Hamer, Fannie Lou 1917–1977
Fannie Lou Hamer 1917–1977
Civil rights activist, public speaker
Fannie Lou Hamer spent most of her life in rural southern poverty, entering politics late in life out of anger and a passionate desire to change a racist system. She is probably best known for her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the group that was at the forefront of the American voter registration drives of the 1960s. Hamer captured national attention as a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which eventually succeeded in electing many blacks to national office in Mississippi. She was also deeply committed to grass-roots antipoverty projects in her own community, Ruleville, Mississippi. As Henry Kirksey, one of Mississippi’s first black senators, told Hamer’s biographer Kay Mills, “If Fannie Lou Hamer had had the same opportunities that Martin Luther King had, then we would have had a female Martin Luther King.”
Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, in 1917, the youngest of 20 children. Her parents, Jim and Lou Ella Townsend, were sharecroppers who fed their whole family on $1.25 a day. Hamer began working in the fields at age six when the plantation owner promised her goods from the commissary store. At that time, it was common for bosses to lure workers into debt in that way. Hamer later told Scott O’Dell of Freedomways journal, “He was trapping me.… I never did get out of his debt again.”
By the time Fannie Lou was 12, the Townsends had saved up enough to rent some land and buy a tractor of their own. A white neighbor, resenting their small success, poisoned their cattle. The family was then worse off than before. Hamer later recalled in her interview with O’Dell, “Things got so tough I began to wish I was white.” According to Mills in her biography This Little Light of Mine, Hamer’s mother scolded her: “Don’t ever, ever say that.…You respect yourself as a little black child. And as you grow older, respect yourself as a black woman. Then one day, other people will respect you.” Her mother taught her to be proud of who she was, and the hardship of the sharecropping life taught her to be angry. Hamer told O’Dell that as things got worse for her and her family, she vowed to “do something for the black man of the South if it would cost my life.”
Fannie Lou dropped out of school in the sixth grade, but she continued her education through Bible study with the
At a Glance…
Born Fannie Lou Townsend, October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, MS; died of heart failure (as a result of cancer, diabetes, and hypertension), March 14, 1977, in Mound Bayou, MS; daughter of Jim and Lou Ella Townsend (sharecroppers); married Perry “Pap” Hamer (a tractor driver and sharecropper), 1944; children (adopted): Dorothy Jean, Virgie Ree, Lenora, Jacqueline. Religion: Baptist.
Plantation worker in Mississippi, beginning 1923; left school to work full time, 1929; plantation timekeeper, 1944-62; voter registration field worker for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), 1962; Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, founding member, became vice-chairperson and party spokesperson at Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, 1964; ran for Congress in Democratic primary, 1964; appeared with Malcolm X at rallies in Harlem, 1964; traveled to Guinea with other SNCC workers, 1964; led cotton pickers’ resistance movement, 1965; Democratic National Committee representative, 1968-71; created Pig Bank with National Council of Negro Women, 1968; founded Freedom Farm Cooperative, 1969; founding member, National Women’s Political Caucus, 1971; ran for Mississippi State Senate, 1971; delegate to the Democratic National Convention, 1972.
Selected awards: Resolution praising Hamer’s national and statewide political contributions passed by Mississippi House of Representatives, 116-0, 1972; award from Congressional Black Caucus, 1976; named a leader for change in Mississippi by University of Mississippi School of Journalism; inducted into National Women’s Hall of Fame, October 1993; recipient of several honorary degrees.
Stranger’s Home Baptist Church. Her Christian faith was a source of strength for her throughout her life. Mills cited Hamer as saying that “Christ was a revolutionary person.” Her political speeches made eloquent use of scriptural language—to her own radical purposes. She told O’Dell: ‘“The land of the free and the home of the brave’ is all on paper. It doesn’t mean anything to [black Americans]. The only way we can make this thing a reality in America is to…destroy this system and bring this thing to light that has been under the cover all these years.… I believe in Christianity because the Scriptures said ‘The things that have been done in the dark will be known on the house tops.’”
