Fannie Lou Hamer (/ˈheɪmər/; born Fannie Lou Townsend; October 6, 1917 – March 14, 1977) was an American voting rights activist, a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, and philanthropist who worked primarily in Mississippi. She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi's Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was the vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
|Fannie Lou Hamer|
Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964
|Born||Fannie Lou Townsend
October 6, 1917
Montgomery County, Mississippi
|Died||March 14, 1977 (aged 59)
Mound Bayou, Mississippi
|Burial place||Ruleville, Mississippi|
|Known for||Civil rights activist; vice-chair of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party|
Hamer was born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, to Ella and James Lee Townsend, and was the youngest of 20 children. Her family moved to Sunflower County in 1919 to work as sharecroppers on W. D. Marlow's plantation. Starting at the age of six, Hamer picked cotton with her family. She attended school in a one-room schoolhouse on the plantation, from 1924 to 1930, at which time she had to drop out to help support her family. By the age of 13, Hamer could pick 200 to 300 pounds of cotton daily.
In 1944, after the plantation owner discovered that she was literate, Hamer was selected as the plantation's time and record keeper. In 1945 she married Perry "Pap" Hamer. They worked together on the Marlow plantation for the next 18 years. The Hamers later raised two impoverished girls, whom they decided to adopt.
During the 1950s, Hamer attended several annual conferences of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The RCNL, a combination civil rights and self-help organization, was led by Dr. T. R. M. Howard, a civil rights leader and wealthy black entrepreneur. The annual RCNL conferences featured panels on voting rights and other civil rights issues, as well as entertainers such as Mahalia Jackson, and speakers such as Thurgood Marshall and Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan.
While having surgery in 1961 to remove a tumor, Hamer (at the age of 47) was also given a hysterectomy without her consent by a white doctor; this was part of the state of Mississippi's plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. Hamer is credited with coining the phrase "Mississippi appendectomy" as a euphemism for the involuntary or uninformed sterilization of black women, common in the South in the 1960s.
On August 23, 1962, Rev. James Bevel, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a sermon in Ruleville, Mississippi. He followed it with an appeal to those assembled to register to vote. Since 1890, most blacks had been disenfranchised in Mississippi by a constitution and laws that raised barriers to voter registration, such as a poll tax, and literacy and comprehension tests assessed by white registrars. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, black people who tried to register to vote in this and other southern states faced serious hardships due to institutionalized racism, including harassment, loss of their jobs, and physical attacks and death. Hamer was the first volunteer to respond to Bevel's call.
She later said,
I guess if I'd had any sense, I'd have been a little scared — but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.
On August 31, 1962, Hamer traveled on a rented bus with other Bevel volunteers to Indianola, Mississippi, to register. In what would become a signature trait of Hamer as an activist, she began singing African-American spirituals, such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "This Little Light of Mine", to the group in order to bolster their resolve. Singing the spirituals also reflected Hamer's belief that the civil rights struggle was a deeply Christian one. That same day, after Hamer returned to the plantation, she was fired by the owner Marlow; he had warned her against trying to register to vote.
Her courage and leadership in Indianola came to the attention of SNCC organizer Bob Moses. He dispatched Charles McLaurin from SNCC to find "the lady who sings the hymns". McLaurin found and recruited Hamer, and though she remained based in Mississippi, she began traveling around the South doing activist work for the organization.
On June 9, 1963, Hamer was on her way back from Charleston, South Carolina, with other activists from a literacy workshop. Stopping in Winona, Mississippi, the group was arrested on a false charge and jailed. Once in jail, Hamer's colleagues were beaten by the police in the booking room. Hamer was then taken to a cell where two inmates were ordered, by the police, to beat her using a blackjack. The police ensured she was held down during the almost fatal beating, and when she started to scream, beat her further.
Released on June 12, Hamer needed more than a month to recover. Though the incident had profound physical and psychological effects, Hamer returned to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives, including the "Freedom Ballot Campaign", a mock election, in 1963, and the "Freedom Summer" initiative in 1964. She was known to the volunteers of Freedom Summer — most of whom were young, white, and from northern states — as a motherly figure who believed that the civil rights effort should be multi-racial in nature. In addition to her "Northern" guests, Hamer played host to Tuskegee University student activists Sammy Younge Jr. and Wendell Paris. Younge and Paris grew to become profound activists and organizers under Hamer's tutelage. (Younge ultimately gave his life for the movement in 1966, when he was murdered at a Standard Oil gas station in Macon County, Alabama, for using a "whites-only" restroom.)
In the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or "Freedom Democrats" for short, was organized with the purpose of challenging the state's all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Hamer was elected Vice-Chair.
The Freedom Democrats' efforts drew national attention to the plight of blacks in Mississippi, and represented a challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for reelection; their success would mean that other Southern delegations, who were already leaning toward Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, would publicly break from the convention's decision to nominate Johnson — meaning in turn that he would almost certainly lose those states' electoral votes. Hamer, singing her signature hymns, drew a great deal of attention from the media, enraging Johnson, who referred to her in speaking to his advisors as "that illiterate woman".
Hamer was invited, along with the rest of the MFDP officers, to address the Convention's Credentials Committee. She recounted the problems she had encountered in registration, and the ordeal of the jail in Winona. Near tears, she concluded:
All of this is on account we want to register [sic], to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings — in America?
