Icons in Women's History - Fannie Lou Hamer

Athena Eliades

Fannie Lou Hamer grew up in poverty as a sharecropper in the rural Mississippi Delta. As young as six, Hamer worked the fields and was forced to leave her schooling behind after grade school. When her family made strides to get ahead, her father purchased two mules to help with the farm labor. Angry whites poisoned the mules as a warning: there were dangerous consequences for black people who tried to get ahead.
As an adult, Hamer was sterilized without her consent, while under anesthesia for a routine surgery. Non-consensual hysterectomies, or forced sterilizations, were commonplace for African American women at the time. This invasive, inhumane process propelled her into politics. Hamer is famously quoted saying, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

In 1962, Hamer went to a meeting held by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists, who aimed to sign up African American voters. This was the first time she learned that African Americans had a legal right to vote. Prompted by this meeting, Hamer and seventeen others attempted to register to vote, but only she and one other person were allowed to fill out the applications. Though she was literate, Hamer failed the literacy test, and upon returning home, an angry plantation owner forced her and her family off  the plantation. Her husband was forced to finish the season there and left with nothing, after the plantation owner kept their car and possessions. 

With nothing left to lose, Hamer threw herself into a life of activism. SNCC noticed her leadership potential and she began working for African American voting rights and desegregation. After being arrested at a sit-in, officers forced two African American inmates to brutally beat her. She later recalled that the men had been coerced into harming her, and did not blame them.

Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964, which opposed the all-white democratic delegation at the Mississippi Democratic convention. It was there that Hamer gave a speech on the abuse that African Americans frequently endured, from beatings and lack of representation in government, to the lack of fundamental human rights and poverty. The convention responded by offering two seats to the MFDP members but no voting rights,an offer which Hamer declined. Her televised speech brought national attention to the African American struggle, and a year later, she ran for Congress. 

Though she ultimately lost the bid, in 1968 the MFDP changed its name to the Mississippi Loyalty Democratic Party (MLDP) and Hamer got herself a seat at the Chicago national democratic convention. She took her seat with a standing ovation. She continued her work to uplift African American communities throughout her lifetime. The more opposition she faced, the harder she fought for social and economic equality, ultimately starting a farm that provided jobs to impoverished whites and African Americans. 

In 1977, she lost her life to breast cancer. She is remembered for her tenacity and her use of song as a rallying cry for change.

Sources:

Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer, awomanaweek.com (last updated 2018), http://www.awomanaweek.com/hamer.htm.

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977): Testimony Before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention, American Radio Works (last updated 2018), http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/sayitplain/flhamer.html.

Joan Johnson Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer: Civil Rights Movement Leader, ThoughtCo (last updated March 18, 2017), https://www.thoughtco.com/fannie-lou-hamer-3528651.

Sarah K. Horsley, Fannie Lou Hamer, Fembio Notable Women International (last updated 2018), http://www.fembio.org/english/biography.php/woman/biography/fannie-lou-h....

Freedom Summer: Fannie Lou Hamer, PBS (last accessed March 13, 2018), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedomsummer-hamer/.