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Hamer, Fannie Lou (1917–1977)

Hamer, Fannie Lou (1917–1977)

African-American civil-rights activist whose challenges to racist codes in the Deep South hastened political reforms and the enfranchisement of black citizens during the 1960s. Name variations: Fannie Hamer. Born Fannie Lou Townsend on October 6, 1917, in central Mississippi, probably Montgomery County; moved to Sunflower County near the town of Ruleville at age two, where she remained; died on March 14, 1977, after suffering from breast cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, in Mound Bayou, Mississippi; daughter and 20th child of Jim and Ella Townsend (cotton sharecroppers); formal education limited to completion of sixth grade, due to field labor as a child; later taught basic literacy to adults in SNCC's "freedom school" project; taught black studies classes at Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina; married Perry "Pap" Hamer, in 1944; children: (adopted in 1950s) Dorothy Jean Hamer (d. 1967) and Vergie Hamer ; (adopted granddaughters) Lenora and Jacqueline.

Awards and honorary degrees:

LLD from Shaw University. Also, honorary degrees from Columbia College in Chicago, Tougaloo College (1969), Howard University (1972); George W. Collins Award for Community Service, from Congressional Black Caucus (1976); "Fannie Lou Hamer Day" recognition from Ruleville, Mississippi; Alpha Phi fraternity Paul Robeson Award for humanitarian service.

Started working in cotton fields at age six (c. 1924); her father died (1939); attended civil-rights meeting and attempted to register to vote (August 1962); lost job and home, began fugitive existence (autumn 1962); returned to Ruleville for second registration bid which was successful (December 1962); became SNCC fieldworker (1963); arrested in Winona, Mississippi, when co-workers tried to integrate bus terminal (June 1963); severely beaten in Winona jail; entered primary election contest against incumbent Jamie Whitten (March 20, 1964); helped establish Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (April 16, 1964); defeated in primary election by Whitten (June 2, 1964); SNCC Freedom Summer voter registration campaign began in Mississippi; Hamer residence served as home and headquarters for white SNCC workers (June 1964); elected delegate to Democratic National Convention at MFDP state convention (August 6, 1964); led MFDP delegation in challenge to white Mississippi delegation at Democratic National Convention (August 22, 1964); testified before credentials committee at Democratic convention nationally televised in prime time; joined in filing challenge to seating of Mississippi congressional delegation (December 4, 1964); eventual vote in House of Representatives is 228 to seat white delegation, 143 to seat challengers; spoke out against war in Vietnam (1965); participated with Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and other leaders in Meredith March through Mississippi (June 1966); her daughter Dorothy Jean denied admission to local hospital, died en route to Memphis hospital due to internal hemorrhaging (1967); adopted granddaughters, Lenora and Jacqueline; attended Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a member of the integrated Loyalist democratic party delegation (August 1968); criticized that delegation for its domination by male delegates; started "pig bank" and bought land for Freedom Farm with help from outside contributors (1969); Fannie Lou Hamer Day proclaimed in Ruleville (March 1970); Freedom Farm helped local poor acquire loans and build new homes (1970–71), 70 homes built by 1972; helped found National Women's Political Caucus (July 1971); ran unsuccessful campaign for Mississippi senate (fall 1971); appointed delegate to Democratic national convention in Miami Beach (July 1972); several bad harvests caused Freedom Farm to lose most of its land acreage to creditors (January 1974); at second Fannie Lou Hamer Day in Ruleville (October 1976), Charles Evers led fundraising effort to pay her medical bills; UN Ambassador Andrew Young delivered eulogy at her funeral in Ruleville (March 20, 1977).

Fannie Lou Hamer had never heard of the civil-rights movement until the summer of 1962; she had certainly never heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. Her days were spent in the cotton fields. Long, hard days, and the nearly complete lack of television sets in the poor homes of Delta blacks, created an isolated existence. When King was making headlines in Montgomery, Alabama, less than 300 miles away, Hamer was oblivious. "Even if you had a radio," she told Leo and Miriam Selby , "you was too tired to play it. So we didn't know anything about no civil rights."

