Home > Uncategorized > Recognizing and remembering Fannie Lou Hamer – posted 11/21/2021

Recognizing and remembering Fannie Lou Hamer – posted 11/21/2021

In recognizing and acknowledging heroes of the modern-day civil rights movement, a number of male names come immediately to mind but not so many female names. I would like to elevate and highlight Fannie Lou Hamer for her under-recognized contributions to the civil rights movement. Her story is not well-known.

Born in 1917, Hamer was the youngest of twenty children. Her parents were Mississippi sharecroppers, engaged in a constant struggle for survival of their family. Starting when she was six, she had to pick cotton. By the age of thirteen, she was picking 200-300 pounds of cotton daily. Considering that she suffered from polio and had a gait problem with a limp, that is impressive.

Her family was often hungry. Her mother fed her children greens with flour gravy. Hamer did not own shoes. She tied rags to her feet in the winter.

Hamer only got six years of schooling and had to drop out of school at age twelve to work full-time picking cotton on a plantation. She went to school after harvest as the limited education that was available was organized around work production needs.

Because of her literacy, the plantation owner selected Hamer as the time and record keeper at the plantation. She worked there for eighteen years and that is where she met her future husband. Her parents had unsuccessfully tried to escape the plantation by renting a farm, buying mules and tools for farming. However, a white neighbor poisoned their mules. This set the family back into debt peonage.

This was a time when blacks were absolutely expected to be subservient to white people. Whites controlled where black people could live and where they could work. Any transgressions in how black people acted would be met with devastating consequences. When she was eight, Hamer experienced the lynching of a black man who had spoken up when he was not paid for his work.

In 1961, Hamer went to the doctor for what she believed was a uterine surgery for a tumor. Without her knowledge or consent, she was sterilized by a white doctor. Hamer coined the phrase “Mississippi appendectomy” to refer to such hysterectomies. Involuntary medical procedures were part of Mississippi’s plans to reduce the number of impoverished blacks in the state. White supremacists deemed blacks unfit to reproduce.

By the early 1960’s, only five percent of Mississippi’s black people were registered to vote. Blacks were entirely shut out of the political process. In spite of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, mob violence, grandfather clauses, poll taxes and literacy tests were all part of a comprehensive scheme to deny the franchise to black citizens.

Until 1962 Hamer never knew that black people could register and vote. On August 23, 1962, she went to hear Rev. James Bevel of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC speak. That was a night that changed the trajectory of her life. After learning of her constitutional rights, Hamer volunteered for SNCC to register people to vote.

Possibly readers will remember the movie Mississippi Burning. Or the Nina Simone song Mississippi Goddam. Registering black voters in Mississippi in the early 1960’s was genuinely life threatening. Think Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

When Hamer went to register to vote in Indianola, Mississippi she was met by a wall of armed guards at the door of the courthouse. You might have thought she and her activist friends were breaking into a bank.

In her biography of Hamer, Until I am Free, the historian Keisha N. Blain described the scene. As part of registering to vote, Hamer and other activists were forced to take literacy tests. The registrar produced a section of the Mississippi constitution about de facto laws and asked her to interpret its meaning. Hamer said, “I knowed about as much about a de facto law as a horse knows about New Year’s.” She went on:

“By the time the eighteen of us going in two by two had finished taking the literacy test – now there’s people, mind you, there that day with guns, dogs and rifles. Some of them looking exactly like Jed Clampett with the Beverly Hillbillies, only they wasn’t kidding.”

On the way home from the failed attempt to register, the police stopped the old school bus in which they were traveling. The police charged the driver for driving a bus that was “too yellow” and forced the bus to return to the courthouse. The passengers had to pay an expensive fine to resolve the matter but they made it home safely.

That night the plantation owner where Hamer worked came by and told her that she had to leave the plantation unless she withdrew her voter registration. Hamer left the plantation but refused to withdraw her voter registration. Several nights later, white supremacists sprayed her house with bullets.

In 1963, after attending a voter workshop in South Carolina, the police in Winona, Mississippi dragged Hamer to jail after she had stopped to get a bite to eat. The owners of the cafe where she stopped would not serve black people. The police viciously assaulted Hamer physically and sexually. She was hit with a blackjack. She suffered permanent damage to her kidney and a blood clot in her left eye that hurt her vision. It took a month to recover from the assault.

Hamer had to take the literacy test to vote three times before she passed. Such tests were ultimately outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Hamer’s persistence made me think of a James Baldwin quote:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

In that time, the Mississippi Democratic Party barred black participation. When Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the summer of 1964 she became a prominent national figure. She and other activists protested the all white delegation at the Democratic National Convention held in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Hamer argued that her delegation should be the official delegation from Mississippi to the convention. She spoke to the Credentials Committee. President Lyndon Johnson was so freaked out that he gave an emergency press conference to pre-empt and distract from her speech. Johnson wanted to prevent her testimony from getting a wide audience since he feared losing the Southern white vote. Johnson’s ploy did not work.

Hamer’s speech was aired later over the three networks. It vividly recounted Mississippi realities. Hamer had a gift for public speaking. The civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton described Hamer as “an unbelievably brilliant orator and conceptualizer…You’ve never heard a room flying like one Fannie Lou set afire”.

Johnson’s Vice-President Hubert Humphrey tried to persuade Hamer and the other Mississippi freedom activists to accept a compromise that would allow token representation of two non-voting representatives. Hamer refused. Hamer lost in 1964 but her actions did lead to change in 1968. The Democrats required equality of representation at their conventions after that.

Hamer remained active in the civil rights movement until her death in 1977 at age 59. She was a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus which was started to recruit more women of all races to run for office. Hamer helped thousands of African Americans to become registered voters.

Historian Blain correctly notes how Hamer speaks directly to our time with voting rights again under attack. This time it is the Republican Party that has organized nationally, passing laws to make it harder to vote. The Republicans are today’s Jim Crow Party dedicated to white supremacy. Their voter suppression efforts must be vigorously opposed.

Those who may be discouraged or frightened by the voter suppression going on now can obtain strength from Hamer’s example. She successfully fought under far more trying circumstances than currently exist. To quote her:

“We have a long fight and this fight is not mine alone. But you are not free whether you are white or black, until I am free. Because no man is an island to himself. And until I’m free in Mississippi, you are not free in Washington; you are not free in New York.”

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