Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie. Lou. Hamer. As I say her name over and over in my mind, tears glistening my face, I wonder why her story has such a profound effect on me. I’ve seen and read countless horror stories of brutality, lynchings, burnings, and a myriad of other atrocities inflicted upon enslaved people. Why then, does her story burn my soul so deeply? Perhaps it’s partly because she’s a woman with amazing tenacity. A woman who has withstood the horrors, the humiliation, and brutality yet, against all odds, came back stronger than before. Perhaps it's because she was only a few years older than my own mother yet experienced hardships my mother and her offspring were spared. Perhaps it’s because I’m reading her story amid current day attempts to undo all that she and all our civil rights activists fought for. A sense of horror washes over me, knowing that the valiant fight she and so many others fought may all have been in vain. The possibility that our right to vote could very well be obliterated, leaves me feeling so angry. Perhaps it’s all the above.
Fannie Lou Townsend was born on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She only had a sixth-grade education, having to leave school to work on a plantation with her family as sharecroppers. In 1944, she married Perry Hamer and continued to work on a plantation. She and her husband longed to have children of their own. However, when admitted to the hospital to have a uterine fibroid tumor removed, a relatively minor operation, the white doctor who operated on her gave her a complete hysterectomy, without her consent. This practice was so common it was tagged as the “Mississippi appendectomy”. Hence, she and her husband later adopted two daughters.
One day, Ms. Hamer decided to attend a meeting with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That meeting left her feeling incensed by the ongoing efforts to deny Blacks the right to vote. Hence, she became a SNCC organizer. On August 31, 1962, she led 17 volunteers to register to vote at a Mississippi Courthouse. After given an unfair literacy test, they were denied the right to vote. On the way home, the police stopped their bus and fined them $100 because the bus was too yellow. (Yes, it actually says that on the History page). That night, the plantation owner fired her because she dared try to vote. The owner also confiscated much of the personal property she and her husband owned, including their car. Shortly thereafter, on September 10, while staying with a friend, 15 shots were fired at her, but she managed to avoid any bullets. She and her husband eventually moved to Ruleville, Mississippi with very little possessions.
On December 4, she attempted to register again, and again failed the unfair test. She promised to keep returning until she was allowed to register. On January 10, 1963, she took the test a third time and passed. She was told she was now registered to vote. However, on election day she learned she had no power to vote as she needed to pay poll taxes and show receipts.
Ms. Hamer became even more active with the SNCC and in 1963 attended a SCLC conference in Charleston, SC. On the way home, traveling by bus with co-activists, they stopped at a café in Winona, Mississippi. After being refused service by a waitress, a Mississippi patrolman came in and used his Billy club to chase the activists out of the café. The police made some arrests, but Hamer was on the bus. She got out to ask if it was okay for them to leave and the officers, in turn, arrested her as well. Once in the jail, some of Hamer’s co-activists, including a 15-year-old girl, were beaten for not addressing the officers as “sir”. Hamer was taken to a jail cell where two inmates were ordered to beat her with a blackjack. When Ms. Hamer screamed and squirmed, the officers held her still, groped her, and pulled her dress up to expose her body. The inmates were forced to beat her mercilessly. When finally released, weeks later, Ms. Hamer suffered permanent kidney damage, leg damage and a blood clot over one eye.
Having recuperated well enough to walk again, Ms. Hamer returned to her activist role, one month later. She continued to organize numerous voter registration drives. In 1964, she formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the dominant force in the Democratic Party, the pro-segregationists. That same year, she ran for congress. Although her bid was unsuccessful, it elevated the MFPD to national recognition. She trained hundreds of college students, many of whom were white, to become civil rights activists and to help register people to vote. She was well known for her steadfast spirit, supported by her magnificent voice which she used to sing spiritual songs at churches to encourage parishioners to vote.
Ms. Hamer then set her sights on the Democratic National Convention. Her goal was to prevent the regional, all-white Democratic Party’s attempt to stifle African American voices. The MFDP traveled to the convention to stand as the official delegation from Mississippi. Due to her lack of education and limited ability to articulate effectively, she was looked down upon by President Lyndon Johnson and others. In fact, Pres. Johnson attempted to suppress her speech at the convention by announcing a televised speech of his own. However, due to the emotional and powerful impact of her speech, most stations eventually televised it. She spoke of her attempts to register to vote as well as the harassments, hardships, and the beating she underwent while in jail. Hubert Humphrey attempted to compromise with Hamer, offering them two seats. However, Hamer rejected the offer and demanded more. In 1968, the MFDP was seated as the official delegation from Mississippi.
Once she returned to Mississippi from the convention, Hamer was in high demand. She became a major fundraiser for civil rights organizations, continued her work for voting rights, worked on school desegregation issues, instituted livestock and agricultural co-ops for more economic prosperity and was involved in Head Start programs for low-income children of all races.
In 1977, Fannie Lou Hamer died of complications with heart disease and cancer.
She is the epitome of Maya Angelou’s poem: “And Still I Rise”!!
Wikipedia – Fannie Lou Hamer