Then "the movement" came to the Mississippi Delta. Fannie Lou Hamer's first encounter with civil-rights workers was on the fourth Sunday of August, 1962. Bob Moses, James Forman, James Bevel, and other leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had called a mass meeting for that evening at the Williams Chapel Baptist Church in Ruleville. The 44-year-old Hamer, married for 18 years, listened closely as Forman told the audience that they had a constitutional right to vote; if they used that right, he said, they could clean up Mississippi politics. This idea both surprised and appealed to Hamer. In school, she had been taught nothing about her political rights; she was unaware, she said later, that Mississippi even had a constitution. Though blacks constituted over 40% of the state's population, only about 5% were registered to vote in 1960. When Forman asked for a show of hands of those willing to travel to Indianola to apply at the registrar's office for Sunflower County, "I raised mine," said Hamer:

Had it high up as I could get it. 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 a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.

Early on the morning of August 31, 1962, Hamer and 17 other blacks rode to Indianola in a private, yellow bus that normally shuttled workers to the cotton fields. At the county seat, white men circled the bus with hostile stares, menacing. At the registrar's office, the group found that the application process would take hours because the registrar would allow only two persons at a time to take the lengthy literacy tests then required in Mississippi of prospective voters. When all had finally finished and they had begun the trip home, their bus was stopped by the police because it was "the wrong color." (It was "too yellow," the officer said, presumably meaning that it resembled a school bus.) The police arrested the driver and took him back to Indianola. Meanwhile, the would-be voters sat on the bus and waited. As time passed, people became fearful, wondering whether they might end up in jail or worse. Then came a voice in song, as Kay Mills tells it, a gospel-singers voice, strong and clear, singing "This Little Light of Mine," "Down By the Riverside," and "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." Hamer's singing calmed the other riders and made a deep impression on the young SNCC activist Charles McLaurin, who had accompanied the group to Indianola. In her voice, Hamer had found an instrument of leadership and inspiration. It was a voice that many people were to hear and remember.

To tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I'll fall five-feet four-inches forward in the fight for freedom.

—Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Townsend was born on October 6, 1917, the 20th child of poor sharecropping cotton farmers in Montgomery County, or perhaps in an adjacent county; the record is not clear. Her parents took her to a new home in Sunflower County near Ruleville, Mississippi, when she was two years old, and she was to live there for the remainder of her life. Her first four decades were lived in the unpleasant certainty of labor and hardship. All she had ever known was the exploitative Mississippi Delta plantation system, a system that put her in the cotton fields when she was six years old. At that time, the plantation owner gave her gingerbread and candy to coax her into picking cotton with the grown-ups. As Hamer related to George Sewell and Margaret Dwight , "So I picked thirty pounds of cotton that week, but I found out what actually happened was he was trapping me into beginning the work I was to keep doing; and I never did get out of his debt again!"

The sharecropping system was rigged in favor of the landowners. The most common arrangement was for the land tenant to give the owner a 50% share of the profits from the cotton fields. However, the tenants had to purchase their seeds, tools, mules, etc., from the "commissary" store owned by the plantation owners. Often, they borrowed from the landowner to do this. Sharecroppers took their cotton to gin mills owned by the plantations as well, so they had little recourse if they were cheated on price or poundage. The Townsend family often picked about 50 or 60 of the 500 pound bales of cotton each year, but still had trouble making ends meet. Sometimes, they would end the year in debt to the plantation owners. Terror enforced the system. If people of the black community resisted, they could be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes. More serious defiance of white authority might result in torture or lynchings.

Her father eventually saved enough money to buy three mules and two cows, but a white neighbor poisoned the family's well water, killing the livestock and forcing the family to return to sharecropping. Aware that black families lived lives of hardship while white landowners enjoyed leisure and wealth, Fannie Lou once remarked to her mother that she wished she was white. Ella Townsend quickly challenged her thinking and worked to instill a pride in her African-American heritage. "Through her," Hamer told the Selbys, "I learned very early that black power and dignity was self respect."

The Townsend family had a deep faith in God, which proved to be a force in shaping Hamer's idealism. At church on Sundays, Hamer listened attentively and memorized many Biblical passages. For her, God and Jesus Christ were synonymous with freedom, a belief she expressed in her civil-rights speeches and "freedom songs." And when the movement turned toward black radicalism in the middle 1960s, Hamer worked to counter that trend with an appeal to the universality of the Christian message.

