Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), born Fannie Lou Townsend, lived most of her life in an ordinary, anonymous fashion. Ordinary relative to the oppressive conditions and lack of opportunity for African Americans of the Jim Crow South, that is.
Born and raised in poverty in Mississippi, she received little in the way of education, as starting from age 6 her contributions as a sharecropper picking cotton were needed by her family. Epitomizing the kind of life African Americans lived at that time and place, when her family finally scraped together enough money to rent a small plot of land to do their own farming, it was short-lived and they were thrown back into picking cotton as sharecroppers when a white neighbor poisoned their livestock to death, with of course no repercussions.
She married Pap Hamer in 1942, and they adopted two children. She worked as a sharecropper, as a “timekeeper” on a sharecropping plantation, and as a domestic, as well as making liquor and operating a small saloon.
Having always had a deep religious sensibility and a penchant for reading the Bible, Hamer had a reputation for consoling the grieving and calming the passions of the angry by singing hymns on occasions such as the aftermath of a lynching.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s awakened Hamer, or more accurately opened up opportunities and showed her ways to take stands and to fight against the things she had always known were wrong and unacceptable but had had to endure as the simple reality of her people.
Her first steps toward activism were to attend several annual conferences of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a self-help group for African Americans that was far tamer than the civil rights-oriented groups that were to follow.
In 1962 she attended a talk by James Bevel, a man who had worked with Martin Luther King and now was an organizer for the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Bevel said it was time that African American people defied Jim Crow and registered to vote in the South. (It was basically unheard of for African Americans to be allowed to register and vote in the South. Even attempting to do so meant threats, violence, becoming unemployable, even murder.) He said it would take a certain number of brave volunteers to force the issue, and to nonviolently accept the consequences. Hamer immediately volunteered.
After registering to vote in Indianola, Mississippi, she traveled the South as an activist for SNCC. It wasn’t long before the predicted violence was visited upon her.
In June, 1963, Hamer and several other activists who had been attending a literacy workshop were arrested and jailed by the police in Winona, Mississippi (which is to say they were abducted by the Ku Klux Klan, since in 1963 Mississippi there was little discernible difference between law enforcement and the Klan, and indeed they were often the same individuals, just with or without the sheets). There she was savagely beaten by her captors and by African American fellow inmates.
Recounting the incident later, Hamer said: “I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack. The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State Highway Patrolman, to lay down on a bunk bed on my face, and I laid on my face. The first Negro began to beat, and I was beat by the first Negro until he was
exhausted, and I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side
because I suffered from polio when I was six years old. After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack. The second Negro began to beat me and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit upon my feet to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat my head and told me to hush.”
Hamer lost feeling in her legs for a time, and needed more than a month to recover. Though really she never did fully recover, and when she died in 1977 at the age of 59, the damage of the beating was cited as one of the contributing factors.
Hamer was not stopped, and if anything redoubled her efforts as soon as she was physically able. She worked on voter registration drives and other programs as a SNCC field secretary. She was instrumental in organizing the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964 with Robert Moses, which gave her considerable experience working with white people and Northerners who wished to work for racial justice. She was perceived as a loving and maternal figure in the campaign by all races, and as a person who was always able to bolster spirits with a hymn, just as she had been doing all her life.
In 1964, with African Americans still largely excluded from voting in Mississippi, SNCC and other civil rights organizations formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a parallel political party to the official state Democratic Party. They elected delegates to that year’s presidential party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and traveled to the convention with the demand that they be seated.
They were permitted to address the convention, though President Lyndon Johnson sought to keep the address from being televised by staging an emergency press conference at the same time so as to draw the television coverage. The networks still televised some of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party controversy on tape delay however, including the electrifying speech to the convention by Hamer that made her a nationally known figure.
Efforts were made to hammer out a compromise, with Hamer one of those resisting any compromise that would leave the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with no more than minimal symbolic gains. These ultimately fell through, but the rules for future party conventions were indeed changed as a result of the protest.
Hamer continued working for civil rights for as long as her health allowed. She ran for Congress, spoke out against the Vietnam War, joined the Poor People’s Campaign that Martin Luther King was putting together when he was assassinated, and worked with Head Start and other programs designed to help at the grassroots.
One of the most famous quotes associated with Fannie Lou Hamer is “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She is an inspiring example of what a person can accomplish when they realize that they might as well fight back when they are already being treated as badly as they’re going to be treated, when they cross that line where they see that nothing to lose means nothing to fear.
“Fannie Lou Hamer.” Africa Within.
“Fannie Lou Hamer.” Fannielouhamer.info.
“SNCC 1960-1966: Fannie Lou Hamer.” iBiblio.