saints before her who, in chains, preached the truth of the gospel. Fannie Lou Hamer's story is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul's evangelism experience when he was imprisoned in Philippi.
In Acts 16, after Paul rebuked a demon out of a slave girl, her masters called for the arrest of Paul and his friend, Silas. The masters had taken advantage of the girl's torment for their own profit. So, when Paul cast out the demon, the masters thought Paul had disturbed their status quo and wealth. By the Spirit of God, Paul was tearing down the kingdoms of darkness and injustice and planting Christ's good and righteous kingdom. But, for his actions, he was beaten, chained, and thrown into prison. Though Paul and Silas faced such suffering, they continued to praise God–singing praises and praying behind the metal bars until suddenly, an earthquake broke down these bars. God had opened the prison doors and loosed their chains. They now stood face to face with the jailer who was overcome with fear and shame. But, Paul met his guilt with the gospel. The jailer knew they were men of God and asked for the way to salvation. Paul and Silas said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household" (Acts 16:31). They continued to preach in the jailer's home and baptized every member. The jailer aided Paul's wounds, and they, who were once enemies, worshiped and had fellowship together as children of God.
Though bound by the oppression of this fallen world, Fannie Lou Hamer and Paul continued to praise God and preach the good news. They demonstrated that true freedom comes from the liberating message of the gospel. The truth of Jesus's saving work and the redemption He accomplished gave them an unshakeable joy. In Philippians 1:12-14, Paul writes:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually advanced the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is because I am in Christ. Most of the brothers have gained confidence in the Lord from my imprisonment and dare even more to speak the word fearlessly. (CSB)
Paul knew God had used these terrible circumstances for His glory. God strengthened Fannie Lou Hamer and Paul to proclaim His Word, even in the direst of circumstances.
As a result, Fannie Lou and Paul stood with their Savior, Jesus Christ, who was beaten and unjustly imprisoned for their sin. He took the blows from the punishment they deserved and died to reconcile them to God the Father. In gratitude, Fannie Lou and Paul dedicated their lives to engaging in Christ's redemptive work. Their stories encourage us to preach the gospel in any circumstance to resist the kingdom of darkness. Knowing that when we care for the oppressed, we also show our love for Jesus (Matthew 25:35-40), we can visit, pray, or write to those who have been unjustly imprisoned. And, we can proclaim the good news to those who are truly imprisoned by sin and give them a message of hope to set them free.