"I just loved school," Hamer told the Selbys, yet she completed only the sixth grade. When there was work to do in the fields, the school was closed. That meant that school for Delta blacks lasted for about four months, between November and March. And when the school was in session, Fannie Lou frequently missed classes because firewood needed chopping or cornstalks needed cutting, but she did learn to read and write.

Hamer's father died in 1939. In 1944, Fannie married Perry Hamer, a tractor driver on W.D. Marlow's plantation, near Ruleville; unable

to have children, they adopted two girls. Starting on the Marlow farm as a sharecropper, Fannie later became a plantation timekeeper. During those years, her mother was gradually going blind from an eye injury received while chopping down trees, clearing land for planting. Ella Townsend moved in with her daughter and son-in-law in 1953.

The political awakening of Fannie Lou Hamer occurred when she returned home on that yellow bus in 1962. The voting registrar had informed her employer, cotton plantation owner W.D. Marlow, III, about her attempt to register. Marlow gave her a choice, said Hamer, either to withdraw her registration or to move off the plantation property immediately. She chose the latter, leaving her family and moving in with her friends, the Tuckers, in Ruleville. But Marlow ejected the rest of her family from his plantation and there were threats on Fannie's life, so the Hamers soon departed the area for a cousin's home in a neighboring county. On September 10, shortly after Fannie Hamer left the Tucker residence, white segregationist snipers fired into the house; bullets entered the bedroom where she had slept.

By late December, Hamer decided that events had cooled enough for her to return home. Since she had not successfully passed the literacy test which required takers to interpret a portion of Mississippi's Constitution, she made another trip to Indianola. With no job to lose, Fannie Lou declared to the official that she would be back every month to retake the exam until she was registered. On January 10, 1963, after three attempts, she learned that she had passed, but she was not allowed to vote because she did not have poll tax receipts for the previous two years.

Hamer's persistence again caught the attention of SNCC workers McLaurin and Moses. Signing her on as a SNCC volunteer, they paid her a small stipend which she sorely needed; she and her husband were both without jobs. SNCC sent Hamer to a civil-rights conference in Nashville that fall, where she made her speaking debut, telling of her experiences since August 31st. Then she joined the SNCC Freedom Singers as they toured the South to raise money.

In 1963, Hamer attended a training program for teachers of the "citizenship schools" set up by SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The main purpose of citizenship schools was to enable uneducated voters to read and write well enough to pass voter registration exams. Traveling back home from the program held in Dorchester, Georgia, Hamer and other civil-rights workers were arrested at a restaurant in Winona, Mississippi, for attempting to get served in the "whites only" section. (Another account claims that Hamer tried to use a white restroom in a bus station in Winona.) While in jail, they were treated brutally when the officers learned that were civil-rights workers. Hamer later told audiences that she heard the screams of other prisoners as they were beaten and tortured, and overheard her guards considering the possibility of killing them all and dumping the bodies. When it was Hamer's turn, two other prisoners, black men, were ordered to beat her mercilessly with a blackjack (or suffer worse for disobeying). Hamer lay face down on the prison cot as they hit her, the second man taking over when the first became exhausted. At one point, she told the Selbys, a police officer pulled her dress up around her head. Though civil-rights leaders James Bevel and Andrew Young managed to secure her release, the beating caused a blood clot in the artery to an eye and damaged her kidneys. Hamer never fully recovered from her injuries.

The Justice Department eventually filed civil and criminal charges against the Winona authorities, but the civil charges were later dropped. On the criminal charges, the officers were found not guilty by an all-white jury. Despite this, Hamer continued to stand firm for civil rights. Her courage in the face of danger revealed her leadership. "She would sing 'Nobody's Going to Turn Me Around' better than anybody else," Annie Devine told Kay Mills. "Why not follow somebody like that? Why not just reach out with one hand and say, just take me along?"

In March 1964, Hamer campaigned for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives seat for District Two, against long-term incumbent (and segregationist) Jamie Whitten. The electorate was nearly all white, so she had little chance of winning, but her candidacy served notice that African-Americans could also run for office and would someday win elections.

