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Heroines of History: These are American women, and their actions were not motivated by fortune or fame. There was no glory, and in many cases very little recognition for their activities. They simply did what needed to be done, and they did so in an extraordinary way. They roared without making a sound and it is time that they were given a voice. Fannie Lou Hamer, we hear you.
Fannie Lou Hamer was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and although she started her activism late in life, she was hell-bent on making a difference, no matter what got in her way.
Fannie Lou was born on October 6, 1917, on the Mississippi Delta. Her parents were sharecroppers and she was the youngest of twenty children. She started working the fields picking cotton by the age of six and dropped out of school not that long after so that she could help support her family full time. She married Perry “Pap” Hamer in 1942, also a sharecropper, and began to eke out a living at a new plantation. For Fannie Lou, and most other African Americans on the Mississippi Delta, this was the only way of life that she knew, and active groups like the KKK sought to keep it that way.
However, in 1962, one meeting would change Fannie’s life forever. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) held an informational meeting at her local church, where she learned for the first time that she had the right to vote. By the end of the meeting the SNCC asked if anyone was interested in registering to vote, and Fannie was the first to raise her hand. So on August 31, Fannie and 17 others boarded a bus and travelled the twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola. Only two people were allowed to take the literacy test and on the way home, their bus was stopped and forced to turn around. Once back in Indianola, the bus driver was charged with “driving a bus the wrong color” and only after they were able to come up with enough money to pay the fine were they allowed to return home.
Upon returning home, Fannie was in for a rude shock. The plantation owner informed her that there was no room for registered voters on his plantation. So she had a choice, she could remove her name from the list, or get off his land. Fannie Lou Hamer moved that night. Then the death threats started. Ten days later sixteen shots were fired into the room of the house that she had been staying in, but she had thankfully already moved on. Instead of acting as a deterrent, these threats spurred her on to do more. Fannie Lou began working for the SNCC to register people to vote and to help tutor them so that they could pass the literacy test.
In June of 1963, Hamer and a group of other SNCC workers were returning from a training workshop when they stopped at a rest stop for food. As fate would have it, a couple of local law enforcement officers were in the diner and arrested several from their group for failing to observe the “White Only” dining policy. Despite the fact that Fannie had remained on the bus and had never stepped foot in the diner, she was arrested when she stepped off the bus to see what was happening. They were booked in Winona, MS, and thrown into cells. Shortly thereafter, Fannie was removed from her cell and brought to another, where a State Highway Patrolman ordered two black prisoners to savagely beat her with a police blackjack. It was several days before the SNCC were able to get her and the other prisoners who were beaten to a hospital.
Fannie Lou never fully recovered from the beating, she suffered from permanent kidney damage, a blood clot in her left eye, and she walked with a limp for the rest of her life. However, when she had regained her strength, Fannie went back to work for the SNCC travelling across the country telling her story. Her honest, plainspoken speeches touched all those who heard her, and she was able to raise more money and awareness for the SNCC than any other representative.
In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and with their support she ran for congress. She had no chance of winning, but in interviews said that she did it to prove that it could be done. However, the true goal of the MFDP was to win seats at the Democratic National Convention for black delegates. The MFDP travelled to Atlantic City, NJ, to challenge the Credential Committee with their claim that Mississippi’s all white delegation didn’t adequately speak for the black citizens of Mississippi, in large part due to the obtrusive laws and fear of bodily harm preventing potential voters from successfully registering and voting. On August 22, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer stood up in front of national television cameras and the Credential Committee to tell her story and plead the case of the MFDP. However, fearing her speech would trigger an extreme backlash in the South, President Lyndon B. Johnson broke into the live telecast with an impromptu press conference, silencing her words.
What President Johnson hadn’t counted on though, was that all of the major networks played her speech in its entirety later that evening. Her speech helped to open the nation’s eyes to the reality of the discrimination on the Delta. However, despite the support that came pouring in from across the nation, the MFDP was denied their request. As compensation two of their delegates were granted speaking rights, and the others were seated as honorable guests. It wasn’t until four years later, in Chicago, that the MFDP were granted their seats. Hamer received a standing ovation as she took her seat as not only the first African American, but also the first woman to be an official delegate of a national party convention from the state of Mississippi.
Fannie Lou Hamer served as a Democratic National committee representative from 1968-1971 ran for Mississippi state senate in 1971 and acted as a delegate to the DNC in 1972. Hamer challenged educators to start including black history in schools; she started a daycare with the National Council of Negro Women and organized 640 acres of Freedom Farmland. Fannie Lou Hamer continued to fight, until her body could fight no more. She died on March 14, 1977, from breast cancer. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame on February 18, 1995, and her speech from the 1964 Democratic Convention is inscribed on a column in the Civil Rights Garden in Atlantic City, NJ.
Fannie Lou Hamer, this is in your honor. Thank you for all that you did.