She became known in the civil rights movement as a captivating preacher and singer. Everywhere she went, the sound of her voice gave people hope and made them want to join her in song; she would lead busloads of activists—black and white—in fervent spirituals like “This Little Light of Mine.” Mills quoted former White House aide Liz Carpenter, who worked with Hamer on the founding of the National Women’s Political Caucus, as saying that Hamer “made [evangelist] Billy Graham look like amateur night.”
Fannie Lou married Perry “Pap” Hamer in 1944, and the two settled on the Marlow plantation outside Ruleville, Mississippi. She found that, as a black worker, she was frequently treated as less than human. As documented by Mills, Hamer noted, “When I was cleaning the boss’s house…his daughter came up to me and said ‘You don’t have to clean this [room] too good.…It’s just Old Honey’s.’ Old Honey was the dog. I couldn’t get over the dog having a bathroom when the owner wouldn’t even have the toilet fixed for us. But then, Negroes in Mississippi [were] treated worse than dogs.”
Although Fannie Lou adopted four daughters, she always wanted children of her own. Tragically, this basic right was denied to her. Like many poor women of color worldwide, Fannie Lou Hamer was sterilized without her permission by a white doctor. The experience underscored the lack of control she felt she had over her own life.
In 1962 Hamer attended an SNCC meeting for the first time. They asked for volunteers to try to register to vote, and she agreed. According to biographer David Rubel, Hamer did not remember being frightened: “I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that ever since I could remember.” At that time, the threat of organized white racist violence, combined with strict and biased literacy requirements, combined to make voting impossible for most Mississippi blacks.
The first time Hamer tried to register, she failed, not knowing the answer to an obscure question about the Mississippi constitution. George Sewell of Encore American & Worldwide News recalled her joking about this: “I never knew that Mississippi had a constitution,” she laughed. On her second try, she failed the test again, but, according to Sewell, she told the county clerk, “You’ll see me every 30 days till I pass.”
Hamer was fired from the Marlow plantation for attempting to register to vote. She then started working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on voter registration. She saw voting as fundamental to bringing about change in America. In the Freedomways interview, she vowed: “I am determined to become a first-class citizen.… I am determined to get every Negro in the state of Mississippi registered.” Around the same time, she filed a lawsuit—Hamer v. Campbell —in an attempt to block elections in some Mississippi communities where black voters had not had the opportunity to register to vote.
In 1963 Fannie Lou Hamer attempted to register for the third time and finally passed the test. Several months later, she was arrested in Winona, Mississippi, and brutally beaten by two black prison inmates on orders from white police officers. Sewell quoted Hamer’s recollections of the horrifying event: “They just kept beatin’ me and telling me, ‘You nigger bitch, we’re gonna make you wish you were dead.’ When they finally quit they told me to go to my cell, but I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t bend my knees. Every day of my life I pay with the misery of that beatin’.” The U.S. Justice Department later filed charges against the Winona officials, but the men were acquitted by an all-white jury.
The SNCC organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 so that blacks in Mississippi would have an alternative to the regular Democratic party, which excluded them. In the 1964 Mississippi primary, the MFDP got more votes than the regular Democratic party; yet, at the convention in Atlantic City, the national party would not seat the MFDP’s delegates. Hamer spoke on behalf of the Freedom delegation and described her Winona beating before the entire convention, asking, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings?” When the Democratic Party offered to seat two of the MFDP delegates, Hamer said, as recounted by Rubel: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired.” If the challengers were not seated, she told a national television audience, “I question America.”
U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson refused to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party because he was afraid of losing his white southern support. The delegation was not seated. In the ensuing years, however, many MFDP candidates were elected to local and state offices. The MFDP, and Fannie Lou Hamer’s moving testimony, had won support all over the nation and was no doubt partly responsible for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it illegal to deny any adult U.S. citizen the right to vote and guaranteed federal protection of that right. The passage of this law was a major achievement for the civil rights movement.
The 1964 convention, and Hamer’s speech, was also important in helping the rest of the country realize that racism was a national concern. According to Sewell, Hamer told the convention, “This is not Mississippi’s problem. It is America’s problem.” Many northern white liberals were tempted to think of racist oppression as a southern problem, but, as Hamer later reminded a 1971 NAACP convention, the North was “no different. The man’ll shoot [you] in the face in Mississippi, and you turn around he’ll shoot you in the back here [in New York].”