The summer of 1964 had been earmarked by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for a strong voter registration drive. SNCC leaders decided to bring in white student volunteers from the North to enroll unregistered African-American Mississippians. Volunteers, trained in Oxford, Ohio, were sent to Mississippi to work with the SNCC people already there. Perry and Fannie Lou Hamer lodged some white students in their home, as did their friends and neighbors. Called the "Freedom Summer" campaign, activities began in June.

But Freedom Summer had a horrifying beginning. Two white volunteers, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, and a black student from Mississippi, James Chaney, arrived from the Ohio training center on June 21, the first day of summer. Immediately, they disappeared and were presumed to have been the victims of violence. It took weeks to verify this. Their bodies were found on August 4, 1964.

A more positive occurrence that summer was the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which Hamer helped organize. On August 6, 2,500 black activists and white liberals met in Jackson to select a delegation of four whites and 64 blacks, including Hamer, to represent the MFDP at the Democratic National Convention. Since Mississippi's regular Democratic Party excluded blacks, and could not be trusted to support the Democratic presidential ticket in the fall, the MFDP planned to challenge the seating of the regular delegation at the national convention to be held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that August. They hoped to earn the right to sit as the legitimate Mississippi delegation.

Testifying before the party's credentials committee, Hamer made a powerful witness, describing her own beating as well as the violence and intimidation other civil-rights workers had endured in Mississippi. Tearfully, she concluded her testimony with the words:

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?

Hamer's appearance before the committee had a profound impact because the networks replayed her testimony during prime time, on Saturday, August 22, 1964. The result was a deluge of telegrams and telephone calls to the convention and to President Lyndon Johnson from people in support of the MFDP.

As it was a presidential election year, the convention's main task was to endorse Johnson in his campaign against Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Johnson, fearful of alienating white Southerners, gave Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, favored candidate for vice president, the task of forging a compromise. He offered the MFDP a modest concession: the all-white regular faction would be seated, providing they would swear loyalty to the party's presidential candidate, but two members of the MFDP would also be seated as "delegates-at-large." The final element in the agreement would be to require that all future delegations would be integrated. The MFDP delegation, and most of the white Mississippi Democrats, rejected the proposal. Disappointed and disillusioned, Hamer told television reporters that "we didn't come all this way" for token representation; then she led a demonstration on the floor of the convention to protest the exclusion of the MFDP; the group then occupied the seats of the Mississippi regulars, most of whom had left the convention in protest over the loyalty requirement. Republican Barry Goldwater carried Mississippi that year.

For the November elections, Hamer, Annie Devine, and Virginia Gray attempted to put their names on the ballot for the U.S. House of Representatives as independents, but were unable to get the voting registrars to certify the names on their petitions. Consequently, SNCC and the MFDP conducted an election so that the disenfranchised black population could express its choices. In the mock election, Hamer received over 33,000 votes, compared to a mere 49 votes for incumbent Representative Whitten, proving that blacks could elect their own candidates to office, if they were permitted to vote.

The result prompted another seating challenge. At the start of the new U.S. congressional session in January 1965, the MFDP candidates asked that they be seated in place of the all-white Mississippi delegation on the grounds that the state wrongfully excluded blacks from the political process in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When the House vote on the challenge came to the floor on September 17, Hamer and the others were invited to witness the vote; she became the first black woman to sit with an assembly in the U.S. House of Representatives. Again, however, they lost the challenge, with 143 members voting in favor of seating the MFDP candidates, to 228 voting against.

That year marked another civil-rights milestone. In August, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed that the federal government would come to the aid of citizens who were being denied the opportunity to vote. The voting bill was a major success for the civil-rights movement, and its effectiveness moved Hamer's activism in other directions. Because she was a powerful speaker, she traveled the country to speak at rallies and public lectures, and appeared on many college campuses. After reflecting upon America's efforts in Vietnam, she also became an outspoken critic of the war. As usual, her position was several years ahead of that of the American public. In 1967, Hamer's daughter Dorothy Jean died en route to Memphis hospital due to internal hemorrhaging, having been denied admission to a local hospital.

