by Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
On a hot summer day in June 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer, an African-American sharecropper-turned-civil-rights-activist, was on her way back home from an civil rights training workshop. She and several other African-Americans colleagues made what was supposed to be a brief stop in their journey at the quiet little city of Winona, Mississippi. They had no idea that the stop would last for three days. Hamer, who had become known for her attempts to register black voters, had gained an negative reputation among many white supremacists living in the south. Before Fannie Lou and her colleagues could begin their journey back home, they were arrested on false charges, thrown in jail, and brutally beaten by the police. Hamer was hurt so badly that it left her with permanent kidney damage.
In spite of the horrors she endured that day, and the hardships that followed her for most of her life, Hamer spent the second half of her life fighting for basic civil rights. But for all she went through, all the intimidation and opposition, she never gave in to fear or despair. Instead, she became a leading voting rights advocate and worked for the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization which fought racial segregation and injustice in the South. In 1964, she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a political party that championed civil rights.
In the face of hostility, racism, and violence, Hamer remained strong in her belief that a free America meant freedom for all, and never lost sight of her goal: that all African-Americans be allowed to take part in the political process of electing leaders and have the same basic rights and freedoms of other Americans. “Nobody’s free,” she once said, “until everybody’s free.”
This is her story.
Fannie Lou (Townsend) Hamer was born on October 6th 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. Part of an enormously large family, she was the youngest of 20 children. Her parents, James and Ella Townsend, were sharecroppers – poor farmers who had no land of their own, who worked for other farmers for minimal pay. When Fannie Lou was just 2 years old, her family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi, where they worked on a cotton plantation. Hamer started working part-time with the family at the age of 6, and began attending a school on the plantation one year later, starting in 1924. However, with so many mouths to feed, and her family struggling to get by, she dropped out of school by the age of 13 to work full time.
It was hard labor, but Hamer was a strong worker and was said to be able to pick 200-300 pounds of cotton in a day. However, when the landowner discovered that she could read and write, Fannie Lou pulled her out of the field and made her the official time and record keeper. In 1944, she married her husband, Perry Hamer, and they moved to a plantation near Ruleville County, where they worked together as sharecroppers until 1962. During the 1950, Hamer attended a number of civil rights meetings, where she listened to prominent civil rights speakers like Thurgood Marshall give lectures on voting and other basic rights that the African-American community were still working toward.
Both Hamer and her husband wanted children, but during an operation in 1961to remove a tumor, the doctor gave her a hysterectomy without her consent, and she was never able to have children of her own. The unauthorized procedure was part of a state-wide initiative to reduce the number of poor blacks in the south. Deeply disturbed by this horrible violation, Hamer was further inspired to fight against racism and attend civil rights meetings. Finally, after years of back-breaking work and exploitation, Hamer decided to attend a protest meeting in 1962, and she was one of many African-Americans who decided to take action by registering to vote.
THE STRUGGLE BEGINS
Hamer was the first to volunteer to register. Though she and the others that joined her knew this act of defiance could be dangerous (many who tried were brutally assaulted and even killed), they were determined to try anyway. On August 31st, they rode a rented bus to Indianola, Mississippi, to register. Along the way, Hamer started singing Christian hymns to bolster the moral of the other voting rights advocates. This became a signature trademark of her character and her civil rights activism. As a devout Christian, she felt the civil rights movement was a spiritual, as well as political one.
When they arrived at Indianola, they were met by local and state law enforcement who tried to stop them. Hamer and the others with her, however, stood their ground, determined to register anyway. In the end, however, they were unsuccessful. Although Hamer could read and write, she and the others could not pass the infamous “literacy test,” specifically designed to keep black citizens from voting. Disillusioned, but not deterred, they left, hoping to figure out a new plan.
Unfortunately, further disappointment awaited Hamer. As soon as she returned to her plantation home, she was confronted by her boss, who had warned her against trying to register to vote – and he fired her immediately. As a result, Hamer lost her job and her home of nearly twenty years. True to her character, however, this only made her more determined than ever to get involved with the voting rights movement. “When they kicked me off the plantation, they set me free” she said. “It’s the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people.”
