Fannie Lou Hamer

Aug 6th, 2010 | By | Category: Activism
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Fannie Lou Hamer 1917-1977  Fannie Lou Hamer became active in the Civil Rights movement when she was denied the right to register to vote in Indianola, Mississippi. This experience of overt discrimination inspired the 44-year-old Hamer to give up her family life and devote her remaining years to the fight for racial equality in the south, in which she played a significant and leading role.

A Sharecropper’s Right to Vote

Hamer was born on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi. Her parents were the descendants of slaves who made their living as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation. The sharecropper system became common in the south after the emancipation of slaves following the Civil War. This arrangement allowed recently freed slaves to work the land independently in return for a large portion of their harvest. Since the landowners often set the price on each crop, this agricultural system maintained a relationship between landowner and farmer that was remarkably similar to that of master and slave.

Hamer was the youngest of 20 children. Although her parents encouraged her to attend the local school, she was only able to reach the sixth grade before she dropped out to work on the plantation full-time. In 1944, she married Perry “Pap” Hamer. Soon after, they moved to Ruleville, Mississippi, where they continued as sharecroppers on the Marlow plantation.

In the 1950s, Blacks in the south were legally able to vote but were often too intimidated to do so. African Americans who participated in any kind of political action or organization risked losing their jobs and homes, and faced the physical dangers of beatings and lynchings. However, Hamer saw a glimmer of hope in the Civil Rights movement, and believed it was possible to improve conditions for herself and her family through political action.

On August 23, 1962, Hamer attended an event organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in her hometown. During the event, Reverend James Bevel, an activist and colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., asked for volunteers willing to register to vote. Despite the inherent dangers, Hamer was the first to volunteer. Later, she said of this decision, “The only thing they could do to me was to kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

On August 31, Hamer and 10 other members of her community rode to Indianola, Mississippi, in a rented bus. When they reached the courthouse, they were confronted with a deliberate ploy and asked to interpret the state constitution. All failed and were turned away without registering. By the time Hamer returned home, she had lost her job and received numerous death threats.

At this point, Hamer made a radical decision. Rather than give up her right to vote in order to preserve her life on the plantation with her husband and family, she chose to leave her home and join the SNCC as a full-time voting rights educator.

The Freedom Democratic Party

Almost a year after her first trip to Indianola, and following two subsequent attempts, Hamer finally became a registered voter in 1963. This accomplishment was soured later that year when on her way to an SNCC conference in South Carolina, the bus she was traveling on with other activists was stopped and the whole group was arrested. While in prison, Hamer was severely beaten by the local police. When she was finally freed by SNCC lawyers, she spent over a month recuperating from her injuries. Although the SNCC pressed charges against the officers involved, they were all eventually found not guilty.

The injustice of this experience had a profound affect on Hamer. She became even more determined to expose the dangers and discrimination that Blacks faced on an everyday basis. In 1964, she was a founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to challenge the all-white, anti-civil rights delegation representing Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention that year. Hamer was elected Vice-Chairman of the group and spoke in front of the Credentials Committee at the Convention.

In her speech, Hamer recounted the difficulties she had faced attempting to vote in Mississippi. She also described the traumatic experience of being beaten in prison. She concluded by asking, “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?” Hamer’s emotional words were televised, and put a national spotlight on racial inequality in Mississippi. As a direct result, the Mississippi Democratic Party agreed to include an equal number of black delegates at the next Democratic Convention in 1968.

After this momentous victory, Hamer continued to work for the Freedom Democratic Party, and was active in other civil rights organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. Hamer believed deeply that the Civil Rights movement was a spiritual cause as well as a political one. At meetings, rallies, and conferences, Hamer would often lead the crowd in stirring renditions of spirituals such as “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “This Little Light of Mine.” She eventually became known throughout the south as “the lady who sings the hymns.”

Fannie Lou Hamer died of breast cancer at age 59. Her funeral was attended by many Civil Rights leaders and fellow activists. She is buried in Ruleville, Mississippi, where her epitaph reads: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” This famous quote epitomizes Hamer’s personal and straightforward approach to activism: through her own struggle, she inspired others to risk everything for the right to have their voices heard.


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