In Washington, D.C., President Johnson, fearful of the power of Hamer's testimony on live television, called an emergency press conference in an effort to divert press coverage. The television networks switched to the White House from their coverage of Hamer's address, believing that the president would announce his vice-presidential candidate for the forthcoming November election. Instead, to the bemusement of journalists, he arbitrarily announced the nine-month anniversary of the shooting of Texas governor, John Connally, during the assassination of John F. Kennedy. However, many television networks ran Hamer's speech unedited on their late news programs. The Credentials Committee received thousands of calls and letters in support of the Freedom Democrats.
Johnson then dispatched several trusted Democratic Party operatives to attempt to negotiate with the Freedom Democrats, including Senator Hubert Humphrey (who was campaigning for the Vice-Presidential nomination), Walter Mondale, and Walter Reuther, as well as J. Edgar Hoover. They suggested a compromise which would give the MFDP two non-voting seats in exchange for other concessions, and secured the endorsement of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the plan. But when Humphrey outlined the plan, saying that his position on the ticket was at stake, Hamer, invoking her Christian beliefs, sharply rebuked him:
Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand black people's lives? Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Now if you lose this job of Vice-President because you do what is right, because you help the MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take [the nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I'm going to pray to Jesus for you.
Future negotiations were conducted without Hamer, and the compromise was modified such that the Convention would select the two delegates to be seated "at-large", with no voting rights. The MFDP rejected the compromise, with Hamer making the famous quote: "We didn't come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here. We didn't come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired."
In 1968 the MFDP was finally seated, after the Democratic Party adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation from their states' delegations. In 1972, Hamer was elected as a national party delegate.
In 1964 and 1965 Hamer ran for Congress, but lost. She continued to work on other projects, including grassroots-level Head Start programs, the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign.
Hamer sought equality across all aspects of society and was involved with the founding and operation of the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969, which she operated with three main objectives in mind. These were to establish an agricultural organization that would have the capacity to supplement the nutritional needs of the America's most disenfranchised peoples; to provide acceptable housing development; and to create an entrepreneurial clearinghouse—a small business incubator that would provide resources for new business owners and a re-training for those with limited educational skills but with manual labor experience.
According to Hamer, African-Americans were not technically free if they were not afforded the same opportunities as Whites, and that included those in the agricultural industry. Sharecropping was the most common form of post-slavery activity and income in the South. The New Deal era expanded so that many Blacks were physically and economically displaced due to the various projects appearing around the country. Hamer did not wish to have Blacks be dependent on any other group for any longer; so, she wanted to give them a voice through an agricultural movement.
James Eastland, a Southern White senator, was among the groups of people who sought to keep African-Americans disenfranchised and segregated from society. He, along with others, believed that everyone had a position in society; those positions often left Blacks at the bottom of the barrel. His influence on the overarching agricultural industry often suppressed minority groups to keep Whites as the only power force in America. Hamer was not happy with this motive so she pioneered the Freedom Farm, an attempt to redistribute economic power across groups and to solidify an economic standing amongst African-Americans.
Through her main tactic of using Christian love to foster change, Fannie Lou often referenced the Book of Acts in the Bible to describe her motives: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute their possessions to all, as any had need (2:44-45).” Her dream was for there to be no division among peoples and for the Black lower class to be able to stand on their own.
Hamer made it her mission to make land more accessible to African-Americans. In order to do this, Hamer started a small “pig bank" with a starting donation from the National Council of Negro Women of five boars and fifty gilts. Through the pig bank, a family could care for a pregnant female pig until it bore its offspring; subsequently, they would raise the piglets and use them for food and financial gain. Within five years, thousands of pigs were available for breeding. Hamer used the success of the pig bank to begin fundraising for the main farming corporation. She was able to convince the then-editor of the Harvard Crimson, James Fallows, to write an article that advocated for donations to the Freedom Farm.
Eventually, the Freedom Farm Corporation (FFC) had raised around $8,000 which allowed Hamer to purchase 40 acres of land previously owned by a black farmer who could not afford to house the land any longer. This land became the Freedom Farm. Over time, The Freedom Farm Corporation offered various other services such as financial counseling, a scholarship fund and a housing agency. Offering employment also provided a step toward economic independence. The FFC aided in securing 35 FHA-subsidized houses for struggling Black families. Through her success, Hamer even helped herself get a new home that served as an inspiration for others to begin building themselves up. However, the Freedom Farm Cooperative ultimately disbanded in 1975 due to lack of funding.
Hamer died of complications of hypertension and breast cancer on March 14, 1977, aged 59, at Mound Bayou Community Hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. She was buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. Her tombstone is engraved with one of her famous quotes: "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Her primary memorial service, held at a church, was completely full. An overflow service was held at Ruleville Central High School, with over 1,500 people in attendance. Andrew Young, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations at that time, spoke at the RCHS service.
Welcome to the Fannie Lou Hamer Library. Our library branch, which is named for Mississippi Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, is located inside the Golden Key Senior Center.
|Booknotes interview with Kay Mills on This Little Light of Mine, February 28, 1993, C-SPAN|