Early Life and Education
Fannie Lou Hamer was born Fann Lou Townsend on 6th October 1917 to Ella and James Lee Townsend. Her parents were sharecroppers from Montgomery County, Mississippi who moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi to work on W.D Marlow’s plantation. Sharecropping involves leasing agricultural land to a tenant in return for a share of the profits. As a majority of African Americans did not own any land, a lot of Black Americans were involved in sharecropping to make ends meet. It was an affordable option in an era when employment and economics opportunities were limited for the Black community. She was the youngest of 20 children and began working in the cotton fields with her parents when she was just 6 years old. She was hit by polio and limped for the rest of her life. At one point, things started improving for her family and they invested in livestock. However, some of the animals were poisoned and the culprit was never caught. Throughout her life she suspected that it was done by a white supremacist who could not tolerate that ”we were getting’ somewhere.”
She attended a one room school that was open between picking seasons. She was a good students and enjoyed spelling bees and poetry. However, when she was 12 years old, she dropped out of school to start working full time in order to help her family. She continued working as a sharecropper even after her marriage to Perry Hamer in 1944. The couple worked together on a cotton plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi. She continued working on the fields until she was fired for registering to vote.
Attending Bible study at her Church helped her develop her reading and interpretation skills. Once she passed her literacy exam, she was able to work as the plantation’s time and record keeper. She and her husband worked at the Marlow plantation until 1962.
She was not able to achieve the same level and quality of education as some of her civil rights peers. However, the lack of formal education served to increase her drive to learn and made her work harder to achieve her goal. She became well known nationally and internally as an orator and was well respected for her philosophies and opinions. She was well known for her use of hymnals and quotes, and some of her quotes are still frequently used today.
Civil Rights Activism and Politics
Hamer developed an interest in activism in the 1950s after she attended the annual Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) conferences in Mound Bayou, Mississippi and heard the different leaders speak. These conferences discussed voting rights, discrimination, segregation and other issues faced by the Black communities.
However, she truly began her activism in 1962 when she registered to vote for the first time and was fired from the plantation as a consequence. It all began when she attended a local meeting of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization encouraged the attendees to register to vote. In late August 1962, she travelled with a few others to the county courthouse in Indianola and faced opposition from the local and state law enforcement, resulting in only two people (Hamer and 1 other person) being allowed to fill out an application. Her being fired from her job and removed from a place she had called home for almost 20 years only served to solidify her convictions.
She started working with the SNCC and lead voter registration campaigns. However, her efforts often left her in harm’s way. Undeterred, she dedicated her life to civil rights activism.
In 1963, she wanted to attend a pro-citizenship conference hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Charleston, South Carolina. On her way to the conference, they stopped for a break in Winona, Mississippi but were refused service in a café. Later on, they were told to leave a State highway by a patrolman wielding a billy club. Things escalated and some members of her party, including Hamer, ended up getting arrested. They were beaten up by the police in the county jail and even by two inmates who had been ordered to do so by the law enforcement. Hamer, in fact, was beaten using a Blackjack and the beating almost proved to be fatal. During the assault, she was groped, and even left exposed. A fellow activist from the SNCC was also beaten when he came to the county jail to offer help the next day.
She was released on June 12th, 1963. The incident left her with immense physical and psychological problems – some of which she was never able to recover. One of her kidneys was permanently damaged. However, she was strong in her resolve to continue her fight and returned home to organize and lead voter registration campaigns. She was one of the organizers of the 1963 Freedom Ballot and mock elections as well as the ‘Freedom Summer’ of 1964.
Freedom Summer, or Freedom Summer Project, was a campaign launched in 1964 to encourage and ensure the registration of African American voters in the state of Mississippi. It was a non-violent movement that aimed to integrate the largely disenfranchised Black community into Mississippi politics. Planning for the campaign started in late 1963 and was the result of a collaboration between multiple organizations such as the SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC – collectively working as the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO).
The plan was to help the Black residents of the state to register to vote, establish a political party based on inclusivity and representation of the opinions, needs and wants of the African American community, and to create historical and political awareness through the formation of the Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses etc. African Americans had been prohibited from participating in Democratic primaries and caucuses since the turn of the century – something which came to an end due to the efforts of the MFDP, which was formed after the Freedom Summer. While Robert Moses was the leader of the successful and monumental Freedom Summer initiative, many prominent activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Dave Denis, Julian Bond, Mary King as well as many others were a part of it.
