Fannie Lou Hamer after being beaten in jail, June 1963 (FBI photo)
Fannie Lou Hamer after being beaten in jail, June 1963 (FBI photo)

Mississippi native Fannie Lou Hamer, co-founder and vice chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, was a voting and women’s rights activist as well as a community organizer and a leader in the civil rights movement. She represented the FDP at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Born in 1917, the 20th child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Lee Townsend, Hamer first joined her family in the cotton fields at the age of 6. By the time she had become a teenager, Hamer had managed to complete several years of school and was picking hundreds of pounds of cotton a day.

In the early 1940s, she married Perry Hamer, known as Pap, and worked alongside him at W.D. Marlow’s plantation near Ruleville, in Sunflower County. Because of her ability to read and write, Hamer elevated to the job of timekeeper — which, at that time, was a less physically demanding and more prestigious job within the sharecropping system.

But as time went on, it was her willingness to challenge the county registrar that caught the eye of local voting organizers. Bob Moses, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the major American civil rights movement organizations of the 1960s, who recognized her leadership potential leader.

Charles McLaurin, a young activist, was sent by Moses to find Hamer and bring her to the SNCC conference that was being held in the fall of 1962 at Fisk University in Nashville. The conference was a success, and Hamer left Nashville eager to take on her new role as a community organizer.

However, Hamer, 44, was soon to discover the harsh realities of voter suppression. Hamer, when in 1963, she along with other activists were beaten by police in the Montgomery County Jail after helping Blacks register to vote. Hamer sustained serious injuries, having been beaten with a billy club.

Nevertheless, Hamer continued to work for desegregation and voter registration. She would also become involved in relief work, distributing donated food and clothes to the poorest Delta residents. Hamer had spent her entire life in poverty, and she understood that the fight for economic security was a crucial component of the civil rights movement. At the same time, she was willing to use the donations as leverage and sometimes refused to hand over food until the recipients agreed to register to vote.

All this occurred at the same time as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement where he’d been all over the country and particularly in the South, championing the rights of Black people. Yet it wasn’t the nonviolent efforts of King that President Lyndon B. Johnson was afraid of — it was the appeal Hamer would make in 1964 as a delegate before the Democratic National Committee’s credentials panel on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, that terrified the president.

In Freedom Summer 1964, more young people, white and Black, came to Mississippi to join the voting rights effort. Civil rights workers decided to dramatize the discrimination Blacks faced in Mississippi by challenging the all-white delegation that would be selected to represent the state at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Black people from around the state tried to participate in selecting delegates who would nominate the party’s presidential candidate, but were turned away. They held their own meetings and selected 68 people to represent them at the convention. Aaron Henry, a druggist from Clarksdale and longtime NAACP activist, headed the delegation, and Hamer was the delegation’s vice chair. Naming themselves the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), they set about trying to generate national support.

At a national convention, the party’s credentials committee considers any challenges and decides who will be seated to vote on the nominees. The MFDP lined up its witnesses, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the national civil rights movement leader. Hamer gave the most dramatic presentation. Telling about being jailed and beaten, she concluded, “All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.”

U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who would become the party’s candidate for vice president, sought a compromise at the request of President Lyndon Johnson that would give the MFDP two seats and the promise of reform for the 1968 convention. That made Hamer angry. “We didn’t come here for no seats ‘cause all of us is tired,” she said. The MFDP delegates rejected the compromise, but the convention delegates did not know that when they voted to accept it, and almost all the white Mississippians walked out.

After the fall election, Hamer and two other women, Victoria Gray Adams of Hattiesburg and Annie Devine of Canton, challenged the seating of the five-member Mississippi Congressional delegation, Thomas G. Abernethy, William Colmer, Prentiss Walker, Jamie L. Whitten and John Bell Williams. They charged that because Blacks were kept from registering, the election was unfair. Hundreds of their supporters went to Washington when the Congressional session opened in January 1965, and Hamer, Adams, and Devine were given guest seats in the House chamber that day. Yet later, on Sept. 17, 1965, the House of Representatives rejected their challenge, 228-143.

Hamer did not relent in her activities. In 1966, she walked with Dr. King and Andrew Young as they resumed the march amid fear throughout the state sparked by James Meredith, the first Black student at the University of Mississippi, who had to halt his own march after he was ambushed and shot by a white gunman. Hamer also raised money to support election activities in two Delta towns. She lost a bid to become a board member for the Sunflower County anti-poverty agency in 1967 because she questioned their authority and the true value of the agency’s programs to poor people. Local whites had united behind her opponent, a Black man.

In 1968 the Democratic Party, which by then required its state parties to integrate, seated Hamer as a delegate at its presidential nominating convention in Chicago. Anti-war violence in the streets overshadowed the seating of the integrated Mississippi delegation, but Hamer spoke from the podium on behalf of a challenge to the Alabama party.

Fighter of poverty

That year she started what she called a Pig Bank with the help of the National Council of Negro Women to help people in her community improve their diets. Hamer bought 35 gilts (females) and five boars (males), and the pregnant gilts were loaned to local families. They could keep the piglets that were produced and return mama pig to the bank. Some 300 families benefited from this program. The following year, Hamer established Freedom Farm with a similar goal of providing food and some economic independence to local people. She remained active in anti-poverty efforts such as Head Start because she saw the link between education, jobs, and political influence.

In 1970 Hamer filed a lawsuit charging that Sunflower County schools were not properly desegregating. The following year, she joined with feminist activists in founding the National Women’s Political Caucus. She said that women of all different colors should join to form a powerful voting majority in the country. “A white mother is no different from a Black mother. The only thing is they haven’t had as many problems. But we cry the same tears.”

Hamer ran for the Mississippi Senate in 1971 against incumbent Robert Crook. She campaigned with Carver Randle, an NAACP leader in Indianola who was running for the state House of Representatives. The pair ran on a platform urging that state and local governments hire more minorities for jobs previously held by whites, and to appoint more minorities to government positions.

“I was impressed with her openness and frankness no matter who was in attendance,” said Randle, adding that Hamer also felt that educated people in the Black community “were much better equipped to do what she was doing, yet they didn’t have the fortitude to do it.” Hamer lost the election, 11,770 votes to 7,201.

Ill health filled Hamer’s last years. She had had polio as a child and had been sterilized without her knowledge while hospitalized in 1961. After a lengthy hospitalization for nervous exhaustion in January 1972, she managed to travel that summer to the Democratic National Convention in Miami where she seconded the nomination of Texas Lt. Gov. Frances “Sissy” Farenthold for vice president. She was hospitalized again in January 1974 for a nervous breakdown, but a few weeks later reported that she felt better than ever. That June a group from Madison, Wisconsin, that had worked with her on Freedom Farm came to Ruleville and found her “in the worst health ever, heavily medicated for pain and dependent on Pap and a neighbor” to keep the household going. In the spring of 1976, she had breast cancer surgery.

These ailments took their toll and she died March 14, 1977, of heart failure brought on by cancer, diabetes and hypertension. Hundreds of people attended her funeral six days later in Ruleville, where Andrew Young, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, gave her eulogy, saying, “None of us would be where we are now had she not been there then.”

Hamer felt forgotten near the end of her life, which came during an ebb in national interest in the civil rights movement. Years later, however, at least two universities — Jackson State University in Mississippi and California State University, Northridge — named academic institutes in her honor, and in 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. The Ruleville post office carries her name today, as does a community center, a memorial park, a youth activities center, and the street on which she lived. Fannie Lou Hamer is remembered.

Kay Mills is the author of “This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” which was reissued in paperback in fall 2007 by the University Press of Kentucky.

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