As an influential, powerful civil rights leader, Ms. Hamer lived a hard life. The racists mistreated and brutalized her, but she never lost her humanity.
When Fannie Lou Hamer was born to sharecropper parents in Montgomery County, Mississippi on October 16, 1917, she was the youngest of twenty children. Sharecroppers exchanged their labor for residence on a plantation. After harvest, owners and workers divided the profits, but the owners usually took 60% or more. Since sharecropping was one notch above slavery, Fannie Lou had to leave school at six years old to help support her family by working the plantation.
After cultivating cotton into adulthood, Fanny Lou married another sharecropper, Perry “Pap” Hamer. The owner also promoted Ms. Hamer from sharecropper to timekeeper. It was at this point that she assessed the horrible exploitation of the workers. In her new position, she spoke against excessive labor hours and hazardous work conditions.
Introduction to Civil Rights
Hamer came into contact with volunteers from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1962. The organization formed in 1960 out of the “sit-in” movement that had started with four African American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. These freshmen sat at a Woolworth’s “whites only” counter, ordered coffee and refused to move. Students from nearby schools used the same tactic at various segregated businesses. The strategy was so effective that it spread across North Carolina and the rest of the South in a matter of weeks as a strong protest against America’s Apartied system.
By the time Hamer interacted with SNCC, the organization had moved from primarily fighting segregation to attacking voter registration restrictions for African Americans. In 1962 Hamer volunteered with several others to take a bus trip to the Mississippi county seat to register to vote. Although she failed the literacy test, upon returning to her hometown of Ruleville, the police stopped her bus and jailed everyone for attempting to vote.
No Job for Voters
When Hamer got out of jail and returned to her plantation job, the owner told her to withdraw her voter registration application. When she refused on the grounds that she had the right to vote like everyone else in America, the owner fired her and forced her family off the plantation. However, Hamer passed the literacy test the next year (1963), but she paid dearly for it. The police put her in jail and had inmates unmercifully beat her.
Civil Rights Career
The brutal beating didn’t stop Hamer. She worked for SNCC as a field secretary, taught citizenship courses for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and trained people for voter registration drives. She also co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which opposed the lynchings, beatings, poll tax and literacy tests designed to discourage African American voter registration. More than 80,000 African Americans joined the MFDP (Horton & Horton 300).
In 1964 the MFDP challenged the “whites only” Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The MFDP sent forty-four delegates to the convention with the message that it was the only organization in Mississippi to represent everyone. Therefore, the MFDP requested that it be seated as the legitimate Mississippi delegation.
The clash of delegations made the Democratic Party appear awkward. Therefore, its Credentials Committee allowed testimony from Hamer about MFDP’s position. On television she discussed her personal experiences with Mississippi’s voting problems. She reported that because she registered to vote, Mississippi authorities jailed her and forced inmates to relentlessly beat her with a blackjack. The beating caused blindness in one eye and kidney damage (Horton & Horton 300). When they left her bleeding, she heard other women screaming from tortuous beatings.
Her testimony shocked the audience, but it disturbed President Lyndon Johnson politically. Since Johnson was up for reelection, he thought Hamer’s request for fairness would cause southern white democratic voters to support Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Therefore, Johnson sent Senator Hubert Humphrey to negotiate with Hamer.
After explaining that it was impossible to replace the traditional Mississippi delegation with the MFDP because it would reduce his vice-presidency chances, Humphrey offered the MFDP two full voting rights seats. According to Horton and Horton, Hamer replied to Humphrey’s offer by exclaiming: “Mr. Humphrey, do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than Mississippi’s four hundred thousand black lives?”
President Johnson involved Martin Luther King and NAACP leader Roy Wilkens. The civil rights leaders agreed morally with the MFDP because, as Manning Marable explains, “Fanny Lou Hamer… challenged the white racist machine in Mississippi” (251). However, King and Wilkens sided politically with Johnson and advised Hamer to accept the compromise. Feeling betrayed by her “friends,” she didn’t compromise and the MFDP “sat-in” the white delegates’ seats until officials removed them.
During the 1970s Hamer received an official day of honor and the Mississippi legislature created a resolution to recognize her contributions to the state. One of her favorite sayings was, “just sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She died of cancer in 1977. She was a fighter for justice and a great humanitarian.
- Horton, James Oliver and Horton, Lois E. Hard Road To Freedom – The Story of African America. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
- Marable, Manning. Black American Politics From The Washington Marches To Jesse Jackson. London: Verso, 1985.