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If Fannie Lou Hamer were alive today, the 2008 presidential campaign would bring tears to her eyes and a smile to her face. She would have been able to rest for a while, take a deep breath and pause, and get ready to continue fighting. If Hamer’s life story was not told there would have been wide historical chasm created in the struggle for human rights not only in Mississippi, but also throughout America where people of color have been systematically disenfranchised because their right to vote had been denied. She would also be outraged about the ghastly aspersions being directed at community organizers since, in her best days, she was the ultimate community organizer, voting rights activist and civil rights advocate.
Hamer was not just a civil rights activist, she was a Black woman and a mother, who had been denied her natural right to have children, so she and her husband, Perry Hamer, adopted 2 boys and 2 girls. Those children filled a void in their lives that had been taken away after a doctor had wrongfully performed a hysterectomy on Hamer in 1961, thereby depriving her of one of nature’s fundamental rights of a woman—to bear children. Unbeknownst to her—and most of the Blacks in the state—it was part of a sinister effort to reduce the number of Blacks in the state, so that Whites stay in control ad infinitum.
As an adult and a product of the “deep” South, Hamer was always looking for ways to express her outrage over the conditions under which Blacks were forced to live, not only in her rural community, but even in the more “enlightened” parts of urban America—”up” South and “down” South. Hamer believed that Blacks had to change their own conditions politically, socially and economically. The political climate would only improve when Blacks were properly informed and participated in electoral politics, free from fear and intimidation. In doing so, social and economic improvements would follow. She set about to rectify some of the political inconsistencies that were disenfranchising the Black masses and systematically denying them of their constitutional right to vote.
Born Fannie Lou Townsend in Montgomery County, Mississippi on October 6, 1917, she was the youngest of 19 children and learned the true meaning of work experience from her childhood. Her parents were sharecroppers (a glorified name for a slave, back then). At six, young Fannie Lou was helping her family in the cotton fields and by the time she was twelve, she had dropped out of school to work full time with the family in order to eat and literally have a place to live. Hamer was never able to return to school fulltime but the education she earned through her life experiences rivaled many who were afforded a structured education.
She got married to Perry Hamer at 25, and she went to work as a timekeeper on the plantation where he drove a tractor. Hamer became interested in politics as a result of attending the annual negro leadership conferences that were held in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and focused on civil rights and Black self-help. The conferences attracted many nationally-known speakers, lawyers, congressmen and entertainers including Thurgood Marshall, Representative Charles Diggs of Michigan and Mahalia Jackson. The more Hamer became aware of the realities and the potential power of politics, the more she realized the injustices that Black people were suffering by not becoming involved. She yearned to do something about the gross injustice, particularly the mass disenfranchisement of Black people.
One day in 1954, as she was walking by a town center in Ruleville, Mississippi, a Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sign caught her attention; Hamer decided to investigate it and eventually signed up as a volunteer field worker with the voter education committee. She considered her work at SNCC an opportunity to rectify the voting inadequacies among Black people in the South. And the reality was, even though she was committed to her work with SNCC, it was strictly a volunteer position. She was still employed, along with her husband, by White people, and they were not pleased with her “extra-curricula activities.” Black people who register to vote were risking their lives and those who encouraged them became an even bigger target. Yet Hamer, not only continued her voter registration activities, she accelerated it.
On August 1962, she traveled to Indianola, Mississippi, along with a group of members of a local church, to register to vote. The end result of that fateful bus ride was harassment by the police, being fired from her job, lost her dog and was threatened by the ku klux klan; her survival became tenuous. Hamer’s activities came to the attention of a SNCC organizer, Robert Moses and he recruited her to travel throughout the South organizing voter registration outposts.
The following year Hamer was returning from Charleston, South Carolina, with other activists when, at a bus terminal, they were falsely accused, arrested and taken to jail. They were savagely beaten and were held incommunicado. Three days had passed before they were seen by SNCC officials who took them to the hospital. However, that experience did not deter her voter registration activities, she continued registering Black people to vote and conducting literacy workshops to educate the masses beyond their voting rights.
Hamer was instrumental in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964 to challenge the all-White delegation to the Democratic National Convention (DNC). She was elected as its vice-chairperson. The party’s position was that the regular delegation, sent to the convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, did not represent all of the people of Mississippi. Hamer spoke at the convention before the Credentials Committee to a televised audience of millions and related the Black experience. Her speech drew attention to the plight of Black Americans in the South in general but the focus of her personal experiences was directed at the State of Mississippi. Hamer created a “convention storm” that reached the White House. President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly referred to her as “that illiterate woman.”
She recounted her false arrest, her three days in jail and the savage beating, she and fellow activists took because they wanted to register to vote. Hamer vividly articulated how Blacks throughout the South were prevented from voting through illegal tests, poll taxes, intimidation and outright violence. Nearly in tears, Hamer concluded, “All of this is on account we wanted to register to become first-class citizens, and 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....”
Though, the DNC did not accede to the MFDP’s demands, enough pressure had been placed on the DNC that it adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation from all the states’ delegations as a part of its platform. Hamer and her group were seated as honorable guests. A year later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. In 1964 and 1965, she ran for Congress unsuccessfully, however, in 1968, she was seated as a member of the Mississippi delegation and was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
The rest of her years was devoted to working as a community organizer on a myriad of issues including voter education, voting rights, Head start programs and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. Hamer died at the age of 59 and was buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. The inscription on her tombstone reads, ‘I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ Fannie Lou Hamer must be remembered during this election season and on her birthday.
* * * * HAPPY BIRTHDAY!—FANNIE LOU HAMER * * * *
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.