That September, Hamer traveled to Guinea with other SNCC workers and activist/singer Harry Belafonte. She was greatly inspired, seeing a country where black people were in power, running both the government and the major financial institutions. The group met the president of Guinea, Sekou Touré, one of the few individuals who ever truly awed Fannie Lou Hamer. She had been taught all her life, she told O’Dell, that black Africans were “heathens, savages” and “downright stupid.… It would bring tears to your eyes to…think of the type of brainwashing the white man will use in America to keep us separated from our own people.” The trip to Africa gave her the courage to keep fighting for black access to power in the United States.
Throughout her life, in addition to her high-profile struggles in the national political arena, she organized grassroots initiatives in her own rural Mississippi community. She favored cooperatives—not-for-profit businesses owned and operated by their customers—because she believed this gave people a greater degree of control over their economic lives. It was also an effective way for people of little means to pool their resources and have more. In 1968, with the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), she created the Pig Bank, a livestock cooperative to help poor people in Mississippi get more meat in their diets. The next year she founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative, a project through which 5,000 people came to grow their own food and collectively own 680 acres of land.
In 1971 Fannie Lou Hamer helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus. She was, however, often politically at odds with white feminists, feeling that they did not always have an understanding of the oppression experienced by women of color. She was often blunt in her criticism of white women and eloquent about why they should fight for black liberation. Speaking to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Institute in 1971, she stated: “Sometimes I really feel sorrier for the white woman than I feel for ourselves because she been caught up in this thing, caught up in feeling special.… I been watching you, baby.…You had this kind of angel feeling that you were untouchable.…But [the white woman’s] freedom is shackled in chains to mine, and she realizes that she is not free until I am free.”
Hamer spent the last ten years of her life organizing for low-income housing, child day-care, economic development, and school desegregation. (In 1970 she filed a lawsuit, Hamer v. Sunflower County challenging the Mississippi county to properly desegregate schools.) She died on March 14, 1977, of complications resulting from cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. Guests at her funeral included U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, civil rights leader Ella Baker, and more friends and admirers than could fit into the small Ruleville church. Andrew Young spoke, and according to Kay Mills, remembered Hamer as the woman who “shook the foundations of this nation.” Her headstone bears words for which she was well known all her life: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Crawford, Vicki L., Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods, Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trail-blazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965, Carlson, 1990.
Lemer, Gerda, Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, Vintage Books, 1972, p. 611.
Meier, August, editor, Black Protest in the Sixties: Articles from the New York Times, Markus Wiener Publishing, Inc., 1991.
Mills, Kay, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, Dutton, 1993.
Rubel, David, Fannie Lou Hamer: From Sharecropping to Politics, Silver Burdett Press, 1990.
Encore American & Worldwide News, July 18, 1977, p. 3.
Facts on File, Facts on File, Inc., 1977.
Freedomways, Second Quarter, 1965, pp. 231-42.
Journalism Quarterly, Fall 1991, p. 515.
Nation, June 1, 1964, pp. 548-51.
The following interviews with Fannie Lou Hamer are available on audiotape: Black Oral History Interview, Fisk University Library, October 6, 1962; and Interview with Fannie Lou Hamer: Civil Rights Documentation Project, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, August 9, 1968.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer
For more than half of Fannie Lou Hamer's life, she was a rural agricultural worker who saw no end to the cycle of poverty and humiliation that was the plight of most southern African Americans. Fannie Lou, born October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, was the last of twenty children born to Jim and Ella Townsend. When she was two years old the family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi, where Fannie resided for the rest of her life. At age six she joined the other family members working as a sharecropper picking cotton. By the time she was 13 she could pick between two and three hundred pounds of cotton a day.
In spite of intensive labor the Townsends were always in need because sharecroppers had to give a portion of their crop, as well as repayment for seeds and supplies they had purchased on credit, to the owner of the land on which they toiled. One year, when their crop was especially bountiful, Jim Townsend, hoping that his family's economic status would permanently improve, rented a parcel of land with a house and purchased some animals and farm implements to boost the farm's productivity. The family's hopes for prosperity were dashed, however, when a jealous white neighbor poisoned the Townsend's animals.
