Updated: Feb 14
Fannie Lou Hamer was the youngest of twenty children, born to Mississippi sharecroppers in 1917. Even though Polio left her with a limp, by the age of six, Fannie was expected to help pick cotton on the family’s rented farm. When she started, she worked six days a week for nothing more than food as pay. By thirteen, to earn $1 ($18 today) she was picking three hundred pounds of cotton a day in the 100° heat. Yet sickness, hard labor and poverty weren’t the only things that stole her childhood. When she was eight, she witnessed her first lynching – a memory that haunted her until the day she died.
The one positive force in Hamer’s childhood was education. During the winters when the farms were dormant, Fannie attended a one-room school house provided for sharecropper’s children between picking seasons. More than once, literacy would present defining moments in her life. The first was after she’d been forced to leave school at thirteen in order to contribute more to the family’s income. Upon learning that she could read and write, the plantation owner appointed her as the time and record keeper, sparing her from the worst of a sharecropper’s back-breaking labors. It also gave her insight into how the owners used deliberate miscalculations to short-change sharecroppers from their full earnings.
In the 1950s, Fannie was drawn to the growing civil rights movement, attending regional conventions. Her experience with discrimination fueled a growing sense of outrage. Time after time, the White world deprived her of her rights, including over her own body. Fannie and her husband, Perry Hamer, had tried to start a family but she’d suffered miscarriages and still births. In 1961, she underwent what was supposed to be a minor surgery to remove a uterine tumor. Without her consent, the White surgeon also performed a hysterectomy, destroying her chances to have a child of her own. Hamer would later refer to her forced sterilization as a “Mississippi appendectomy,” since the procedure by White doctors serving Black women was so commonplace. She reported that as many as sixty percent of poor Black women who went to a hospital for surgery ended up sterilized. She and her husband later adopted two daughters, but one died from internal bleeding after a hospital refused to admit her due to her mother’s activism.
In 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to town and Hamer learned of her constitutional right to vote. After years of inhumane treatment, she was determined to be recognized as a “first class” citizen. So with the support of SCNCC activists, Hamer and seventeen others attempted to register to vote. Once again, literacy would play a role in her journey. All but two of the seventeen were barred from entering the courthouse. Only Hamer and one man were allowed to enter and take the required literacy test. Purposely designed to deny her the right to register, the clerk’s test demanded that Hamer interpret a section of the state constitution dealing with “de facto” laws. “I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day,” Hamer scoffed.
Failing the test, she was denied registration. Her group was harassed by Whites determined to keep Negroes in their place. Upon leaving the courthouse, the police stopped the SNCC bus and the group was fined $100 because the bus was “too yellow.” The group scrounged all their money and the police let them go. Angered by her brashness, Hamer’s plantation boss fired her that night (and fired her husband at the end of that season’s harvest). Fearful of retribution from Whites who vowed to keep her in line, Hamer was forced to move from home to home among her friends. Two weeks after her attempt to register to vote, she was shot at fifteen times in a drive-by shooting. She and her family were forced to move to the next county, staying away for three months for fear of the Klan. She recalled the time saying “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.”
When Hamer returned home, she again went to the courthouse to register and again failed the literacy test. She told the clerk, "You'll see me every 30 days till I pass." A month later, Hamer finally passed the literacy test and was allowed to become a registered voter. But the quest didn’t end there. When it came time to actually cast a vote later that year, she was denied because she didn’t have the two required poll tax receipts. In time, she would clear this final hurdle to become an active voter. But all the hate that had been directed toward her in her lifetime was changing her. Rather than break her, the obstacles only steeled her determination to fight harder.
Hamer became a field secretary for the SNCC and focused on voter registration. While travelling by bus to a conference in 1963, she and other activists stopped at a café in Mississippi but were denied service. When State Highway troopers arrived and deliberately escalated the conflict, she and her group were arrested and taken to the country jail. There, they were beaten, groped, stripped and stomped. One was beaten so badly she couldn’t speak. Another failed to address an office with sufficient respect and was beaten until his eyes swelled shut. Hamer was beaten ruthlessly with a Billy club, suffering a blood clot over her left eye, permanent damage to one of her kidneys and psychological scars that would never heal. The police were never held accountable.
