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
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, civil rights leader, and philanthropist. She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi's Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later became the vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Early life[edit]

Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the youngest of her parents', Ella and James Lee Townsend's, 20 children.[1] Her family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi in 1919 to work on the plantation of W. D. Marlow as sharecroppers.[2] Hamer picked cotton with her family, starting at the age of 6. She attended school in a one-room schoolhouse on the plantation, from 1924-1930, at which time, she had to drop out.[3] By the age of 13, Hamer could pick 200-300 pounds of cotton daily.[4] In 1944, after the plantation owner discovered that she was literate, Hamer was selected to be the plantation's time and record keeper. In 1945 she married her husband, Perry "Pap" Hamer.[2] They worked together on the plantation for the next 18 years.[5][6]

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, a combination civil rights and self-help organization, was led by Dr. T. R. M. Howard, a civil rights leader and wealthy black entrepreneur. 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.[7]

While having surgery to remove a tumor, in 1961 Hamer was also given a hysterectomy without her consent by a white doctor as a part of the state of Mississippi's plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state.[5][8] (Hamer is credited with coining the phrase "Mississippi appendectomy" as a euphemism for the involuntary or uninformed sterilization of black women, common in the South in the 1960s.[9]) The Hamers later raised two impoverished girls, who they later decided to adopt.[1]

Civil rights activism[edit]

Early activism[edit]

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, loss of their jobs, 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.[10] 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.[1][11] That same day, upon Hamer's return to her plantation, she was fired by Marlow who told her not to try to vote.[1][11]

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's colleagues were beaten by the police in the booking room.[10][12] Hamer was then taken to a cell where two inmates were ordered, by the police, to beat her using a blackjack. The police ensured she was held down during the almost fatal beating, and beat her further when she started to scream.[13]

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" guests, 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 for the movement in 1966, when he was murdered at a Standard Oil gas station in Macon County, Alabama for using a "whites-only" bathroom.[14])

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party[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, which failed to represent 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. 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. Near tears, she concluded:

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.[16][17] 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.[18] 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:

Future negotiations were conducted without Hamer, and the compromise was modified such that the Convention would select the two delegates to be seated "at-large", with no voting rights. The MFDP rejected the compromise, with Hamer making the famous quote:

In 1968 the MFDP was finally seated, after the Democratic Party adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation from their states' delegations.[17] In 1972, Hamer was elected as a national party delegate.[21]

Political activism and philanthropy[edit]

In 1964 and 1965 Hamer ran for Congress, but failed to win.[22] Hamer 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 was buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. Her tombstone is engraved with one of her famous quotes:

Her primary memorial service, held at a church, was completely full. An overflow service was held at Ruleville Central High School,[24] with over 1,500 people in attendance. Andrew Young, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations at that time, spoke at the RCHS service.[25]


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."[26]
  • 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.
  • On Oct. 6, 2012 (the 95th anniversary of Mrs. Hamer's birth), a musical written by Felicia Hunter — titled "Fannie Lou" — was premiered in New York City.[27]

William Parker - For Those Who Are, Still (2015)CD 1 - For Fannie Lou Hamer Label: AUM Fidelity Recorded at The Gallery Recording Studio, Brooklyn on March 6, 2011.

Other tributes[edit]

  • There is a Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden in Ruleville, Mississippi.[28] It was rededicated by the city on July 12, 2008.[28] The Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights Marker (part of the Memorial Garden) was unveiled on May 25, 2011.[28] A statue of Fannie Lou Hamer was unveiled in October 2012 at the Memorial Garden.[29][30][31]
  • In 1970 Ruleville Central High School held a "Fannie Lou Hamer Day".
  • In 1976 the City of Ruleville celebrated a "Fannie Lou Hamer Day".[32]
  • On June 30, 2015, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings[33] released the album "Songs My Mother Taught Me by Fannie Lou Hamer."[34]

Honors and awards[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Mills, Kay (April 2007). "Fannie Lou Hamer: Civil Rights Activist". Mississippi History Now. Mississippi Historical Society. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Badger, Anthony (2002). The Role of Ideas in the Civil Rights South. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 69. ISBN 1604736909. 
  3. ^ Chana Kai Lee. For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. University of Illinois Press, 2000, p. 6.
  4. ^ Barnwell, p. 225
  5. ^ a b "Fannie Lou Hamer Biography". Bio. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  6. ^ "Fannie Lou Hamer: Woman of Courage". Howard University. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Nelson, Jennifer (2003). Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement. New York: NYU Press. ISBN 0-8147-5827-4.
  9. ^ Jones, Alethia; Eubanks, Virginia, eds. (2014). Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. SUNY Press. p. 259. ISBN 1438451156. 
  10. ^ a b Hamer, Fannie Lou. "Testimony Before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention". Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  11. ^ a b Badger, Anthony (2002). The Role of Ideas in the Civil Rights South. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 70. ISBN 1604736909. 
  12. ^ Joiner, Lottie (2 September 2014). "Remembering Civil Rights Heroine Fannie Lou Hamer: 'I'm Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired'". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  13. ^ Fierce, Tasha (26 February 2015). "Black Women Are Beaten, Sexually Assaulted and Killed By Police. Why Don't We Talk About It?". AlterNet. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  14. ^ Chandler, D.L. (3 January 2014). "Sammy Younge Killed For Using Whites-Only Bathroom On This Day In 1966". News One. Retrieved 7 March 2015. 
  15. ^ Dreier, Peter (26 August 2014). ""I Question America" -- Remembering Fannie Lou Hamer's Famous Speech 50 Years Ago". Huffington Post. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  16. ^ Mayer, Robert (21 August 2014). "Robert H. Mayer: 50 years ago, Fannie Lou Hamer spoke up for democracy". The Morning Call. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  17. ^ a b Draper, Alan (26 August 2014). "Fannie Lou Hamer, and the still-endangered right to vote". The Indianapolis Star. Gannett. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  18. ^ Transcript: "Freedom Summer": American Experience. PBS, 2014-06-24.
  19. ^ Elbow, Peter (2012). Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford University Press. p. 61. 
  20. ^ Rubel, D. (1990), Fannie Lou Hamer: From sharecropping to politics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett.
  21. ^ a b Lemongello, Steven (24 August 2014). "Black Mississippians create legacy". Press of Atlantic City. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  22. ^ Wells, Larry (27 February 2015). "Wells: Paying Tribute to Tom Freeland". Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  23. ^ "Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 - 1977) - Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  24. ^ Barnwell, p. 226.
  25. ^ Taggart and Nash, p. 85.
  26. ^ "Sweet Honey Discography". Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  27. ^
  28. ^ a b c Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden.
  29. ^ The Grio.
  30. ^ "Statue of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer dedicated in her Mississippi Delta hometown", Fox News, October 5, 2012.
  31. ^ Fannie Lou Hamer Statue Drive.
  32. ^ Donovan, p. 62.
  33. ^ Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
  34. ^ Album: "Songs My Mother Taught Me."
  35. ^ "Honorary Degrees Issued", Library of Columbia College, Chicago, Illinois.
  36. ^ 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
  37. ^ a b Badger, Anthony (2002). The Role of Ideas in the Civil Rights South. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 79–80. ISBN 1604736909. 


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