fannie lou hamer
Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Fannie Lou Hamer, Civil Rights-Era Leader

October 06, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Fannie Lou Hamer, uttered the powerful words: “All my life I've been sick and tired. Now I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." A Mississippi sharecropper, voting rights activist and congressional candidate, she was beaten and nearly killed in her efforts to register African-Americans at the polls.

The Education of an Activist

Fannie Lou Hamer, was born on Oct. 06, 1917 the youngest of 20 children born to a sharecropping Mississippi family. She was an accidental activist whose formal education ended in the sixth grade. In 1962, she heard for the first time that African Americans were allowed to vote (black men were given the right to vote after the Civil War; black women in 1920). Even though those rights existed on paper, in an era of Jim Crow laws and extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, most were unaware of what their rights were.

In 1963, Hamer passed the then-required literacy test in order to register to vote. She began volunteering at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register others. As a result, she was fired from the Sunflower County, Mississippi plantation where she had lived as well as worked for nearly two decades. Sina Dubovoy, author of a biography of Hamer, wrote that, at the time, “[t]he Mississippi Delta was the world's most oppressive place to live if you were black."

Defending a Free Country

In 1963, Hamer and other SNCC volunteers were arrested in Mississippi. Hamer was beaten and suffered serious injuries. But this didn’t silence Hamer—in fact, the beatings emboldened her. She traveled through the nation as a speaker, recounting the beatings and her efforts to register voters. Hear Hamer tell her story to the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

In a 1965 hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives, Hamer said: “It is only when we speak what is right that we stand a chance at night of being blown to bits in our homes. Can we call this a free country, when I am afraid to go to sleep in my own home in Mississippi?... I might not live two hours after I get back home, but I want to be a part of setting the Negro free in Mississippi.”

Because African-Americans’ rights were not reflected in the Democratic National Party, Hamer and other activists formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The “Freedom Democrats” challenged the all-white delegation of the state’s Democratic Party. (No Freedom Democrats were seated, much to the dismay of civil rights activists.)  But Hamer pressed on. She was so successful in gaining attention for civil rights that during incumbent U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaign in Mississippi, he lashed out at her by calling her “that illiterate woman.”

Honoring Fannie Lou Hamer

From the late 1960s until her death in 1977, Hamer continued her political campaigns. She worked with the Freedom Farms Corporation, a nonprofit that helped poor blacks with farming aid and education. She brought Head Start into her community. And she was on the board of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

The Mississippi House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution in 1972 honoring Hamer’s activism. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

The 1993 biography This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer offers more information about this extraordinary woman's life.

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