black history month: celebrating the life of fannie lou hamer, the mother of voter equality
February 13, 2015
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Bob Moses once noted that during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, President Johnson wasn’t “afraid of Martin Luther King’s testimony, he’s afraid of Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony.” Though she lacked the fiery studied oratory style of her peers, Fannie Lou Hamer’s horrifying account of the beating she experienced, simply for trying to help register black voters, captivated the national attention. Johnson feebly tried to divert the attention by calling an impromptu press conference to announce the nine month anniversary of the shooting of Texas Governor John Connally, who was injured during the Kennedy assassination. While the live national broadcast of the DNC was preempted momentarily, the damage was done. Many news outlets broadcast Fannie Lou Hamer’s powerful speech in their nightly news. Her words, “All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” were instantly immortal.
By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor
Born in 1917, the youngest of 20, to a sharecropping family in rural Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer’s parents worked hard to make sure their kids had a better life. In interviews, Hamer recounts her mother wearing rags to make sure her children had decent clothes. She attended school on and off until she was 13, when she left to help pick cotton with her family.
In 1945, Fannie Lou married Perry “Pap” Hamer. The two moved to Ruleville, Mississippi where they lived and worked on a cotton plantation. They were unable to have children of their own, but adopted two daughters from families who were unable to care for them. In 1961, Fannie Lou was told the reason for her infertility was a small cyst. She went to have the cyst removed, and when she woke up from surgery, she discovered the doctor had performed a hysterectomy without her consent. This was part of an officially sanctioned program to forcibly sterilize poor black women in Mississippi. Estimates go as high as 60 percent of black women in Sunflower County, Mississippi were forcibly sterilized after giving birth during the 50s and early 60s.
Though she had attended a few meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in the 50s, Fannie Lou Hamer didn’t become involved in activism herself until 1962. Bob Moses and the SNCC came to Ruleville in August 1962 to talk about voter registration. Hamer had never heard of voting.
“Well, I didn’t know anything about voting. I didn’t know anything about registering to vote. One night I went to the church. They had a mass meeting. And I went to the church, and they talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote. They were talking about we could vote out people that we didn’t want in office. We thought that wasn’t right, that we could vote them out. That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it. I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote.”
Fannie Lou Hamer and 17 others from the meeting took a bus to Indianola, Mississippi to register to vote. Tensions were high, and Fannie Lou sang hymns like “This Little Light of Mine” for encouragement. Her strong singing voice became her calling card. Fifteen were turned away, but Fannie Lou and Ernest Davis wre allowed to take a literacy test. The notoriously racist tests called for black voters to interpret sections of the state Constitution to the advantage of the white power structure. Fannie Lou failed the test, but was determined to pass.
On the way back, the threat that just those 18 people posed to the white supremacists of Mississippi was clear. The bus driver was arrested and detained, and and when Fannie Lou returned to the plantation, she was confronted by owner W.D. Marlow. He demanded that she abandon her quest to register to vote. She refused and was immediately fired. “‘You’ll have to go down and withdraw your registration, or you’ll have to leave this place.’ I didn’t call myself saying nothing smart, but I couldn’t understand it. I answered the only way I could and told him that I didn’t go down there to register for him; I went down there to register for myself. This seemed like it made him madder when I told him that.”
Though she lost her job and home, she had found her purpose in life. Fannie Lou Hamer became an activist for voting rights, actively campaigning to register people to vote and informing them of their rights. She quickly rose to prominence within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known for her straightforward speaking style and Gospel singing. The more resistance she experienced in her work, the more determined she became.
In 1963, Hamer was returning from a workshop in South Carolina. The bus stopped at a cafe in Winona, Mississippi, and were refused service. A highway patrolman tapped them on the shoulder with his billy club and told them to leave. SCLC activist Anelle Ponder wrote down the license number of his patrol car on their way out. The patrolman saw her and came out of the cafe to arrest the whole group on false charges. In prison, the police forced two black prisoners to brutally beat Fannie Lou Hamer and a 15 year old activist named June Johnson. An all white jury acquitted the police officers of any wrongdoing later that year, but Fannie Lou would suffer permanent kidney damage.
It was that testimony which so terrified President Johnson in the summer of 1964. The DNC was the culmination of Freedom Summer, a summer-long drive to expand the black voter rolls in Mississippi. Over the course of the ten week project, 1,062 volunteers were arrested, 37 churches were burned, and 4 civil rights workers were killed. The murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner shocked the nation and drew attention to the violence in Mississippi. In anticipation of the DNC at which an all white delegation from Missippi was to be seated, Hamer and colleagues from the SNCC formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
President Johnson was worried about the tactical loss of support from white Southern Democrats after enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the 68 democratically elected delegates from the MFDP challenged the seating of the all white Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi, Vice President Hubert Humphrey stepped in to negotiate a compromise. They would offer two at-large seats, allowing two members of the MFDP delegation to watch, but not participate in the proceedings. Fannie Lou Hamer rejected the compromise outright, telling Humphrey “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.”
The 1964 Convention highlighted fractures within the Democratic Party. Many white Democrats left the party, and joined the Republican Party, which has controlled much of the former Confederacy since. The disillusionment within the MFDP shifted the party further left. They invited Malcolm X to speak, and Fannie Lou Hamer became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
In 1968, Fannie Lou won her seat at the DNC after two unsuccessful congressional campaigns. “I went before the Secretary of State to qualify to run as an official candidate for Congress from the 2nd Congressional District, and it was easier for me to qualify to run than it was for me to pass the literacy test to be a registered voter.”
Though she never won her seat in Congress, Fannie Lou Hamer remained an impassioned voice for voting rights and education until the end of her life in 1977. Her legacy lives on in the quest to fight the voter disenfranchisement of former prison inmates. When there are currently more black people in prison and on parole than in slavery in 1850, many of whom will lose their right to vote, it is clear that Fannie Lou Hamer’s work is far from done. As she famously declared, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
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