Hamer, Fannie Lou
Hamer, Fannie Lou 1917–1977
Fannie Lou Hamer was born Fannie Lou Townsend on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was the youngest of twenty children born to sharecroppers Jim and Lou Ella Townsend. At the age of six she began working in the cotton fields of Sunflower County and by age twelve she had dropped out of school. She married Perry “Pap” Hamer in 1944, and the couple settled in Ruleville, Mississippi, to work as sharecroppers.
Hamer did not know that blacks could vote until 1962 when, at age forty-four, she attended a mass meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She volunteered, along with seventeen others, to attempt to register to vote. She failed the required literacy test, however, and when she returned home she learned that she had also lost the job she had held for eighteen years because of her attempt to register. Thus began a public life dedicated to having America fulfill its democratic promises to all citizens. She became a political, social, and economic activist.
In 1964 Hamer helped to organize the events of Freedom Summer, out of which emerged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to which she was selected as vice chairman. As a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, she challenged the seating of the all-white party delegation (the “Regulars’’). Hamer became a national figure when she provided testimony during televised hearings before the Credentials Committee. She spoke of atrocities faced by blacks in Mississippi when attempting to register and vote and of being severely beaten after she was arrested in Winona, Mississippi, for attending a civil rights meeting. She stated, “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 hook because our lives be threatened daily?’’(Mills 1993, p. 121). As a compromise, the MFDP was offered two seats, which Hamer rejected, stating, “We didn’ t come all this way for no two seats ‘cause all of us is tired” (Mills 1993, p. 5). The MFDP did not win its political challenge, but this effort paved the way for future delegations to Democratic conventions to be integrated.
In 1968 the Loyalists Democrats of Mississippi, a biracial outgrowth of the MFDP, ousted the Regulars at the Chicago Democratic Convention. Hamer was selected as a delegate, but she argued that the party had lost touch with poor people. In the lawsuit Hamer v. Campbell, Hamer sought to block elections in Sunflower County on the grounds that blacks had not had an opportunity to register. A federal appeals court overturned a district court decision against her, and new elections were ordered. Hamer also helped organize the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
Hamer dedicated her life to helping the poor, children and working people. In 1963 she formed Delta Ministry, a community development program. In 1968, she founded Freedom Farms Cooperative, a nonprofit venture designed to help poor farming families. The cooperative purchased forty acres of land and, with help from the National Council of Negro Women, created a pig bank so families could support themselves. (A pig bank loaned adult pigs to local families who would breed them, keep the piglets, and return the mama pig for other families to use.) She also supported efforts of striking members of the Mississippi Farm Labor Union and spoke at rallies to save Head Start programs. A life dedicated to serving others ended March 14, 1977, when Fannie Lou Hamer died of heart failure in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
Hamer, Fannie Lou. 1967. To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography. Jackson, MI: KIPCO.
Locke, Mamie E. 1990. “Is This America? Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.” In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941–1965, edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Mills, Kay. 1993. This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. New York: Dutton Books.
Reagon, Bernice Johnson. 1990. “Women as Culture Carriers in the Civil Rights Movement.” In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941–1965, edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Williams, Juan. 1987. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1964. New York: Viking-Penguin Press.
Mamie E. Locke
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