“We have a job as Black women to support whatever is right and to bring in justice where we’ve had so much injustice.” – Fannie Lou Hamer
HERStory Matters: Civil and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was born on October 6, 1917.
Born Fannie Lou Townsend in rural Montgomery County, MS, she was the youngest of 20 children born to Jim and Ella Townsend, poor sharecroppers, who found it hard to provide proper food and clothing for their children. When she was six years old she joined her family in the fields picking cotton and dropped out of school by the time she was in the third grade.
When she was 16, she caught polio which made it hard for her to work in the fields. When Marlow (her boss) found out that Fannie Lou could read and write, he made her the time and record keeper for the plantation in addition to cooking and cleaning his house.
In 1945, at the age of 27, Fannie Lou married Perry “Pap” Hamer who was a tractor driver on the Marlow farm. They had no children of their own. Fannie Lou went to the hospital to find out why she could not conceive and was told she had a tumor. She wasn’t told that they performed a hysterectomy on her that day but was later told by the doctor that it was done out of kindness. Fannie Lou was outraged. As a result, the Hamers adopted 4 children, 2 girls and 2 boys who were all from very poor families.
On one fateful day, while walking by the Ruleville, Mississippi town center, Fannie Lou saw a sign posted by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and decided to investigate. She was 37 years old at the time and was ripe for expressing her outrage over the conditions she and other blacks were subjected to in this rural community. She joined the SNCC and worked as a field worker on the voter registration committee. The committee worked on preparing blacks to read and write so they could register to vote.
Seventeen people tried to register and were turned back one day. When Marlow was informed of the drive to register, he threatened Fannie Lou and her family with expulsion from the plantation on which they worked. She left that night and stayed with friends but it wasn’t long before her location was discovered and she and her friends were shot at that night by the KKK.
She strongly believed that blacks could change their conditions, both political and economic, if they could vote for the candidates who would best serve them. Fannie Lou studied with the Southern Free School along with other potential voters and passed the voter registration test on her third try.
In 1963, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was formed because no help from the Federal Government regarding the right to vote was apparently coming. The party registered
60,000 new black voters across the state of Mississippi. Delegates from the party were sent to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey where they challenged the seating of the Mississippi delegation.
Fannie Lou took the opportunity to describe to the convention, and to the world, the horrific way she was treated after they left the voter registration workshop in Charleston, South Carolina in June 1963. She said that on the way home, they were hungry and wanted to stop at a Trailways bus terminal in Winona, Mississippi for food. Fannie Lou decided to stay on the bus while the others went into the terminal. They were not served but were arrested. She was also arrested. She was taken out of her jail cell and taken to another cell and there, under the orders of a State Highway Patrol officer, was battered by two Negro prisoners with a police blackjack. The first prisoner beat her until he was exhausted. The law enforcement officer then ordered the second prisoner to beat her. It was three days before members of SNCC were allowed to take her to the hospital.
Fannie Lou told the convention that as a result of this beating, she suffered permanent kidney damage, a blood clot in the artery of her left eye, and a limp when she walked. Her riveting testimony to the convention, which was interrupted by a hastily called speech by President Johnson, informed the country about the treatment blacks were receiving at the hands of whites in the state of Mississippi and the rest of the south.
Fannie Lou’s involvement widened as she ran for Congress in the Mississippi state Democratic primary in 1964. She was unsuccessful in that run but she went on to appear at rallies and visit colleges and universities around the country to speak to students. She led the cotton pickers resistance movement in 1965 and was instrumental in helping to bring a Head Start program to her hometown of Ruleville, MS. Mrs. Hamer was also famous for her rich singing voice which she used often to soothe tensions and to fortify herself spiritually. She sang “This Little Light of Mine” and other spirituals to calm others during marches and critical events.
Fannie Lou was a Democratic National Committee Representative from 1968-1971. She ran for the Mississippi State Senate in 1971 and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972.
In 1972, a unanimous resolution praising Fannie Lou’s statewide and national contribution to civil rights was passed by the Mississippi House of Representatives. Other awards came her way as the courageous work she undertook was recognized. She received honorary PhDs from several universities including Howard University.
Fannie Lou Hamer died in the hospital at Mound Bayou, Mississippi on March 14, 1977, of heart problems, hypertension, and breast cancer.
Learn more about Fannie Lou Hamer through several books and recordings, available athttp://amzn.to/2dPfWWE. Watch a trailer for an upcoming documentary about her life, “Fannie Lou Hamer’s America,” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SzxJuCs_nU.