Fannie Lou Hamer - Influential Black Leaders
Fannie Lou Hamer (October 6, 1917 – March 14, 1977) was an American voting and women's rights activist, community organizer, and a leader in the civil rights movement. She was the co-founder and vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hamer also organized Mississippi's Freedom Summer along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was also a co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus, an organization created to recruit, train, and support women of all races who wish to seek election to government office.
Hamer began civil rights activism in 1962, continuing until her health declined nine years later. She was known for her use of spiritual hymnals and quotes and her resilience in leading the civil rights movement for black women in Mississippi. She was extorted, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted by racists and police while trying to register for and exercise her right to vote. She later helped and encouraged thousands of African-Americans in Mississippi to become registered voters and helped hundreds of disenfranchised people in her area through her work in programs like the Freedom Farm Cooperative. She unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and the Mississippi State Senate in 1971. In 1970 she led legal action against the government of Sunflower County, Mississippi for continued illegal segregation.
Hamer died on March 14, 1977, aged 59, in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Her memorial service was widely attended and her eulogy was delivered by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young. She was posthumously inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 199
On Aug. 31, 1962, Hamer first learned about the constitutional right to vote from volunteers at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who had visited her in Mound Bayou. She began to take direct political action in the civil rights movement. On August 31, she traveled with other activists to Indianola, Mississippi, hoping to register to vote. The registration test, crafted to keep blacks from voting, asked her to explain de facto laws. "I knowed [sic] as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day," she recalled. Rejected, she came home to find the "boss man raisin' Cain." She had better withdraw her registration, she was told, because "we're not ready for that in Mississippi."
"I didn't try to register for you," Hamer told her boss. "I tried to register for myself."She was immediately fired and kicked off the plantation. Her husband was required to stay on the land until the end of the harvest. Hamer moved between homes over the next several days for protection. On September 10, while staying with friend Mary Tucker, Hamer was shot at 16 times in a drive-by shooting by racists. No one was injured in the event. The next day Hamer and her family evacuated to nearby Tallahatchie County for three months, fearing retaliation by the Ku Klux Klan for her attempt to vote. On December 4, just after returning to her hometown, she went to the courthouse in Indianola to take the literacy test again, but failed and was turned away. Hamer told the registrar that "You'll see me every 30 days till I pass".
On January 10, 1963, Hamer took the literacy test a third time. She was successful and was informed that she was now a registered voter in the State of Mississippi. However, when she attempted to vote that fall, she discovered her registration gave her no actual power to vote as the county required voters to have two poll tax receipts. This requirement had emerged in some (mostly former Confederate) states after the right to vote was first given to all races by the 1870 ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. These laws along with the literacy tests and local government acts of coercion, were used against blacks and Native Americans. Hamer later paid for and acquired the requisite poll tax receipts.
They talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote. I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote.
—Fannie Lou Hamer
We been waitin' all our lives, and still gettin' killed, still gettin' hung, still gettin' beat to death. Now we're tired waitin'!
—Fannie Lou Hamer
Hamer had begun to become more involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee after these incidents. She attended many Southern Christian Leadership Conferences (SCLC), which she at times taught classes for, and also various SNCC workshops. She traveled to gather signatures for petitions to attempt to be granted federal resources for impoverished black families across the south. She also became a field secretary for voter registration and welfare programs for the SNCC. Many of these first actions to attempt to register more black voters in Mississippi met with the same problems Hamer had had in trying to register herself.
After becoming a field secretary for the SNCC in 1963, Hamer decided to attend a pro-citizenship conference by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Charleston, South Carolina. Travelling by bus with co-activists, the party stopped for a break in Winona, Mississippi. Some of the activists went inside a local cafe, but were refused service by the waitress. Shortly after, a Mississippi State highway patrolman took out his billy club and intimidated the activists into leaving. One of the group decided to take down the officer's license plate number; while doing so the patrolman and a police chief entered the cafe and arrested the party. Hamer left the bus and inquired if they could continue their journey back to Greenwood, Mississippi. At that point the officers arrested her as well. Once in county jail, Hamer's colleagues were beaten by the police in the booking room (including 15 year old June Johnson, for not saying "sir" in her replies to the officers). Hamer was then taken to a cell where two inmates were ordered, by the state trooper, to beat her using a blackjack. The police ensured she was held down during the almost fatal beating, and when she started to scream, beat her further. Hamer was groped repeatedly by officers during the assault. When she attempted to resist, she states an officer, "walked over, took my dress, pulled it up over my shoulders, leaving my body exposed to five men." Another in her group was beaten until she was unable to talk; a third, a teenager, was beaten, stomped on, and stripped. An activist from the SNCC came the next day to see if they could help, but was beaten until his eyes were shut when he did not address an officer in the expected deferential manner.
Hamer was released on June 12, 1963. She needed more than a month to recuperate from the beatings and never fully recovered. Though the incident had profound physical and psychological effects, including a blood clot over her left eye and permanent damage on one of her kidneys, she returned to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives, including the 1963 Freedom Ballot, a mock election, and the "Freedom Summer" initiative the following year. She was known to the volunteers of Freedom Summer as a motherly figure who believed that the civil rights effort should be multi-racial in nature. In addition to her "Northern" guests, Hamer played host to Tuskegee University student activists Sammy Younge Jr. and Wendell Paris. Younge and Paris grew to become profound activists and organizers under Hamer's tutelage. (Younge was murdered in 1966 at a Standard Oil gas station in Macon County, Alabama, for using a "whites-only" restroom.)
Later life and death
While having surgery in 1961 to remove a tumor, 44-year-old Hamer was also given a hysterectomy without consent by a white doctor; this was a frequent occurrence under Mississippi's compulsory sterilization plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. Hamer is credited with coining the phrase "Mississippi appendectomy" as a euphemism for the involuntary or uninformed sterilization of black women, common in the South in the 1960s. She came out of an extended period in hospital for nervous exhaustion in January 1972, and was hospitalized again in January 1974 for a nervous breakdown. By June 1974, Hamer was said to be in extremely poor health. Two years later she was diagnosed with and had surgery for breast cancer.
Hamer died of complications of hypertension and breast cancer on March 14, 1977, aged 59, at Taborian Hospital, Mound Bayou, Mississippi. She was buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. Her tombstone is engraved with one of her famous quotes, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Her primary memorial service, held at a church, was completely full. An overflow service was held at Ruleville Central High School, with over 1,500 people in attendance. Andrew Young, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, spoke at the RCHS service, saying "None of us would be where we are now had she not been there then".