|Fannie Lou Hamer|
Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964
|Born||Fannie Lou Townsend
October 6, 1917
Montgomery County, Mississippi
|Died||March 14, 1977
Mound Bayou, Mississippi
|Burial place||Ruleville, Mississippi|
|Known for||Civil rights activist; vice-chair of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party|
Fannie Lou Hamer (//; 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.
Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the youngest of her parents', Ella and James Lee Townsend's, 20 children. Her family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi in 1919 to work on the plantation of W. D. Marlow as sharecroppers. 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. By the age of 13, Hamer could pick 200-300 pounds of cotton daily. 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. They worked together on the plantation for the next 18 years.
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.
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. (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.) The Hamers later raised two impoverished girls, who they later decided to adopt.
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. 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. That same day, upon Hamer's return to her plantation, she was fired by Marlow who had warned her against trying to register to vote.
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. 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.
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 activists 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" restroom.)
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 blacks 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:
“ 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? —Fannie Lou Hamer ”
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. 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. —Fannie Lou Hamer ”
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:
“ 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. —Fannie Lou Hamer ”
In 1968 the MFDP was finally seated, after the Democratic Party adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation from their states' delegations. In 1972, Hamer was elected as a national party delegate.
In 1964 and 1965 Hamer ran for Congress, but failed to win. 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 complications from hypertension and breast cancer on March 14, 1977, aged 59, at Mound Bayou Community Hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. She was buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. Her tombstone is engraved with one of her famous quotes:
“ I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. —Fannie Lou Hamer ”
Her primary memorial service, held at a church, was completely full. An overflow service was held at Ruleville Central High School, 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.
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