When Robert Moses, African-American civil rights activist and organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) heard about Hamer’s courage, as well as her loss, he sent someone to recruit “the singing lady” for his cause. Hamer accepted his offer, and became a field secretary for the SNCC, and spent the next decade working to register African-Americans for the vote and advocating for financial assistance programs for the poor.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
As part of her job, Hamer often traveled. In 1963, she was on her way home from a literacy workshop in Charleston, South Carolina, that she had attended with other activists. When they stopped in Winona, Mississippi they were arrested on trumped-up charges, taken to a local jail and beaten. Hamer, herself, was put into a cell where two inmates were ordered to beat her with a black jack, while she was held down by police. Every time she would scream for help, they hit her even harder. When she was finally released three days later, she needed more than a month to recover. The incident had a profound effect on her, both physically and psychologically. Amazingly, Hamer refused to cave in to fear, and she returned home to continue her efforts to organize voter registration drives, including the “Freedom Summer” initiative of 1964, a registration effort that consisted of mostly young, white volunteers from the north who were sympathetic to the cause.
The Freedom Summer movement, for which Hamer was acting vice-president, challenged the all-white, anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention for not representing all Mississippians. Hamer brought their civil rights struggle to the attention of the media across the country. Then President Lyndon Johnson, who was seeking reelection, was enraged by her actions, afraid it would cost him the election. And when Hamer was invited to speak publicly on national television, where she recounted her years of struggle and the beating she endured in Winona, Johnson called an emergency meeting to divert the coverage she was receiving. National networks, expecting an important announcement, switched over from Hamer to Johnson, but were stunned to hear nothing but an arbitrary acknowledgement about a recent anniversary of the assassination of a Texas governor. Fortunately, Johnson’s tactics made little difference; in the evening, most networks ran the full speech Hamer gave, and the committee that sponsored the televised speech received thousands of letters in support of Hamer and the civil rights cause.
Johnson then sent a number of Democratic Party delegates to negotiate with Hamer and the Freedom Democrats, but offered too many compromises, which the activists, including Hamer, rejected. When they were offered two seats at the party without “voting rights,” they declined to accept this also, and Hamer responded with one of her most famous quotes: “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.”
The fight for representation continued, and by 1968, the Freedom Democratic Party was finally seated at the National Democratic Party table. By 1972, Hamer had been elected as a national party delegate.
DEATH AND LEGACY
Throughout the late-60’s and into the 1970’s, Hamer continued to work on various social and civil rights projects. She even ran for congress, in 1964 and again in 1965, but failed to get elected. She worked on Martin Luther King’s “Poor People Campaign,” through which she helped poor families in her Mississippi community. She also set up organizations to help minorities start businesses and provide childcare and other services for families in need. And in 1971, she helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus, a national grassroots organization in the U.S. dedicated to recruiting, training, and supporting women who seek elected and appointed offices.
In 1976, Hamer was diagnosed with breast cancer, but never let her illness slow her down, even continuing her activism during her treatment phase. She also suffered from hypertension (high blood pressure), and was hospitalized in 1977 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, for treatment. Unfortunately, during her hospitalization the combination of diseases became too much for her to handle. After a life-time of struggling for equality, and months of fighting illness, she passed away that same year, at the age of 59. Her tombstone bears her most well-known quote: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Hundreds attended her funeral, including other civil rights activists, all to say farewell to one of the most tireless and persistent champions of civil rights and racial equality the south had ever seen. Andrew Young, a U.S. delegate to the U.N. said in his eulogy that “None of us would be where we are today had she not been here then.” He added: “The Civil Rights Movement had been made through the sweat and blood of activists like Hamer.” The services for Hamer were so large that they had to carry it over to the Ruleville Central High School in order to hold the additional 1,500 mourners that showed up.
Late in life, Hamer was given several honors and awards for her hard work and commitment to advancing civil rights, including the Honorary Degree for Doctor of Humanities from Tougaloo College and Shaw University, as well as honorary degrees from Columbia University and Howard University. Furthermore, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
In her struggles to right the social wrongs of her time and create a fair and more equal society, Fannie Lou Hamer became a national symbol for the African-American community. Despite a life-time of hardships and challenges, rebukes and physical violence, Hamer never relented in the face of discrimination and adversity. Her endless efforts to help the poor and needy, and advance the African-American community by fighting for the right to vote has earned her a honored seat at the table of civil rights history. And her challenge to the once all-white delegates in the National Democratic Party helped to alter the face of American politics forever.