Hamer was one of the founding members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) that was formed to fight against the all-white regional chapter of the Democratic Party. The MFDP was formed as a party for everyone, regardless of race, and to fight against injustice and discrimination faced by minorities. She attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention (DNC) as one of the official delegates from Mississippi. While her testimony was interrupted because of a scheduled speech by President Lyndon Johnson, most major networks of the time broadcast her testimony. This gave her, her party and her opinions some much needed exposure.
She was unsuccessful in her bid for US Congress in 1964. However, her efforts created a lot of awareness for her mission and the problems faced by Black Americans. She was the first Black person to run for office from her region.
Hamer and some other members of the MFDP rejected the validity of the seating of the 5 US congressmen from Mississipi due to the lack of diversity. They argued that an all-white representation in a state where Black people are prohibited from voting does not represent all elements of the state’s population. She launched a court battle, Hamer v Campbell, to suspend elections in Sunflower County until Black people were able to register fairly and to vote freely.
She and the MFDP rejected a compromise proposed by Senator Hubert Humphrey that offered two confirmed seats. She was not satisfied with the level of representation the Black community would be afforded by merely two seats. This resulted in a walkout from the white members of the Mississippi delegation.
She accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke to protestors at the Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi in 1966. She also worked on Martine Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, also known as the Poor People’s March. The 1968 campaign was an effort to gain economic justice and improve the overall situation for Black Americans through better economics opportunities. It was founded and run as a collaboration between King and the SCLC until King’s assassination. The campaign presented an organized set of demands centering on economic opportunities for Black Americans to the US Congress and involved a 3000 person strong protest on the Washington Mall. It lasted for six weeks in 1968.
She also worked on the Head Start Program. It is a program run by the Department of Health and Human Services that offers childhood education, health, nutrition and parent involvement and support services to aid low income households. The program is designed to develop familial relationships, as well as the improvement in children’s physical and emotional well-being. It was launched in 1965 by Jule Sugarman as a summer schooling program to teach children from low-income families everything they need to know before entering elementary school within a span of a few weeks.
In 1968 she, as part of the MFDB, was finally seated as a delegate for Mississippi once the Democratic Party adopted reforms and demanded equal representations from state delegations. She was elected as a national delegate in 1972. She also helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
She faced extreme opposition and tragic losses in her life time that helped shape and define her activism. In 1967, her eldest daughter, Dorothy Jean, died as a result of a mixture of anemia, malnutrition and a lack of access to health care. She, herself, had been subjected to extreme poverty and violent prejudice at different periods of her life. As a result of her experiences, she campaigned to ensure other women and members of her community were not subjected to the same problems.
She was an eloquent and much sought after orator. Using money she raised from speaking for audiences all over the United States, she lay the groundwork of the ‘Freedom Farm’ by buying the first 40 acres in 1969. She made it a mission to make land more accessible for African Americans in response to Senator Eastland’s (a campaigner against the voting rights of the Black community) efforts to use the agriculture industry to suppress and discriminate against African Americans. Hamer started the Freedom Farm to fight against this. The Freedom Farm was a cooperative, established to provide food, business and employment opportunities for African Americans. The farm had three primary objectives: to provide affordable housing, to create entrepreneurial opportunity for African Americans and to train or retrain those lacking in education so that they could excel through manual labor. This farm would grow to be bigger than 700 acres and one of the largest employers in Sunflower County.
She, along with the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), started a program to provide nutrition and other essentials to malnourished and impoverished members of her community in Sunflower County. The starting donation was a few boars and gilts that a Black family could care for, and eat or sell the offspring. Within a few years, this program grew to include thousands of pigs available for breeding and economic gain.
She was even able to help secure affordable housing for African Americans in Ruleville. When travelling nationally to raise funding for the Freedom Farm and other social and civil initiatives, she also campaigned for prison reforms and policy changes to alleviate African Americans out of poverty.
