Friday, April 29, 2016

Fannie Lou Hamer, Civil Rights Activist

Fannie Lou at the Democratic National Convention,
Atlantic City, August 1964.
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
Fannie Lou Hamer was a voting rights activist and vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her testimony about being beaten while in the custody of police captured the attention of the nation. 

"Nobody's free until everybody's free."~ Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Townsend was born on October 6th, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was the youngest of 20 children born to Jim and Ella Townsend. The whole family worked as sharecroppers, and Fannie Lou began working at the age of six in the fields. There was not much money, clothing, or food to go around, and she often went hungry.

Fannie attended school until the age of 12, then dropped out to work in the fields full time. From 1944 to 1962 she worked for a farm owner named W. D. Marlow. When Marlow found out Fannie could read and write, he made her the time and record keeper of the plantation, in addition to cleaning and cooking for the household.

In 1945, Fannie Lou married Perry "Pap" Hamer, a tractor farmer on the Marlow farm. She described him as "a man of few words" and "steady as a rock." The couple could not conceive children, and when Fannie Lou went to the hospital to be examined and find out why, she was told she had a tumor that needed to be removed.

"Mississippi Appendectomy"

During the 1950s some southern states practiced involuntary sterilization as a way of controlling the population. Not surprisingly, the focus of these sterilizations (often performed without consent) was predominantly black women.

[As a side note, this practice continued through the 1970s and 80s, as described in Dorothy Roberts' book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty:

"During the 1970s sterilization became the most rapidly growing form of birth control in the United States, rising from 200,000 cases in 1970 to over 700,000 in 1980. It was a common belief among Blacks in the South that Black women were routinely sterilized without their informed consent and for no valid medical reason. Teaching hospitals performed unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women as practice for their medical residents.

"This sort of abuse was so widespread in the South that these operations came to be known as 'Mississippi appendectomies.'"]

Fannie Lou was only told later that during the operation to remove the tumor, she was also given a hysterectomy. She was outraged. Determined to have children, Fannie Lou and Pap Hamer would adopt four children from poor families: two boys and two girls.

Activist for Civil Rights

Fannie Lou joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) after walking past a sign one night, posted outside a building. The sign was advertising a mass meeting to learn about voting. At the time, Fannie Lou didn't know what a mass meeting was - "I just went inside, to see what it was all about."

Inside, she learned from members of the SNCC that black people had the right to vote - this was the first time Fannie Lou had heard this news. She decided on the spot that she would register to vote.

Fannie Lou began working on the voter registration committee, helping potential black voters learn to read and write so they could pass the test. Together with a group of 17 other SNCC members Fannie Lou travelled to Indiana to try to resister to vote, but the registrar only let two of them take the test, Fannie Lou and one of the men. Neither of them passed.

When Fannie Lou returned that night to the plantation where she lived and worked, she was met by her husband cautiously, and he warned her that her employer was looking for her. Marlow had heard of Fannie Lou attempting to register to vote and was angry about it, saying that Mississippi "wasn't ready for that yet."

He told Fannie Lou to withdraw her registration, or leave - then said she might have to leave anyway.

In a testimony later before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention, Fannie Lou would describe what happened next. She told Marlow, "I didn't try to register for you. I tried to register for myself."

After that, "I had to leave that same night," she would later state.

Turning to activism

After being kicked off the plantation Fannie Lou took her family to stay with friends, but her location was discovered by the KKK and they were shot at in their friends' home. Fannie Lou began pursing activism full time.

In her home, 1964
She believed passionately that the key to improving the economic and political position of the black community was in gaining the power to vote. Fannie Lou took the voter registration test twice more before she passed, having told the registrar she would be back every month to take the test until that happened.

When it became clear that the federal government would not be offering assistance to black people who were being turned away from registration offices for bogus or illegal reasons, Fannie Lou co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1963. The party registered 60,000 new black voters across the state.

Returning home from a training convention on day in June 1963, the bus Fannie Lou was on stopped in  Winona, Mississippi. Fannie Lou stayed on the bus while a few SNCC members she was traveling with disembarked, to either use the restroom or stop by the restaurant.

When the SNCC members returned to the bus, they told Fannie Lou they had been ordered out of the restaurant by the local police. As the SNCC members gathered on the bus, they were approached by the police, who screamed at them and ordered them off the bus.

The group was arrested and taken to the jail, where Fannie Lou was badly beaten. As she sat in her cell prior, she could hear the voices and screams of another women cry out for God to have mercy on them. That woman was beaten for a very long time.

