In August 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer decided to attend a mass meeting run by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Ruleville, Mississippi, at William Chapel Church. Mrs. Hamer said, “They talked about how it was our right to vote. And they was talking about how we could vote out people that we didn’t want in office. I never heard until 1962 that Black people could register to vote.”
Robin Hamilton, one of Hamer’s biographers, noted that 1962 was a watershed year for Mrs. Hamer. In that year she overheard people in her plantation owner’s house talking about her uninformed, forced sterilization. Hamilton theorized that Mrs. Hamer, then 44, had experienced too many injustices and wanted to change her circumstances. She had a hard upbringing and early adulthood. Born on October 6, 1917 as the twentieth child of sharecropper parents in rural Mississippi, at age 6 she started picking cotton. As a child, her father saved up enough of the family’s earnings to buy some livestock to increase the family’s income—and while the family were away from home, some local whites came and added pesticide to the animal feed so that all the stock died. She quit school at age 12 to work full time. As an adult she worked as a sharecropper and the timekeeper for the landowner, W.D. Marlow, as she was the only worker who could read and write. When she attended that mass meeting and found that she could vote, she got on a bus to Indianola on August 31, with 17 of her neighbors and went to register. That act started her lifetime of voting rights activism.
Mrs. Hamer said that when she went to register to vote only she and one other person were allowed to attempt to register by taking a “literacy test” that involved copying out a section of the Mississippi Constitution and giving “a reasonable interpretation of it”. She said she did the work but didn’t understand the constitution. She was riding home on the bus when the police stopped the bus because it “had too much yellow on it” (they were riding in a school bus); the bus driver was arrested and initially fined $100 (later cut back to $30). When she got home, the landowner came to her house and told her she would have to return and withdraw her registration. Mrs. Hamer replied that she registered for herself, not for the landowner. The angry landowner told her she’d have to leave immediately. She went to stay with friends that night while her husband and children stayed on the plantation to finish bringing in the crop so they would be allowed to keep the family’s belongings.
A few days later, her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer, became very anxious about Mrs. Hamer staying in that house and moved her to another location; that night the friends’ house where she had been was shot at 15 times. Mrs. Hamer’s family joined her in December 1962 and they lived on $10 a week from her work for SNCC (about $86 today). They had friends that supplemented their income when possible.
Mrs. Hamer went on the road, participating in SNCC meetings and rallies. She was a powerful speaker and singer; she was known for singing gospel songs during meetings to stir the crowd, such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Peggy Jean Connor, a contemporary in the movement, said, “[Hamer] set me on fire.” Tracy Sugarman, a journalist who was working in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, wrote “[Hamer’s] magnificent voice rolled through the chapel as she enlisted the Biblical ranks of martyrs and heroes to summon these folk to the Freedom banner. Her mounting, rolling battery of quotations and allusions from the Old and New Testaments stunned the audience with its thunder.”
She continued her work on desegregation, voter registration, and providing community relief. She was traveling back from a voter education program in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 9, 1963, when the group bus stopped at Winona, Mississippi. Several members of her group tried to sit at a lunch counter there to eat. Staff refused to serve them, and called the police; Mrs. Hamer got out of the bus and was arrested also. While in jail, she was beaten so severely that she had permanent damage to her eye, legs, and kidneys; she wasn’t released until June 12, to find out that Medgar Evers had just been assassinated.
These events spurred her on her course of action; she continued to gain attention for her work and during Freedom Summer 1964 formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the all-white delegation representing Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Mrs. Hamer was the delegation’s vice chair, and she gave a speech recounting her first efforts to vote, and concluded, “All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.” The delegation were offered a compromise that “…would give the MFDP two seats and the promise of reform for the 1968 convention. That made Hamer angry. “We didn’t come here for no two seats ‘cause all of us is tired,” she said.” By the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the state parties were required to integrate and Mrs. Hamer was seated as a delegate.
Mrs. Hamer supported Dr. King and Andrew Young in their work for James Meredith’s March Against Fear. She traveled to multiple countries in Africa with SNCC. She started her Pig Bank, a program where local families could borrow one of the 35 gilts and 5 boars and keep the piglets to raise for food, returning the gilts once the litter was weaned. Just a year later she started up the Freedom Farm Cooperative, to provide people a chance to grow their own food. She sued Sunflower County in 1970 for not integrating the schools; she was deeply interested in education and was a fan of Sesame Street’s educational goals. She continued her activism as much as she could given her poor health, which continued to decline; on March 14, 1977 she died and was buried on her own land. There’s a memorial garden at her resting place, and the Ruleville Post Office is named after her.
Fannie Lou Hamer said, “I’ve heard comments from people talking about with the people, by the people, for the people. Being a Black woman from Mississippi, I’ve learned that long ago it’s not true. It’s with the handful, for a handful, by a handful. But we gonna change that, baby. We’re going to change that, because we’re going to make democracy a reality for all of the people in this country.”
If you’re interested in other important figures in African American legal history, see our post on Mary Ann Shadd Cary.
E185.97.H35 B76 2014 Brooks, Maegan Parker. A Voice That Could Stir an Army: Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rhetoric of the Black Freedom Movement.
E185.97.H35 A5 2011 Brooks, Maegan Parker and Davis W. Houck, eds., The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is.
E185.97.H35 M55 2007 Mills, Kay. This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.
KFM7001 1890.A285 H6 Hobbs, Edward H. (Edward Henry) Yesterday’s Constitution Today: An Analysis of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890.
KFM7001 1890 .A325 Mississippi. Constitution (1890). The Constitution of the State of Mississippi; adopted by the people of Mississippi in a constitutional convention November 1, 1890 at Jackson and all amendments subsequently adopted.
“Fannie Lou Hamer.” ‘Until I Am Free You Are Not Free Either.’” YouTube, uploaded by Fannie Lou Hamer, 16 Dec. 2013, youtu.be/S0Kk3s12ZYg
E185.93.M6 D58 1994 Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.
E185.93.M6 P39 2007 Charles M. Payne. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.