By Marilyn Kai Jewett
Fannie Lou Hamer is one of my most revered icons. A woman of strength, courage and vision, Hamer was a warrior for truth and justice – a true American heroine. Her work as a grassroots civil rights activist and political organizer brought national attention to the stark reality of the political disenfranchisement of Black people in America.
Her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) helped change the nation’s perspective on the true meaning of democracy in America. She was a pioneer among Black women in politics and was one of the few women in the Civil Rights Movement who held a leadership role on the front lines of the struggle.
Life wasn’t easy for Hamer. Life in rural Mississippi was hard, offering little promise for success if you were Black. The youngest of 20 children, little Fannie joined her family in the cotton fields at age 6 and was forced to drop out of school to work fulltime at age 12. Hamer picked cotton for tenant farm owner W. D. Marlow from 1944 until 1962. She was stricken with polio when she was 16 and was promoted to time and record keeper for the plantation in addition to cooking and cleaning, when Marlow discovered Hamer could read and write.
In 1945 she married Perry “Pap” Hamer, a tractor driver on the Marlow farm. Unable to conceive, Hamer went to the hospital to be examined and was told she had a tumor that had to be removed. Unbeknownst to her, a hysterectomy had been performed as part of a vile scheme to control the growth of the Black population in Mississippi. Not uncommon at the time, this crime was being perpetrated against Black women all over the nation. The Hamers later adopted four children from poor families.
Hamer’s life was transformed one day in August 1962 when she attended a SNCC meeting in her home town of Ruleville, MS. That day, she made the fateful decision to attempt to register to vote. When Marlow learned of the registration drive he threatened Hamer and her family with expulsion from the plantation. Undaunted by the threat, she joined others in attempting to register. For this courageous decision, she and Pap lost their jobs. However, destiny thrust Hamer into a leadership role when she was hired by SNCC as a voter registration field worker in Mississippi. As a result of her grassroots activism, she was finally able to register to vote in 1963 on her third attempt.
In June 1963, while traveling on a Trailways bus from a voter registration workshop, Hamer and other SNCC activists were arrested by law enforcement officers in Winona, MS, taken to jail and brutally beaten. It was three days before she received treatment for the merciless beating that left her blind in her left eye and her kidneys permanently damaged.
For decades, Black people in Mississippi attempted to attend local Democratic Party meetings but were continually denied entrance. Hamer became a founding member, vice president and organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party [MFDP] that sought to register Black people to vote. This incensed white racists in Mississippi who unleashed a torrent of violence against civil rights activists and members of the MFDP in particular. Unfazed, Hamer pressed on and helped organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a campaign sponsored by SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the NAACP.
Because of the exclusion of Black people from Mississippi’s Democratic Party, the MFDP organized an alternate delegation of 64 Black and four white delegates, including Hamer that attempted to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
Hamer was about to become one of the most significant leaders in the struggle for political equity for Black people. Her historic, electrifying testimony before the conventions’ credentials committee brought national prominence to Hamer and the MFDP. In a powerful nationally-televised testimony, Hamer spoke about the violence and discrimination faced by Black people trying to register to vote throughout the south. “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook, because our lives be threatened daily.”
Although Hamer and the MFDP weren’t able to prevent the all-white Mississippi delegation from being seated, the Democratic Party agreed that in the future no delegation would be seated from a state where people were illegally denied the right to vote. Roughly a year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
After her experience at the National Democratic Convention, Hamer returned to Ruleville and continued fighting for political inclusion on a local level. She ran for Congress in the 1964 Mississippi State Democratic Primary Election. She was unsuccessful but continued championing the movement for justice and equity for all people, speaking at rallies and to students on college campuses throughout the nation.
She focused her attention on building strong institutions to address problems at the local level. She led the Cotton Pickers Resistance Movement in 1965, took an active role in antipoverty programs and was instrumental in bringing the Head Start program to Ruleville. In 1969 Hamer founded the Freedom Farms Corporation that helped poor farming families — black and white — become economically self-sufficient.
Hamer’s involvement in politics continued when she became a member of the Democratic National Committee from Mississippi from 1968-1971. Her 1970 lawsuit, Hamer vs. Sunflower County, demanded the county desegregate its schools. She ran unsuccessfully for the Mississippi State Senate in 1971 — something almost unheard of for Black women in the south at that time. Hamer helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, speaking up for inclusion of racial issues in the feminist agenda. In 1972 she became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention — the same one that ironically, refused to seat her in 1964.
In 1972, a resolution praising Hamer for her courageous statewide and national contributions to civil rights was passed unanimously by the Mississippi House of Representatives. She also received honorary Doctorate degrees from several universities including Howard University.
The last six years of Hamer’s life were marked with severe health problems. Suffering from breast cancer, diabetes and heart problems, she died on March 14, 1977.
In 2009, the Fannie Lou Hamer Statue Committee (FLHSC), a not-for-profit, was established primarily for the purpose of commissioning the construction of a life-sized statue in her honor to be placed in the memorial garden in Ruleville where Hamer and Pap are buried. The committee is appealing to the public to support this worthy cause to commemorate her as a true American heroine. They have set a goal of $125,000 for the completion of the first phase of the fundraising project.
Charles McLaurin and Lawrence Guyot, fellow SNCC members who worked closely with Hamer, have joined the effort. McLaurin was Hamer’s campaign manager and Guyot was chair of the MFDP. Committee members also include Hamer’s daughter, Vergie Hamer Faulkner and Minister Vester Lobbins, Hamer’s cousin. The FLHSC Honorary Members include Congressperson Eleanor Holmes Norton, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., William Buckley, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, Harry Gene Moss, Gloria Steinem, Susan Taylor, Dr. Davis Houck, Rev. Willie Blue, Tracy Sugarman, Professor Ekwueme Michael Thelwell and Iyanla Vanzant.
How can you help? The committee is calling on community organizations, civil rights organizations, women’s organizations, schools, fraternal organizations, business/professional organizations, faith-based organizations, activist groups, labor unions and corporations to support the campaign by becoming sponsors, holding fundraisers, writing letters to the media in support of the campaign and producing educational events in honor of the Hamer Legacy.
Tax-deductible donations can be made via check, credit card or electronic transfer through the National Black United Fund, the committee’s fiscal sponsor, at www.nbuf.org. For more information on the campaign go to www.fannielouhamer.info, [email protected], email at [email protected] or call (336) 517-1393.
Fannie Lou Hamer was a fearless warrior for her people in the tradition of the Warrior/Orisha Oya, wife of the Orisa Oba Sango, who accompanied him in battle; Nana Yaa Asantewaa, Queen Mother of Ejisu, who led the Ashanti in war against the British colonizers; and “Black Moses” Harriet Tubman who led enslaved Africans to freedom. The Hamer Legacy is one that serves as a pure beacon of hope illuminating the path to eradicating poverty, suffering, oppression and racial intolerance – striving to alleviate the ills of this nation. Her legacy is an important chapter in the history of this nation that must never be forgotten.
Marilyn Kai Jewett is a Philadelphia area marketing communications consultant and writer.