Fannie Lou Hamer was the 20th child of Lou Ella and James Lee Townsend, and was born in 1917. At the age of six, she joined her family in the cotton fields. While she managed to finish some years of schooling, she was picking hundreds of pounds of cotton a day by adolescence.
She married Perry Hamer, known as Pap, in the early 1940s and served alongside him at W.D. Marlow’s plantation near Ruleville, Sunflower County. The skill of Hamer to read and write gave her the timekeeper post, a less physically challenging and more prestigious job in the sharecropping system.
The Hamers adopted two children, girls whose own families could not take care of them. Hamer’s pregnancies had all failed and Fannie Lou Hamer came to the hospital in 1961 when she was 44 years old to remove a small uterine tumor that is now considered to be fibroid. She was given a hysterectomy without her awareness or permission whilst she was under anesthesia. This was widely known as a “Mississippi Appendectomy.” This gross form of medical abuse was a standard procedure against many African American women. Often, many women believed that a particular operation would be done for a persistent medical reason, such as lower abdominal pain, but compulsory sterilization occurred during anesthesia. These needless hysterectomies on impoverished Black women have often been conducted as “practice” in hospitals for medical schools.
Around 70,000 involuntary sterilizations happened in the United States until 1960. Either people with learning disabilities or vulnerable women of color were one of the main casualties.
According to a study, 60% of Black women suffering similar health conditions received involuntary sterilization in Sunflower County in Mississippi.
“In the North Sunflower County Hospital, I would say about six out of the 10 Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied,” Three years later, she told an audience in Washington, DC.
One of the moments that put Hamer on the way to the leadership of the Mississippi Civil Rights movement was the involuntary sterilization, but the event that took her into a leadership role came a year later.
This atrocity and personal trauma became an important part in Hamer’s life and eventually helped her to begin to join the Campaign for Civil Rights. The student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) voted in the summer of 1962 to attend a conference that urged African Americans to vote.
In the same year, Hamer, along with seventeen others, appeared in the Indianola Courthouse to vote. This effort failed and led to Hamer and volunteers being threatened. She was fired that night and kicked off the plantation where she had been working for more than two decades. But it just strengthened her willingness to vote to support other African Americans do the same.
Now an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, Fannie Lou Hamer organized election registration and relief efforts, risking her life in the process. Hamer was threatened, beaten and imprisoned during all these ordeals. She had been harshly beaten at the jailhouse with several other women, suffering from a blood clot in her eye, a leg injury, and permanent renal loss.
In 1964, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and declared her candidacy for Congress. Hamer’s activism never wavered. Even if she lost, her attention was still focused on the battle for civil rights in the country. Hamer’s efforts have not been in vain and her legacy lives on
In 1976, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She persisted with her struggle for civil rights in spite of being ill. On March 14, 1977, Hamer died. She was buried with her most famous quotation “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired” in the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden in Ruleville, Mississippi. The Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation (FLHCF) was established in 2004 to support cancer prevention and reduction in the Mississippi Delta Region.