She was the youngest of 20 siblings and grew up in an impoverished household. Her parents were sharecroppers – something she would also be involved in for the majority of her life. In 1944 she married Perry ‘Pap’ Hamer and moved to the W.D Marlow plantation 4 miles outside Ruleville, Mississippi. She and her husband looked after her disabled mother while working there. Together, they lived and worked at the Marlow plantation until she was removed and fired for registering to vote.
The couple adopted two children – Dorothy Jean and Vergie Ree from their community. When Dorothy Jean died because of anemia and malnutrition in 1967, the couple adopted her daughters Jacqueline and Lenora. Dorothy’s death was the driving factor behind her efforts to provide food and financial support for the women and families in a community – a cause she successfully campaigned and raised funds for.
In 1961, doctors discovered a tumor. However, during a surgery to remove the tumor, doctors gave her compulsory hysterectomy without her consent. This was part of the state’s sterilization plan to reduce the number of poor African Americans in Mississippi. She is credited for being the one to coin the term ‘Mississipi appendectomy’ for the forced and, often, uninformed sterilization of Black women. This was a common occurrence in the Southern United States in the 1960s.
Health Issues and Death
She was an energetic and active civil rights leader that campaigned nationally and internationally for the causes she believed in, despite the fact that she faced different health problems throughout her life. She was affected by polio as a child and, as a result, had a limp for the rest of her life.
However, some of the health issues she faced were actually inflicted by others. In 1963, she was arrested on her way to attend a pro citizenship conference hosted by the SCLC in Charlestown, South Carolina. While arrested she was harassed, sexually assaulted and severely beaten by the law enforcement agencies as well as other inmates. As a direct result of the beating she received, she developed a blood clot above her left eye as well as kidney damage that lasted all her lie. She often spoke about how police brutality left her physically and psychologically affected for the rest of her life. However, after a period of recovery and recuperation from her physical injuries, she was back on her feet fighting for civil rights.
National and international tours, and coming across the prejudice, injustice and brutality faced by her community in the different parts of the country left in a state of extended mental and physical exhaustion. As a result she spent some time in the hospital in late 1971 and early 1972. She was hospitalized once again in 1974 for a nervous breakdown. By 1974, her extremely poor health was visible.
She was diagnosed with breasted cancer in 1976 and underwent a surgery. However, she never fully recovered. She died of a combination of hypertension and breast cancer in March, 1977 before entering the sixth decade of her life. She was buried in Ruleville, Mississippi. She was so well loved that two memorial services had to be held to accommodate over 1500 people that came to pay their last respects. Her eulogy was delivered by Andrew Young – the US Ambassador to the United Nations.
Legacy, Awards and Honors
• She received a Doctor of Law from Shaw University
• She received honorary doctorates from multiple universities such as Columbia College, Tougaloo College, and Howard University
• She was, posthumously, inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993
• She was named the “First Lady of Civil Rights,” by the League of Black Women
• She received the “Noble Example of Womanhood” and the Mary Church Terrell Awards
• Ruleville Central Highschool celebrated a Fannie Lou Hamer Day
• The City of Ruleville celebrated a Fannie Lou Hamer Day in 1976
• The Ruleville post office was renamed the Fannie Lou Hamer Post Office through an Act of Congress in 1994
• The Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship Democracy – a summer seminar and workshop for young students – was founded in 1997
• Hamer is one of the civil rights activists mentioned on the Freedom Wall in Buffalo
• There is a Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in Bronx, New York
• The DNC honored Fannie Lou Hamer in 2004 on the 40th anniversary of the MDP’s MFDP’s Credentials Committee Challenge
• The US Congress reauthorized and renamed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King
• She was among the 12 civil rights pioneers honored on stamps by the US Postal Service on the 100th Anniversary of the NAACP in 2009
• An 8-foot statue of her likeness is erected in Ruleville, Mississippi in 2012 on her birthday
• The University of California at Berkeley opened a Fannie Lou Hamer Resource Center in 2017
• The 2019 Women’s March in Atlantic City was dedicated to Fannie Lou Hamer
• Her most famous quote “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” is a frequently quoted part of pop culture
• To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography – By Fannie Lou Hamer in 1967
• Multiple speeches at conventions, conferences and events nationwide as well as internationally
• She was fond of poetry and included it frequently in her speeches