After than, three white police officers brought two of the black male prisoners into Fannie Lou's cell and ordered the men to beat her. They beat her until they were exhausted and she was screaming. She nearly died from her injuries that night.

The group would not be treated for their wounds or released from jail for three days.

Upon their release, they learned of the death of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evars on the front steps of his house in Mississippi the previous day - this news shocked the group due to their close bond with Evars, and his critical role in getting the first black student accepted to the University of Mississippi.

After recovering from her injuries so she could once again travel, Fannie Lou toured the country telling her story of how she was beaten by the police. In this manner, she raised more money than any other member of the SNCC.
Fannie Lou protesting for the right to vote, 1964.
Running for seats

With the backing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), Hamer ran for Congress in 1964, challenging veteran Congressman Jaime Whitten who had been elected to office twelve times previously.

In an interview with The Nation, Fannie Lou said, "I'm showing the people that a Negro can run for office." Reporter Jerry DeMuth would later write the following of Fannie Lou in The Nation:

"Her deep, powerful voice shakes the air as she sits on the porch or inside, talking to friends, relatives and neighbors who drop by on the one day each week when she is not campaigning. Whatever she is talking about soon becomes an impassioned plea for a change in the system that exploits the Delta Negroes. 'All my life I've been sick and tired,' she shakes her head. 'Now I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.'"

Fannie Lou would not be elected, but her candidacy was an important step in bringing attention to the SNCC and setting the stage for the Democratic Convention later in the year.

As the MFDP prepared for the Democratic Convention where they planned to challenge the seating of the all-white delegates of Mississippi, Fannie Lou was a driving force not only in raising money, but in convincing other party members that there was value in an integrated movement. While some members of the party had trouble trusting outsiders, such as the white people from the north, Fannie Lou encouraged them to drop their objections. "If we are trying to break down the barrier of segregation, we can't segregate ourselves," she would tell them.

When it came time for the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, MFDP members sent an integrated team of 64 black and 4 white delegates, to try to convince the Credentials Committee to seat them as official delegates.

Wrath of a President

President Lyndon Johnson needed the support of the Southern Democratics to win his bid for re-election, so he intended to block the MFDP members from gaining any seats. Fannie Lou was one of the members who testified before the committee to explain what they deserved delegate seating.

Appearing on August 22nd, 1964, Fannie Lou and told her story of being beaten in a police station for trying to register herself and others to vote.

She ended with the following: "All of this is on account of we want to register, 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?"

Alarmed by the provocative and compelling nature of her speech, President Lyndon Johnson tried to preempt it with an impromptu press conference, but all the television networks carried her testimony that night, broadcasting it to an even bigger audience. For many white people, it was the first time they had heard in graphic detail the experience of being black in America.

Slow Change

Under pressure from President Johnson, the Democratic Credentials Committee dropped their support of the MFDP. As a gesture, they offered two seats to the party, but made it clear that neither seat could go to Hamer - "The President has said that he will not let that illiterate woman speak on the floor of the Democratic Convention."

The MFDP rejected the offer, Hamer's voice among them, proclaiming "We didn't come all this way for no two seats."

Back in Mississippi in the years following the convention, Fannie Lou continued to tour the country to raise money for the MFDP and help black people sign up to vote, even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Other work she did for the community included establishing Head-Start programs for low income children of all races, and helping arrange legal support for trials involving school desegregation.

She became less active in later years as her health deteriorated, the result of a lifetime in poverty, her 1963 beating, and a diagnosis of cancer in 1976. Fannie Lou died in 1977 from complications associated with heart disease and cancer.

Her funeral was attended by hundreds of friends and leaders from the community, who spoke in celebration of her life and everything she had given to her passion: her drive for voting and civil rights.


"You don't run away from problems - you just face them."

  • Fannie Lou Hamer, staff,, 2009.
  • Fannie Lou Hamer: Woman of Courage. Moreland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University Library System, Howard University Website. 2016.
  • Day 17: Mississippi appendectomies and reproductive justice, Sara Kugler, MSNBC, April 2nd, 2014.
  • Fannie Lou Hamer Biography, Editors, A & E Television Networks, 2016.
  • Say it Plain - America RadioWorks, Fannie Lou Hamer. American Public Media, 2016. 
  • Biography: Fannie Lou Hamer. Freedom Summer, WGBH American Experience,, 2016. 

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