"Never forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over."
-Fannie Lou Hamer
A woman born in poverty to sharecroppers of the Mississippi Delta, picking cotton by the age of 6 while gaining little education, Civil Rights and Woman’s Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer, born in 1917 in Montgomery, Alabama was one of the most fearless leaders in Black History.
The youngest of 20 children, she was the granddaughter of enslaved black people. At age 8 she witnessed a lynching of a Black man who spoke up for himself when whites refused to pay him for his work.
“I remember that until this day, and I won't forget it,” she recalled in an interview in 1965. Witnessing and experiencing firsthand the traumas of Jim Crow racism, fueled her to become one of the biggest Civil Rights leaders in history advocating for the right to vote and political participation that African Americans were denied. It was time to end Blacks being told by Whites Southerners where to eat, live, work, and how to behave without the threat of murder for being Black and standing up for oneself.
Hamer knew that the work to free Black People from post-slavery bondage was as heavy, if not more than when Black people were enslaved. The South used a myriad of legal and extralegal measures—including poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and KKK violence—to make it impossible for African Americans to vote.
According to SNCCdigital, in 1962, Hamer joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a vital role in organizing and encouraging black residents in the South to register to vote.
That year, at the age of forty-four, she vowed to try to register to vote. Her statement, "Nobody's free until everybody's free,” was her reason to be.
Hamer was arrested and beaten numerous times to near death for defying White Supremacy by pushing for the right to vote. Racist mobs and the police once for four days beat her. She and a group traveled to get her name on the voter rolls. They were told they had to pass a literacy test to register to vote.
After making it through the courthouse door, they were informed that they had to pass literacy tests to register to vote.
“The test involved reading and interpreting a section of the state constitution. Hamer did the best she could and left, nervously watching the armed police officers who had surrounded their bus. While she managed to leave without incident, she and her colleagues were later stopped by the police and fined for driving a bus that was quote “too yellow.”
When Hamer arrived home later that evening, the white owner of the plantation on which she and her husband, Perry, worked as sharecroppers confronted her. He gave her an ultimatum, Hamer recalled: “If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.” Her boss added, “We are not ready for that in Mississippi.”
Hamer left that evening and never returned, leaving her family behind temporarily after the landowner threatened to keep their possessions if Perry did not finish helping with the harvest. Several days later, white supremacists sprayed sixteen bullets into the home where Hamer was staying. Hamer knew the bullets, which had hurt no one, had been meant for her, yet she was undeterred. “The only thing they could do to me was to kill me,” she later said in an oral history, “and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember,” (SNCCdigital.org).
The most devastating thing that happened to Hamer was in 1961, Hamer was sterilized or given a hysterectomy without her consent when she went to a Sunflower County hospital for a minor procedure to remove a uterine tumor. She was given a hysterectomy, then called a “Mississippi appendectomy,” cruelty inflicted often against Black women in her home state, (ccrjustice.org). Hamer had several miscarriages experienced with her husband and they adopted two girls. Forced sterilization without consent was a terrible crime against Black women. New York Times Magazine reported in June 2022, a lawsuit filed revealed that “more than 100,000 mostly Black, Latina, and Indigenous women were sterilized under U.S. government programs over decades. It also officially ended this practice and forced doctors to obtain informed consent before performing sterilization procedures — though as it would turn out, forced sterilizations by state governments would continue into the 21st century.”
Unknown to Hamer’s devastating experience, what happened to her helped to shine a light on a terrible human rights abuse.
Hamer was still not deterred. With now her notoriety as an activist reaching the National spotlight, in 1964 she came to the Democratic National Convention representing an organization she helped to establish Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenging an all-white delegation to the DNC was no different from the all-white or whites only mob.
In her televised DNC speech, Hamer called out American hypocrisy. “Is this America,” she asked, as tears welled up in her eyes, “the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives are threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Hamer aired the dirty laundry and hypocrisy of the United States. “Hamer’s passionate speech set in motion a series of events that led to the 1965 passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act (VRA). Her address, combined with the nationwide protests led by black activists, compelled President Lyndon B. Johnson—who had interrupted Hamer’s speech with a press conference of his own—to introduce federal legislation that banned local laws, like literacy tests, which blocked African Americans from the ballot box.
Hamer ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Unsuccessful in her first bid for Congress, Hamer went on to run for office twice more.
Hamer remained at the forefront of the fight for black political rights. She established Freedom Farms, a community-based rural and economic development project, in 1969 in support of Black and poor white farmers. While the initiative was a direct response to the high rates of poverty and hunger in the Mississippi Delta, Freedom Farms was also a means of political empowerment. “Where a couple of years ago, white people were shooting at Negroes trying to register,” she explained in 1968, “now they say, ‘go ahead and register—then you’ll starve.’” In the late 1960s and 1970s, she called out to white Southerners who threatened to evict sharecroppers who registered to vote. And as a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which still promotes women politicians today, Hamer worked to expand women’s political participation during the 1970s.
Hamer died in 1977. She had grasped its power and was determined never to let it go. Fannie Lou Hamer's tombstone in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi is inscribed with her famous quote, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."