The condition of African Americans in the South caused young Fannie to wonder why they had to suffer such hardship while working so hard. In spite of her circumstances Fannie was able to attend school for a few months each year until she reached the sixth grade. After her formal schooling ended, she continued to study and read the Bible under the direction of teachers at the Stranger's Home Baptist Church. Fannie's religious beliefs and training were dominant influences during her entire life. She regularly prayed that someday she would have the opportunity to do something to improve the condition of African Americans in Mississippi.
During the 1940s Fannie Lou married Perry "Pap" Hamer, who worked on the W.D. Marlow plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi. Fannie also worked for the Marlows, first as a sharecropper and then—after the owner learned that she was literate—as the timekeeper. In the evenings she cleaned the Marlow's home. The Hamers supplemented their income by making liquor and operating a small saloon. Unable to have children of their own, the Hamers adopted two girls, Dorothy Jean and Vergie Ree.
In 1962, when she was in her mid-forties, Hamer's life changed drastically. She was invited to attend a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "Snick") meeting at a church near her home. SNCC, an organization founded in 1960 by a group of young African Americans who used direct action such as sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience as a means of ending segregation in the South, encouraged its workers to travel throughout the South to win grassroots support from African Americans. When Hamer heard the SNCC presentation she was convinced that the powerlessness of African Americans was based to a degree on their complacency and fear of white reprisals. She decided that no matter what the cost, she should try to register to vote. Though her first attempts to pass the voter registration test were unsuccessful they nevertheless resulted in the loss of her job and threats of violence against her and those who attempted to register with her for trying to alter the status quo.
In 1963 Hamer became a registered voter and a SNCC field secretary. She worked with voter registration drives in various locales and helped develop programs to assist economically deprived African American families. She was regularly threatened and faced beatings, a bombing, and ridicule. Nevertheless, she was a founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), formed in April 1964 to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention. The MFDP sent 68 representatives in August 1964 to the Democratic National Committee meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Hamer was one of the representatives who testified before the party's Credentials Committee. In a televised presentation, Hamer talked about the formidable barriers that southern African Americans faced in their struggle for civil rights. She talked about the murders of civil rights activists such as Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
"If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America, " she said. "Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook, because our lives be threatened daily." Hamer discussed the abuse she had suffered in retaliation for attending a civil rights meeting. "They beat me and they beat me with the long, flat blackjack. I screamed to God in pain. … " As a compromise measure the Democratic Party leadership offered the MFDP delegation two seats, which they refused. Hamer said, "We didn't come for no two seats when all of us is tired." And no MFDP member was seated.
In 1965 Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine ran for Congress and challenged the seating of the regular Mississippi representatives before the U.S. House of Representatives. Though they were unsuccessful in their challenge, the 1965 elections were later overturned. Hamer continued to be politically active and from 1968 to 1971 was a member of the Democratic National Committee from Mississippi.
Hamer was also a catalyst in the development of various programs to aid the poor in her community, including the Delta Ministry, an extensive community development program, and the Freedom Farms Corporation in 1969, a non-profit operation designed to help needy families raise food and livestock, provide social services, encourage minority business opportunities, and offer educational assistance. In 1970 Hamer became chair of the board of Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center, an organization established by the National Council of Negro Women. She also served as a member of the boards of the Sunflower County Day Care and Family Services Center and Garment Manufacturing Plant. She became a member of the policy council of the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971, and from 1974 to 1977 was a member of the board of trustees of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Hamer underwent a radical mastectomy in 1976 and died of cancer March 14, 1977, in the Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Hospital.
There are several biographies of Hamer, including Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine:the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1993), and a children's book, Fannie Lou Hamer:From Sharecropping to Politics, by David Rubel with an introduction by Andrew Young (1990). Many histories of the civil rights movement in the South include information about Hamer. These include Vicki Crawford, Jacqueline Rouse, and Barbara Woods, Women in the Civil Rights Movement:Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 (1990); Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize:America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (1987); and various histories of SNCC and its leaders. A collection of Fannie Lou Hamer papers is available on microfilm from the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana. □