The intimidation tactics backfired. Hamer doubled down in her efforts to organize voter registration drives and became a mentor to young activists who would go on to challenge systemic racism - with some paying with their lives. In 1964, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to prevent the region’s all-White Democratic Party from suppressing Black voices. The MFDP travelled to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in an attempt to be recognized as the official delegation from Mississippi and to call for mandatory integration of state delegations. Although she received death threats and the police told her they would not protect her, Hamer testified before the credentials committee at the national convention. She provided her full name and address to establish herself as a resident of Mississippi, but in doing so, she also gave the national KKK a roadmap to her home and family.
President Johnson desperately needed the support of Southern Democrats to secure his nomination. Hamer’s outspoken advocacy was upsetting the White Democrats being courted by Johnson. He tried to intimidate Hamer to prevent her from testifying before the convention delegates. But she wouldn’t have it. Hamer defiantly pushed herself through a crowd of men who refused to make way for her and joined other speakers, including Martin Luther King, Jr., to testify about the injustices southern Blacks faced in attempting to vote. She shared the stories of her literacy tests, the poll taxes, being beaten and the assassination attempt. The room was captivated. Johnson had tried to divert attention from her testimony by deliberately scheduling a press conference at the exact time of her appearance. But the effort failed miserably. Instead of her story being broadcast live during a slower daytime hour, the network news instead broadcast her testimony during the evening news, reaching a far wider audience.
Despite her broad appeal, Johnson pressured the DNC to reject the MFDP’s demands. Hamer returned to Mississippi again temporarily defeated but resolved to press on. At the end of 1964, she travelled to Harlem to speak alongside Malcolm X to denounce not only the discrimination Blacks faced in the South but in the North as well. As she again chronicled all the wrongs she’d endured, she famously proclaimed that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” That same year, she launched the first of three unsuccessful campaigns to become a Congresswoman. Although she never won election, the experiences honed her organizational skills and further motivated her to make a difference. By 1968, her advocacy for integrated convention delegates came to fruition and Hamer was seated as a delegate from Mississippi.
Even with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, southern states continued to actively block Black voters from exercising their rights. Hamer sued the circuit clerk of Mississippi for restricting her right to vote. Losing in the lower court, she appealed to the U.S. Fifth District Court of Appeals and prevailed. In Hamer v. Campbell (1965), the court ruled that Hamer and others were discriminated against by being denied the right to register to vote. The elections were then overturned based on discriminatory election practices. She followed up by joining others in the class action suit United States v. Sunflower County School District (1969), which upheld that the county must desegregate two separate school systems and merge them into one.
Turning from politics, Hamer began to push for greater economic justice. In 1969, she founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative to provide Black people with land that could be owned and farmed collectively. With donors that included Harry Belafonte, the co-op obtained 680 acres of land and started a “pig bank” breeding program to provide pigs for impoverished families. It also encouraged small businesses, job training and home ownership. Though the co-op lasted less than a decade, at its peak it was the largest employer in Sunflower County.
In 1971, Hamer co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, emphasizing the power women could have by acting as a voting majority, regardless of race or ethnicity. Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and others joined her as co-founders and the organization continues to this day.
Unfortunately, decades of physical and emotional abuse took its toll on Hamer’s health. In the early 1970s, she was hospitalized for exhaustion multiple times and then diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in 1977 from hypertension and cancer at the age of fifty-nine. Andrew Young, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gave her eulogy in front of 1,500 mourners, proclaiming “None of us would be where we are now had she not been there then."
To learn more about Fannie Lou Hammer, we recommend For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer by Chana Kai Lee and “This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” by Kay Mills
To learn more about the tragic history of lynching in America, we recommend The Equal Justice Initiative’s report Lynching in America – Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror *caution – some sections may be difficult to read