Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)
Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi in 1917. Forty-seven years earlier, the 15th amendment had given African-Americans the right to vote. In 1920, three years after her birth, the 19th amendment granted suffrage to American women. Yet, because of oppressive social circumstances, it wasn’t until 1962, when she was 45, that Hamer learned that she had a right to vote as an American citizen. From that day, Hamer became a leader in the struggle for civil rights, social equality, and economic improvement for the African-American community.
Fannie Lou Townshend was born into poverty, the youngest of 20 children, to sharecroppers Lou Ella and Jim Townshend. She joined her family members in the cotton fields at age six and was forced to leave school at age 12 because she could no longer afford to attend.
In 1944, she married Perry Hamer, and the couple worked in the fields of Mississippi plantation owner B.D. Marlowe. Fannie also took on the responsibilities of house cleaner and plantation timekeeper because she was the only worker who could read and write. The couple toiled under terrible conditions for Marlowe until 1962, when tragedy, injustice, and courage led Fannie Lou down a new path.
In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer underwent surgery to remove a small uterine tumor. She discovered afterward that the surgeon had performed a hysterectomy without her consent. Enraged over this treatment, Hamer attended a meeting that summer to hear civil rights activists James Forman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The two men spoke out against those who denied southern African-Americans their legal right to vote. Hamer was inspired. When Bevel and Forman asked for volunteers to register to vote at the Indianola (Mississippi) Courthouse, Hamer was one of 18 to jump at the opportunity.
These courageous 18 men and women marched into the courthouse but were refused the right to register when they failed an unreasonable literacy test. On their way home, the group’s bus was stopped by the police and fined $100 for the “crime” of driving a bus of the “wrong color.” That night, Hamer was forced off the Marlow plantation because she had attempted to register to vote (her husband was required to stay until the harvest), and was shot at 17 times upon being discovered in hiding.
In the fall of 1962, Robert Moses of SNCC invited Hamer to a convention at Fisk University, thus launching her career as a leader of the civil rights movement. In 1963, she again tried to register to vote, this time succeeding. In June of the same year, Hamer and several other black women were arrested for sitting in a “whites-only” bus station restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. That night, the group was brutally beaten at the jailhouse. Hamer suffered a blood clot in her eye, kidney damage, and permanent injury to her leg. After three days in jail she was released, immediately resuming her work as an activist with renewed commitment to the movement.
For the next several years, Fannie Lou Hamer worked to secure the social, economic, and political rights of the African-American community. In 1964, she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and spoke at the Democratic National Convention at which she called for mandatory integrated state delegations. In 1968, Hamer became a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.
At the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement, Hamer pioneered numerous political and humanitarian efforts. In 1964, she announced her candidacy for the Mississippi House of Representatives but was barred from the ballot. In response, the MFDP introduced Freedom Ballots that included all candidates, black and white. Though it was unofficial, Hamer won the Freedom Ballot. A year later, Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine became the first black women to stand in the U.S. Congress when they unsuccessfully protested the Mississippi House election of 1964.
In 1965, Hamer helped organize a strike of black cotton pickers. In 1969, she established a Farm Cooperative, “The Freedom Farm Cooperative of Sunflower County,” and a “pig bank” to provide free pigs for blacks to breed, raise, and slaughter. She also founded “Head Start in the Delta” and acquired federal funding for housing projects. In 1971, Hamer helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.In 1976, Hamer developed breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She continued her civil rights activism until her death at age 59 on March 14, 1977. Her tombstone reads, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
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- Photo credit: Library of Congress, 1964 Democratic National Convention