Fannie Lou Hamer was an American voting and women's rights activist, community organizer, and a leader of the civil rights movement. She was the co-founder and vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and represented it at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She also founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) and co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus. She led the civil rights activism during the early 1960s and became a registered voter in the State of Mississippi in 1963, because of which she was harassed, extorted, shot at, and assaulted by white supremacists and the police. She organized the 1963 Freedom Ballot along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the 1964 'Freedom Summer' initiative. Her attempts at running for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and the Mississippi State Senate in 1971 were unsuccessful, but she was elected delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972. She was posthumously inducted into the 'National Women's Hall of Fame' in 1993.
Childhood & Early Life
Fannie Lou Townsend was born on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, United States as the youngest of twenty children of sharecroppers Ella and James Lee Townsend.
In 1919, the family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi, to work as sharecroppers on W. D. Marlow's plantation, and she began picking cotton with her family as early as age six.
She attended the one-room school provided for the sharecroppers' children during the winters from 1924 to 1930, and excelled in spelling bees and reciting poetry. At the age of 12, she had to leave school to help her family, but continued Bible study at her church.
She had one leg disfigured by polio, but could still pick 200-300 pounds of cotton daily by the time she was 13. She was selected as the plantation's time and record keeper in 1944, after the owner found out that she was literate.
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Fannie Lou Hamer became interested in the civil rights movement during the 1950s after listening to local leaders in the movement speak at annual Regional Council of Negro Leadership conferences in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. However, it was in the summer of 1962 that she attended a local meeting held by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that encouraged African Americans to register for vote.
On August 31, 1962, she led 17 volunteers to register to vote at the Indianola, Mississippi Courthouse, but failed to pass the unfair literacy test crafted to keep blacks from voting. Upon returning to the plantation, she and her husband were fired for attempting to register for vote, even though her husband had to stay until the end of the harvest.
She moved from place to place in the following weeks, and on September 10, while staying with friend Mary Tucker, she was shot at 16 times in a drive-by shooting by white supremacists. While no one was injured in the firing, she and her family evacuated to nearby Tallahatchie County for three months fearing retaliation by the white supremacist hate group Ku Klux Klan.
Following another failed attempt on December 4, 1962, she finally passed the literacy test on her third attempt on January 10, 1963, and became a registered voter in the State of Mississippi. However, she still could not vote as she did not have two poll tax receipts, another rule manufactured to deny rights to blacks and Native Americans, and later paid for the requisite receipts.
She subsequently became more involved in the SNCC and attended several Southern Christian Leadership Conferences and workshops. She also taught classes for SNCC occasionally and became a field secretary for voter registration and welfare programs for the organization.
In June 1963, while travelling to attend a pro-citizenship SNCC conference in Charleston, South Carolina, she and her co-activists were arrested and brutally beaten for sitting in a 'whites-only' bus station restaurant in Winona, Mississippi. She was released on June 12, but took over a month to recuperate, and had permanent damages to several organs including one of her kidneys.
Despite the massive setback, she organized the 1963 Freedom Ballot, a mock election, and the 'Freedom Summer' initiative in 1964, in which year she also co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her televised testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention earned the party much exposure; however, her attempt to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1964 was unsuccessful.
She had rejected Senator Hubert Humphrey's offer of compromise on behalf of President Lyndon B. Johnson that would give the Freedom Democratic Party two seats in 1968. Nevertheless, the party was seated that year after the Democratic Party adopted a clause demanding equality of representation from their states' delegations.
Hamer, who thought sharecropping was the most common form of post-slavery activity in the South, attempted to redistribute economic power across groups by founding the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969. She also started a small 'pig bank' to make land more accessible to African-Americans and raised around $8,000 for FFC to purchase 40 acres of land where Freedom Farm was established.
In 1971, she co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus that emphasized on the voting power of women regardless of race or ethnicity, and in 1972, she was elected delegate to the Democratic National Convention. MFDP was dissolved in 1968 and FFC disbanded due to lack of funding in 1975.
Family & Personal Life
In 1944, Fannie Lou Hamer, née Townsend, married Perry 'Pap' Hamer, a tractor driver on the Marlow plantation, and they remained at the plantation for the next 18 years. The couple adopted two girls, one of whom died of internal hemorrhaging after the local hospital refused to admit her because of Hamer's activism.
During the early 1970s, she spent a great amount of time in the hospital for nervous exhaustion and breakdown, and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1976, for which she had undergo surgery. She died of complications of hypertension and breast cancer on March 14, 1977 at Taborian Hospital, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and was buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi.
In 1961, while undergoing surgery to remove a uterine tumor, Fannie Lou Hamer was given a hysterectomy without consent by a white doctor, which was a common practice under Mississippi's compulsory sterilization plan. She coined the phrase 'Mississippi appendectomy' as a euphemism for such forced sterilization of black women to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state.