Fannie Lou Hamer was an American voting rights activist, civil rights leader, and philanthropist. She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi’s Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and served as vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Hamer was born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. Two years later, her family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi to work as sharecroppers and Hamer picked cotton with her family from the age of 6. Hamer was educated in a one-room schoolhouse on the plantation, until she had to drop out at the age of 12 to work full time. By the age of 13, she could pick 200-300 pounds of cotton daily. In 1944, the plantation owner discovered that Hamer was literate and gave her the responsibility of becoming the time and record keeper. A year later, she married Perry “Pap” Hamer and together they worked as sharecroppers in Ruleville, Mississippi for the next 18 years. The couple adopted children, as Hamer had been given a hysterectomy without her consent while having surgery to remove a tumour. The procedure was so common it was known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.” This incident was the first of many that would ignite a passion for civil rights in Hamer.
During the 1950’s, Hamer attended a few annual conferences of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The RCNL was led by Dr. T. R. M. Howard, a civil rights leader and wealthy black entrepreneur and the annual RCNL conferences featured entertainers such as Mahalia Jackson, speakers such as Thurgood Marshall and Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan, and panels on voting rights and other civil rights issues. It wasn’t until 1962 that Hamer became truly involved in the fight for civil rights. She attended a voting rights meeting organised by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Hamer was one of the few who decided to register to vote, and she and 17 others went to the county courthouse in Indianola to register. The group encountered opposition from local, and state law enforcement along the way and all by Hamer and one man were allowed to fill out the application and literacy test. Both failed. On the drive home, their bus was stopped and the driver arrested. The passengers were held on the bus, and Hamer began to sing songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” an act which became one of the defining features of her activism. After the passengers were able to pay the driver’s fine, the bus returned to Ruleville. W.D Marlow, the plantation owner Hamer worked for had heard of her application to vote, and demanded she withdraw her application. She refused, stating “I didn’t go down there to register for you. I went down to register for myself.” She was ordered off his land, and said that “”They kicked me off the plantation, they set me free. It’s the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people.“
Hamer was forced to relocate temporarily to Tallahatchie County in the wake of her attempt to register to vote. Her actions drew the attention of local organisers, and the SNCC field secretary Bob Moses marked her out as a potential leader. In 1962, Hamer attended a SNCC conference at Fisk University in Nashville and became a community organiser for the SNCC. The Hamer family’s possessions and car were taken from them by Marlow and they were forced to survive on Hamer’s $10 a week from SNCC. In 1963, Hamer was travelling home from Charleston, South Carolina with other activists who had attended a literacy workshop. When the group stopped in Winona, Mississippi, they sat at the bus station’s whites-only lunch counter in an act of protest. The group were swiftly arrested on false charges and jailed. Hamer and her fellow activists were beaten by the police, and it took more than a month for her to recover after her release and she suffered permanent damage to her eyes, legs, and kidneys as a result. Undeterred, Hamer continued to organise voter registration drives, including the “Freedom Ballot Campaign” in 1963, and the “Freedom Summer” initiative a year later. She also became involved in relief work, distributing donated food and clothes to the poorest Delta residents.
In 1964, Hamer was elected Vice-Chair of the newly founded Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which was created as an alternative to the Mississippi Democratic Party who held segregationist views. The MFDP drew attention to the plight of African Americans in Mississippi, and Hamer, singing her signature hymns brought a lot of media attention to their cause. She ran for Congress at the MFDP candidate that year, challenging veteran ongressman Jamie Whitten in the Democratic primary. Although unsuccessful, Hamer’s run set a precedent by challenging the established Mississippi congressional delegation, and set the stage for the MFDP to have a national presence. Hamer and the rest of the MFDP officers were invited to speak at the televised Convention’s Credentials Committee that year. Her tearful speech calling for the MFDP to be seated as Mississippi representatives drew on her experiences in attempting to register to vote. She stated that “All of this is on account we want to register [sic], to become first-class citizens, and 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?” President Lyndon B. Johnson, fearful of the effect that Hamer’s speech would have on the nation called an emergency press conference to divert attention from Hamer, who he had earlier referred to as “that illiterate woman”. Hamer’s speech ran unedited in a later broadcast. The MFDP were offered two non-voting seats, on the condition that Hamer was not to take one of them. They refused.
Hamer became an in demand public speaker, and continued to work on voting rights throughout the 1960’s. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Hamer led lawsuits that led to the first elections in which large numbers of black residents of Sunflower County were registered and eligible to vote in 1967. She also worked on the grassroots-level Head Start programs, the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and organised plaintiffs for a school desegregation lawsuit. In 1971, she helped to establish the National Women’s Political Caucus. In her later life, Hamer was limited by her poor health brought on by a lifetime living in poverty, the beating she sustained in 1963 and a 1976 cancer diagnosis. She died in 1977 and hundreds attended her funeral, including most of the leaders of the civil rights movement like Ella Baker and Dorothy Height. Hamer is an inductee of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, a recipient of the National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Award and the Paul Robeson Award from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Her contribution to civil rights is celebrated with the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden in Ruleville, Mississippi.