Fannie Lou Hamer

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Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer 1964-08-22.jpg
Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964
Born Fannie Lou Townsend
(1917-10-06)October 6, 1917
Montgomery County, Mississippi
Died March 14, 1977(1977-03-14) (aged 59)
Mound Bayou, Mississippi
Other names Fannie Lou Hamer
Occupation social justice activist and advocate
Known for Civil Rights Activist; vice chair of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

Fannie Lou Hamer (/ˈhmər/; born Fannie Lou Townsend; October 6, 1917 – March 14, 1977) was an American voting rights activist and civil rights leader.

She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later became the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, attending the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in that capacity. Her plain-spoken manner and fervent belief in the Biblical righteousness of her cause gained her a reputation as an electrifying speaker and constant activist of civil rights.

Early life[edit]

In 1917 Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was the youngest of 20 children. Her family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi in 1919 so the family could work on the plantation of E. W. Brandon. Hamer picked cotton, and by age 13 she picked 200-300 pounds on a daily basis.[1]

Beginnings of activism[edit]

During the 1950s, Hamer attended several annual conferences of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The RCNL was led by Dr. T. R. M. Howard, a civil rights leader and wealthy black entrepreneur, and was a combination civil rights and self-help organization. The annual RCNL conferences featured entertainers, such as Mahalia Jackson, speakers, such as Thurgood Marshall and Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan, and panels on voting rights and other civil rights issues.[2] Without her knowledge or consent, she was sterilized in 1961 by a white doctor as a part of the state of Mississippi's plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state.[3]

On August 23, 1962, Rev. James Bevel, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a sermon in Ruleville, Mississippi, and followed it with an appeal to those assembled to register to vote. Black people who registered to vote in the South faced serious hardships at that time due to institutionalized racism, including harassment, the loss of their jobs, physical beatings, and lynchings; nonetheless, Hamer was the first volunteer. She later said, "I guess if I'd had any sense, I'd have been a little scared - but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember."

On August 31, she traveled on a rented bus with other attendees of Bevel's sermon to Indianola, Mississippi, to register. In what would become a signature trait of Hamer's activist career, she began singing Christian hymns, such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "This Little Light of Mine", to the group in order to bolster their resolve. The hymns also reflected Hamer's belief that the civil rights struggle was a deeply spiritual one.

Hamer's courage and leadership in Indianola came to the attention of SNCC organizer Bob Moses, who dispatched Charles McLaurin from the organization with instructions to find "the lady who sings the hymns". McLaurin found and recruited Hamer, and though she remained based in Mississippi, she began traveling around the South doing activist work for the organization.

On June 9, 1963, Hamer was on her way back from Charleston, South Carolina with other activists from a literacy workshop. Stopping in Winona, Mississippi, the group was arrested on a false charge and jailed. Once in jail, Hamer and her colleagues were beaten savagely by the police, almost to the point of death.

Released on June 12, she needed more than a month to recover. Though the incident had profound physical and psychological effects, Hamer returned to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives, including the "Freedom Ballot Campaign", a mock election, in 1963, and the "Freedom Summer" initiative in 1964. She was known to the volunteers of Freedom Summer - most of whom were young, white, and from northern states - as a motherly figure who believed that the civil rights effort should be multi-racial in nature. In addition to her "Northern" guest, Hamer played host to Tuskegee University student activists, Sammy Younge Jr. and Wendell Paris. Younge and Paris grew to become profound activsts and organizers under Hamer's tutelage. Younge ultimately gave his life to the movement in 1966, when he was assassinated in Tuskegee. Wendell Paris continued his activist career working and organizing in Tuskegee as well as Mississippi

Hamer at the Democratic National Convention[edit]

In the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or "Freedom Democrats" for short, was organized with the purpose of challenging Mississippi's all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. Hamer was elected Vice-Chair.

The Freedom Democrats efforts drew national attention to the plight of African Americans in Mississippi, and represented a challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for reelection; their success would mean that other Southern delegations, who were already leaning toward Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, would publicly break from the convention's decision to nominate Johnson — meaning in turn that he would almost certainly lose those states' electoral votes in the election. Hamer, singing her signature hymns, drew a great deal of attention from the media, enraging Johnson, who referred to her in speaking to his advisors as "that illiterate woman".

Hamer was invited, along with the rest of the MFDP officers, to address the Convention's Credentials Committee. She recounted the problems she had encountered in registration, and the ordeal of the jail in Winona, and, near tears, concluded:

"All of this is on account we want to register [sic], 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?"

In Washington, D.C., President Johnson, fearful of the power of Hamer's testimony on live television, called an emergency press conference in an effort to divert press coverage. The television networks switched to the White House from their coverage of Hamer's address, believing that Johnson would announce his vice-presidential candidate for the forthcoming November election. Instead, to the bemusement of journalists, he arbitrarily announced the nine-month anniversary of the shooting of Texas governor, John Connally, during the assassination of John F. Kennedy.[4] However, many television networks ran Hamer's speech unedited on their late news programs. The Credentials Committee received thousands of calls and letters in support of the Freedom Democrats.