The Freedom Party of Mississippi was active until about 1968, when a number of its members decided to join forces with white liberals in order to broaden their voter appeal. The result was the Loyalist Party. Hamer was selected as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic nominating convention in Chicago as a member of the Loyalist delegation, which again challenged the seating of the white regulars. This time, an integrated delegation from Mississippi successfully challenged the seating of the traditional all-white faction, and Hamer was named to the Democratic National Committee. The event was overshadowed, however, by protests in the streets of Chicago and the repressive police responses.

In her travels and speaking tours, Hamer sought donations to help provide food for the children and jobs for the people of rural Mississippi who had been displaced by the mechanization of farm operations. After the 1968 convention, she turned her attention to found the Freedom Farms Corporation, an agricultural co-operative project based in Sunflower County. The organization apparently began with the donation of fifty female and five male pigs, arranged by Dorothy Haight of the National Council of Negro Women. This became the "pig bank," which enabled the poor to put meat in their diet. In February 1969, Hamer's organization received enough money to acquire 40 acres of land, which they leased to local needy people for a minimal fee. With access to land and livestock, people could raise their own food and eventually become self-sufficient. The farm soon grew to 680 acres, with 70 homes built, including a new brick home which Hamer and her family moved into in late 1969 or early 1970; it was her first home with an indoor bathroom and hot running water. Unfortunately, Freedom Farms was fraught with problems, including inexperienced management, successive seasons of bad weather, and an apathy on the part of individuals and government agencies who might have helped the struggling co-op survive. It failed in 1976.

By the mid-1970s, Hamer's health was failing. In the spring of 1976, she underwent surgery for breast cancer, after which she seldom left home. Suffering from hypertension, diabetes, and cancer, Hamer died of heart failure on March 14, 1977, at the hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Andrew Young, formerly of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, future mayor of Atlanta, and at that time, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, delivered the eulogy at her funeral on March 20th. Fannie Lou Hamer was buried in Ruleville on the Freedom Farm land.

sources:

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1964. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Garland, Phyl. "Builders of the South: Negro Heroines of Dixie Play Major Role in Challenging Racist Traditions," in Ebony. Vol. XXI, no. 10. August 1966, p. 27–37.

Grant, Jacquelyn. "Fannie Lou Hamer." Notable Black American Women. Edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Hamer, Fannie Lou. "It's in Your Hands." Speech to the NAACP, May 7, 1971. Reprinted in Gerda Lerner, ed. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. NY: Vintage Books, 1992.

——. "To Praise our Bridges," in Clayborne Carson, et al, eds., The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader. NY: Penguin, 1991.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in United States History: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941–1965. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1990.

Lee, Chana Kai. "A Passionate Pursuit of Justice: the Life and Leadership of Fannie Lou Hamer, 1917–1967." Ph.D. thesis. University of California at Los Angeles, 1993.

Lerner, Gerda. "Developing Community Leadership," in Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. NY: Vintage Books, 1992.

McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.

McMillen, Neil. An Oral History with Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Native Mississippian and Civil Rights Leader. Hattiesburg, MS: University of Southern Mississippi, 1977.

Mills, Kay. This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. NY: Dutton, 1993.

The New York Times. August 23, 1964; August 24, 1964; June 7, 1965; March 21, 1977.

Selby, Miriam, and Earl Selby. Odyssey: Journey Through Black America. NY: Putnam, 1971.

Sewell, George A., and Margaret L. Dwight. Mississippi Black History Makers. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1984.

Stoper, Emily. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Growth of Radicalism in a Civil Rights Organization. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1989.

Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: Americas Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.

collections:

Fannie Lou Hamer papers (1966–1978), Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.

related media:

"Fannie Lou Hamer" (song), on B'lieve I'll run on … See What the End's Gonna Be album, played by Sweet Honey in the Rock (Musical Group), Redwood Records, 1978.

"Mississippi: Is This America? (1962–1964)," Eyes On The Prize: The American Civil Rights Struggle, 1954–1965, Television Documentary Series, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Black-side, 1986.

Portrait in Black: Fannie Lou Hamer (16mm; 10 min.), directed by Bill Buckley, written by Tracy Sugarman , Rediscovery Productions 1972.

Michael Cary , Chair, Department of History and Political Science, Seton Hill College, Greensburg, Pennsylvania

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