Fannie Lou Hamer, who was born on this date in 1917, was a voting, women’s, and civil rights advocate from Mississippi who shared more wisdom, in fewer words, than just about anyone I have ever studied. Her bio is full of leadership roles and “firsts”: co-founder and vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Summer along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and 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.
These are exceptional achievements for anyone, but Hamer had to overcome steep odds all her life. She was the 20th and last child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend, growing up in poverty. At age six Hamer joined her family picking cotton; by age 12, she left school to work. She married Perry Hamer in 1944 and the couple worked on the Mississippi plantation owned by B.D. Marlowe until 1962. Because Hamer was the only worker who could read and write, she also served as plantation timekeeper.
The National Women’s History Museum website picks up the story there.
“In 1961, Hamer received a hysterectomy by a white doctor without her consent while undergoing surgery to remove a uterine tumor. Such forced sterilization of Black women, as a way to reduce the Black population, was so widespread it was dubbed a ‘Mississippi appendectomy.’ Unable to have children of their own, the Hamers adopted two daughters.”
She began organizing voters after attending a SNCC workshop in the summer of 1961. The next year, after unsuccessfully attempting to register 17 volunteers to vote at the Indianola, Mississippi Courthouse due to an unfair literacy test, the group was “harassed on their way home, when police stopped their bus and fined them $100 for the trumped-up charge that the bus was too yellow.”
Hamer was someone who never gave up. As a result, the impact of her work is far-reaching. In perhaps the best known event from her life, she went to the Democratic National Convention in 1964 in an attempt to have the racially mixed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) recognized as the official party for the state. She failed, but her work that year and beyond was so effective that by 1968 Hamer’s vision for racial parity in delegations had become a reality and she was a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.
When I visited her grave site several years ago on a trip to the Mississippi Delta, I was reminded once again of the wisdom that came from her heart and soul. Hamer’s tombstone epitaph reads simply,
“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Throughout her life she had so many important and memorable things to say. Such as:
“Righteousness exalts a nation. Hate just makes people miserable.”
“Never to forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over.”
“That’s why I want to change Mississippi. You don’t run away from problems — you just face them.”
“With the people, for the people, by the people. I crack up when I hear it; I say, with the handful, for the handful, by the handful, cause that’s what really happens.”
And probably her best known quote, which rings as true in 2020 as it did the day she first uttered it:
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
With thanksgiving, on the anniversary of her birth, for the life and work of Fannie Lou Hamer.
More to come…