Johnson then dispatched several trusted Democratic Party operatives to attempt to negotiate with the Freedom Democrats, including Senator Hubert Humphrey (who was campaigning for the Vice-Presidential nomination), Walter Mondale, and Walter Reuther, as well as J. Edgar Hoover. They suggested a compromise which would give the MFDP two non-voting seats in exchange for other concessions, and secured the endorsement of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the plan. But when Humphrey outlined the compromise, saying that his position on the ticket was at stake, Hamer, invoking her Christian beliefs, sharply rebuked him:

"Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand black people's lives? Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Now if you lose this job of Vice-President because you do what is right, because you help the MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take [the nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I'm going to pray to Jesus for you."[citation needed]

Future negotiations were conducted without Hamer, and the compromise was modified such that the Convention would select the two delegates to be seated, for fear the MFDP would appoint Hamer. In the end, the MFDP rejected the compromise, but had changed the debate to the point that the Democratic Party adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation from their states' delegations in 1968.[citation needed]

Later activism[edit]

Hamer continued to work in Mississippi for the Freedom Democrats and for local civil rights causes. She ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965, and was then seated as a member of Mississippi's official delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1968, where she was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.

She continued to work on other projects, including grassroots-level Head Start programs, the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign.


Hamer died of heart failure due to hypertension on March 14, 1977, at the age of 59 at a hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi and is buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. Her tombstone reads one of her famous quotes, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."[5] Her primary memorial service, held at a church, was completely full. An overflow memorial service was held at Ruleville Central High School,[6] with over 1,500 people in attendance. Andrew Young, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, spoke at the RCHS service.[7]


Compositions based on Hamer's life[edit]

Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Washington DC-based African American female a cappella singing group, wrote and recorded a song called "Fannie Lou Hamer."[8]

Dark River, an opera about Hamer written by composer and pianist Mary D. Watkins, premiered in November 2009 in Oakland, California.

"All of the Places We've Been" by Gil Scott-Heron with Brian Jackson was a standard at any Gil Scott-Heron show. The song was his tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer, as he stated in his DVD of a 2001 concert, New Morning: The Paris Concert. The song has also been covered by other artists, including 95 South

On Oct. 6, 2012 (the 95th anniversary of Mrs. Hamer's birth), an acclaimed new musical inspired by the life of Fannie Lou Hamer -- titled Fannie Lou and written by Felicia Hunter -- had its world premiere in New York City to sold-out audiences. Hunter currently is seeking to take the work to Broadway. [9]

Other tributes[edit]

There is a Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden in Ruleville, Mississippi.[10] It was rededicated by the city on July 12, 2008.[10]

The Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights Marker (part of the Memorial Garden) was unveiled on May 25, 2011.[10]

A statue of Fannie Lou Hamer was unveiled in October 2012 at the Memorial Garden.[11][12][13]

Pictures of the Fanny Lou Hamer Memorial Garden can be seen here...

A link using Google Maps to the location of the Memorial Garden is here...,-90.5403249,56m/data=!3m1!1e3

In 1970 Ruleville Central High School held a "Fannie Lou Hamer Day". In 1976 the City of Ruleville celebrated a "Fannie Lou Hamer Day".[14]

Quotes of Fannie Lou Hamer[edit]

"We didn't come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here. We didn't come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired."[15]

"All my life I've been sick and tired. Now I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."[16]

"Nobody's free until everybody's free."[citation needed]

Honors and awards[edit]

Hamer received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humanities from Tougaloo College and Shaw University. She also received honorary degrees from Columbia College Chicago (1970) [17] and Howard University (1972).[18] She was honored with the National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Award; The Paul Robeson Award from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority; The Mary Terrell Award and Honorary lifetime member from Delta Sigma Theta; and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. [19]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Barnwell, p. 225
  2. ^ David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Black Maverick: T. R. M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), pp. 199-200.
  3. ^ Nelson, Jennifer (2003). Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement. New York: NYU Press. ISBN 0-8147-5827-4.
  4. ^ Transcript: "Freedom Summer": American Experience. PBS, 2014-06-24.
  5. ^ Find a Grave.
  6. ^ Barnwell, p. 226.
  7. ^ Taggart and Nash, p. 85.
  8. ^ "Sweet Honey Discography". Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b c Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden.
  11. ^ The Grio.
  12. ^ "Statue of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer dedicated in her Mississippi Delta hometown", Fox News, October 5, 2012.
  13. ^ Fannie Lou Hamer Statue Drive.
  14. ^ Donovan, p. 62.
  15. ^ Rubel, D. (1990), Fannie Lou Hamer: From sharecropping to politics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett.
  16. ^ Jerry DeMuth, "Fannie Lou Hamer: Tired of Being Sick and Tired," The Nation, June 1, 1964, 548-551.
  17. ^ "Honorary Degrees Issued", Library of Columbia College, Chicago, Illinois.
  18. ^ Hamer, Fannie Lou, The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell it Like it is', Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2011. ISBN 9781604738230. Cf. p.145
  19. ^ website

Further reading[edit]

  • Asch, Chris Myers (2008). "The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer." New York: The New Press. ISBN 978-1-59558-332-1
  • Colman, Penny (1993). Fannie Lou Hamer and the Fight for the Vote. The Millbrook Press
  • Lee, Chana Kai (1999). For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-252-06936-6
  • Marsh, Charles (1997). God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02134-1
  • Mills, Kay (1993). This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. New York: Dutton.
  • Nelson, Jennifer (2003). Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement. New York: NYU Press. ISBN 0-8147-5827-4.
  • O’Dell, J. H. (1965). "Life in Mississippi: An Interview with Fannie Lou Hamer". In Freedomways 5 1965: 231-242.
  • Payne, Charles M. (1995). I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-20706-8

External links[edit]