In 1969 Billie Jean Young heard Fannie Lou Hamer give a talk in Tuskegee, Alabama. Ever since, Young has dedicated her talents to continuing the ideals of Hamer through writing, acting, and activism among the rural, often poor women she represented.
Born on 21 July 1947, Young grew up in a sharecropping family in Choctaw County, Alabama. An impressive and energetic student, she became the first African American to graduate from Judson College in Alabama before earning a law degree from Samford University in 1979.
In 1981 she moved to Mississippi, in part to take up the mission of Hamer, who had died four years earlier. Young helped start the Southern Rural Women’s Network and the Rural Development Leadership Network, both of which sought to give rural women better access to health care and education and more power over their economic lives. Young served as chair and head of the board of the Rural Development Leadership Network from 1983 to 1996.
Young is best known in Mississippi and beyond for the play Fannie Lou Hamer: This Little Light, a one-person play that Young wrote and first performed in 1983 at Tougaloo College. She has subsequently performed the drama with music more than eight hundred times, traveling all over the world to tell the story of Hamer’s life. The play includes monologues from her own words and such civil rights anthems as “Ain’t Gonna Let No One Turn Me Round,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Precious Lord.” Young has also created several other plays, including two about Alabama civil rights martyrs, JimmyLee (2009) and Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep: The Margaret Ann Knott Legacy (2007).
Young’s poems, many of which were published in Fear Not the Fall (2003), combine personal stories about life as a rural African American woman with broader stories about the African American diaspora and some overtly political poems about war and government policy. “Mama Rubboard Hands” is a tribute to her mother, and her longest poem, “Five Decades of Living,” offers a consideration of what her experiences have taught her.
In the 1990s Young taught at Jackson State University and at the Meridian campus of Mississippi State University. Her work as a unique combination of poet, actress, and activist has earned her many awards, among them a 1984 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” In 1995 she received the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Artistic Achievement. She moved back to her hometown of Pennington, Alabama, the following year and now serves as artist in residence and associate professor of fine and performing arts at Judson College.
- New South Books website, www.newsouthbooks.com
- Tavis Smiley, “Interview: Billie Jean Young Discusses Fanny [sic] Lou Hamer,” The Tavis Smiley Show
- Billie Jean Young, Fear Not the Fall: Poems and a Two-Act Drama (2003)
- Billie Jean Young website, www.billiejeanyoung.org