In August 2022, Diana Solomon-Glover traveled to Ruleville, Miss., population 2,600, the hometown of civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977).
“You go to this tiny town — this little postage stamp of a place — where, if you didn’t know, there’s nothing to tell you that something monumental happened there, that this place produced such a hero,” says Solomon-Glover.
A classical singer and writer, Solomon-Glover ’79 spent the past five years writing and workshopping the libretto for a one-act opera about Hamer’s life. This Little Light of Mine will premiere at the Santa Fe Opera on Oct. 28, 2022, for three nights only.
After writing the dramatic scenes, heartfelt dialogue and lyrics for the opera, she felt called to visit the place where Hamer’s activism began. There, in Ruleville, she met Jacqueline “Cookie” Hamer Flakes, Hamer’s last living child.
“In many ways, I feel like Fannie Lou Hamer’s daughter, [too]. I feel like a daughter of the movement,” Solomon-Glover says. “The social reckoning that began in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd — it’s not complete. I think we all felt a little rudderless, a little motherless then. So to be engaging with one of the mothers of the civil rights movement was reassuring.
“I wanted the ground on which she walked to be under my feet, to breathe the air and feel that Mississippi heat.”
Together, Solomon-Glover and Flakes visited the lot where Hamer’s house once stood. They saw the church where Hamer first learned, at age 44, that she had the right to vote. They drove to Sunflower County Courthouse, where Hamer and her fellow activists had tried to register to vote and were denied. (When she and her fellow activists rode their bus back to Ruleville, they were stopped by police and fined because their bus was “too yellow.”) And they stood at the site of the Winona, Miss., jail where Hamer and her travel companions were brutally beaten after police arrested them for trying to eat at a whites-only lunch counter — events that Solomon-Glover recounts in her libretto.
“It was validating [to be there],” she says, “because the words I have written in this opera ring true.”
For Solomon-Glover, who studied radio/TV/film at Northwestern and has performed in operas and musical theater for decades — and whose mother was an opera singer, as well — music has been a powerful tool for resistance, togetherness and joy.
“Music is not cerebral,” she says. “It is experiential. I remember watching the civil rights demonstrations unfold on TV as a young kid [in St. Louis] in the ’60s, watching people have hoses and dogs turned on them,” she says. “I wondered, ‘What gave them the courage to do this?’
“And one of the things I realized later in life is that music — group singing — was an integral part of the movement. Preaching, yes, but [when] I saw [protesters] singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ — that experience of singing together transformed the fear into fortitude.”
Hamer herself was known to incorporate song into her protest, particularly “This Little Light of Mine,” the opera’s namesake, which Hamer began to sing on the yellow bus to steady her fellow passengers’ nerves.
When the opera premieres, Flakes will be in the audience, watching her mother’s life memorialized onstage. “Cookie so evokes Mrs. Hamer’s spirit that sitting with her in the audience is like sitting right next to Mrs. Hamer,” says Solomon-Glover. “For a brief moment, I get to be part of Mrs. Hamer’s legacy. For a brief moment, I am a witness to her experience.”
Solomon-Glover hopes to see This Little Light of Mine performed by historically Black colleges and universities and other opera ensembles in the future, and hopes that more people from marginalized groups will see opera as an art form that can convey stories that are socially relevant to them. Meanwhile, she’s at work on the libretto for The Boy From Troy, an “operatorio” about another legendary civil rights activist: the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
Accessibility is key to inviting more people to experience this art form, says Solomon-Glover, who is also a board member of Voices of Ascension, an organization that aims to make choral singing an accessible experience for all.
“There are some civil rights songs in [This Little Light of Mine], where, hopefully,” she says, “audiences will feel moved to sing along.”
Diana Babineau is a writer and editor in the Office of Global Marketing and Communications.