The (Re)Presentation of Fannie Lou Hamer: Race, Gender and Celebrity in the Civil Rights Movement

Stephen Robinson (York St. John University)
6 June 2016

In this talk Stephen Robinson explores the ways in which one might think about the understudied role of the media during the civil rights movement, commenting upon the perspectives of scholars within this particular field and concepts met through his own research and his own previous works. This discussion is led by a central focus on the celebrity status of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hammer, who came to prominence in the 1960s primarily due to her testimony at the televised 1964 Democratic National convention and her role in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).  With this central focus Robinson explores the nexus of media representation, gender and the meaning of the civil rights movement against the background of the 1960s, a decade which can be viewed as having cultivated the beginnings of the modern media as we know it today.

Using a narrative of Hamer’s life from her disadvantaged beginnings to her emergence as a key leader in the civil rights movement during the 1960s, Robinson considers the construction involved by the media of such a narrative, highlighting the openness and distinct important silences evident in the media during the civil rights movement. A discussion of the notion of celebrity and its links to the role of the media allows for a broad understanding of the past and present use and creation of the American celebrity. Robinson then describes the partnership between the audience and the media, clarifying its influence on the role of the media in the civil rights movement. The diversity of the media representation of Hammer in the movement is also touched upon, presenting her celebrity’s interactions with various subjects such as the legacy of Jim Crow and the role of women in the movement. Robinson concludes by talking about the distinctive elements that create and contribute to an overall understanding of the role of the media in the civil rights movement, stressing the dominant themes in media representation in the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement itself.

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