Black History Month- Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer
Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer rose from humble beginnings in Mississippi to become one of the most important, passionate, and powerful voices of the civil and voting rights movements and a leader in the efforts for greater economic opportunities for African Americans. She worked tirelessly to affirm the experiences of exploited Black people of the deep south whose stories were forgotten.
She was born in October 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, and was the youngest of 20 children born to sharecroppers in Mississippi, where she spent much of her life picking cotton until she was fired for trying to register to vote.
Only 60 years ago in 1961, she received a hysterectomy from a white doctor without her consent while undergoing minor surgery. Such forced sterilization of Black women, as a way to reduce the Black population, was so widespread it was dubbed a quote “Mississippi appendectomy.”
She understood the specific racialized gender violence faced by Black women all too well, and this experience would compel her to fight for human rights and against anti-Black racism throughout her life. Unable to have children of their own, the Hamers adopted two daughters.
In the summer of 1962, she attended a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC meeting on voter registration, where she volunteered to go to the courthouse to register to vote. On her third try, despite voter suppression and retaliation from the plantation owner she and her husband worked for, she passed the voter registration test in 1963. That same year, Mrs. Hamer was arrested on her way home from a workshop in South Carolina and was brutally attacked by the police while in jail, which left her lifelong kidney and leg damage and the loss of sight in one eye due to a blood clot.
Mrs. Hamer ran the food and clothing drive for SNCC and worked to help organize the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project to register rural Black people to vote.
That same year in April, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Council of Federated Organizations, or COFO, helped establish an independent Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was an integrated coalition of delegates to challenge the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party delegation. The Freedom Party came to Atlantic City on Aug. 22, 1964, to challenge the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi, many of them rabid segregationists. Hamer demanded that the credentials committee seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation instead.
She was elected as vice-chair of the 68 member delegation, ultimately running for Congress, though it was unsuccessful. At that year’s Democratic National Convention, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was offered only two at-large seats which prevented them from officially participating.
President Lyndon Johnson was terrified of her and terrified of the appeal she would make in 1964 before the Democratic National Committee’s credentials panel on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The president, who would eventually sign the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, sent political advisers to persuade Mrs. Hamer not to make her appeal to the credentials committee. When she refused, Johnson famously attempted to stop television networks from broadcasting by calling an impromptu news conference to make it impossible for the national television networks to cover her testimony live.
He failed, and Mrs. Hamer’s testimony aired repeatedly and ultimately became one of the most memorable and powerful speeches of the Civil Rights movement.
Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer squeezed between men in suits who refused to make space for her;
defying men and presidents who tried to silence her, making this story one that shows such strength, courage, and resilience.
One of her famous quotes is, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
I’d like to thank Dr. Kimberly McNair for researching and writing some of the information used in this story.
For AMR News, I’m Abby Dufour