“sick and tired of being sick and tired”
Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer rose from these humble beginnings in the Mississippi Delta to become one of the most important, passionate, and powerful voices of the Civil & Voting Rights movements and a leader in the efforts for greater economic opportunities for African Americans.
She was born on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the 20th and last child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend. She grew up in poverty, and at age six Hamer joined her family picking cotton. By age 12, she left school to work. In 1944, she married Perry Hamer and the couple toiled on the Mississippi plantation owned by B.D. Marlowe until 1962. Because Hamer was the only worker who could read and write, she also served as plantation timekeeper.
Hamer began her Civil Rights activities in 1962, outraged when in 1961, she received a hysterectomy by a White doctor without her consent while undergoing surgery to remove a uterine tumor.
This forced sterilisation of Black women, as a way to reduce the Black population, was so widespread it was dubbed a ‘Mississippi appendectomy’. Unable to have children of their own, the Hamers adopted two daughters.
Not a women to be messed with, during her life she founded Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), co founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, worked and organised with Student Non Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), she started a ‘Pig Bank’, she was a member of the ‘Freedom Singers’ and sang with them (she also released an album Songs My Mother Taught Me on Folkway).
She partnered with the National Council of Negro Women, she survived a drive by shooting by the Ku Klux Klan and was fired on 16 times, she said:
“I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember”
– Fannie Lou Hamer was a formidable lady.
In the summer of 1962, Hamer attended a meeting led by Civil Rights Activists James Forman of the SNCC and James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Hamer was incensed by efforts to deny Blacks the right to vote. She became a SNCC organiser and on August 31, 1962 led 17 volunteers to register to vote at the Indianola, Mississippi Courthouse.
In the early 1960s, Fannie Lou Hamer worked as a timekeeper on the Marlow Plantation. In late August of 1962, SNCC workers James Bevel and Bob Moses persuaded 18 Ruleville residents to go to the county courthouse in Indianola and attempt to register to vote. Mrs. Hamer was a part of this group which made a first unsuccessful attempt on August 31. Upon returning home, Hamer received an ultimatum from W.D. Marlow:
stop trying to register to vote or get off the plantation. Hamer had no intention of giving up the struggle for civil rights. Denied the right to vote due to an unfair literacy test, the group was harassed on their way home, when police stopped their bus and fined them $100 for the trumped-up charge that the bus was too yellow.
That night, Marlow fired Hamer for her attempt to vote; her husband was required to stay until the harvest. Marlow confiscated much of their property. She left the Marlow plantation and stayed with Mary Tucker, a friend living in Ruleville, Mississippi in Sunflower County with very little.
In June 1963, after successfully completing a voter registration program in Charleston, South Carolina, Hamer and several other Black women were arrested for sitting in a ‘Whites-only’ bus station restaurant in Winona, Mississippi. At the Winona jailhouse, she and several of the women were brutally beaten, leaving Hamer with lifelong injuries from a blood clot in her eye, kidney damage, and leg damage.
In 1964, Hamer’s national reputation soared as she co-founded the MFDP, which challenged the local Democratic Party’s efforts to block Black participation. Hamer and other MFDP members went to the Democratic National Convention that year, arguing to be recognized as the official delegation. When Hamer spoke before the Credentials Committee, calling for mandatory integrated state delegations.
President Lyndon Johnson held a televised press conference so she would not get any television airtime, he thought her an ignorant Black. But her speech, with its poignant descriptions of racial prejudice in the South, was televised later. By 1968, her vision for racial parity in delegations had become a reality and Hamer was a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.
In 1964 she helped organise Freedom Summer, which brought hundreds of college students, Black and White, to help with African American voter registration in the segregated South. In 1964, she announced her candidacy for the Mississippi House of Representatives but was barred from the ballot. A year later, Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine became the first Black women to stand in the U.S. Congress when they unsuccessfully protested the Mississippi House election of 1964. She also travelled extensively, giving powerful speeches on behalf of civil rights. In 1971, Hamer helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Frustrated by the political process, Hamer turned to economics as a strategy for greater racial equality. In 1968, she began a ‘Pig Bank’ to provide free pigs for Black farmers to breed, raise, and slaughter. A year later she launched the FFC, buying up land that Blacks could own and farm collectively. With the assistance of donors (including famed singer Harry Belafonte), she purchased 640 acres and launched a co-op store, boutique, and sewing enterprise. Hamer did not wish to have blacks be dependent on any group for any longer so, she wanted to give them a voice through an agricultural movement. She single-handedly ensured that 200 units of low-income housing were built—many still exist in Ruleville today.
The FFC lasted until the mid-1970s; at its heyday, it was among the largest employers in Sunflower County. Extensive travel and fundraising took Hamer away from the day-to-day operations, as did her failing health, and the FFC hobbled along until folding. Not long after, in 1977, Hamer died of breast cancer at age 59.
No eulogies can be too many for this wonderful human being who put herself in the firing line. Her memorial service was attended by over 1,500 people including Andrew Young, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, he spoke at the RCHS service, saying:
“None of us would be where we are now had she not been there then”.
Read – listen to more about Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer – National Women’s History Museum, Virginia, US
Freedom Farm Cooperative – Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, US
National Women’s Political Caucus – National Women’s Political Caucus, US
Student Non Violence Coordinating Committee – Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, US
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party – King’s Institute, Stanford University, US
‘Pig Bank‘ – Taylor & Francis Online
‘Freedom Singers’ – Black Past
‘Songs My Mother Taught Me‘ – 34 page downloadlable CD pamphlet liner
She survived a drive by shooting by the Ku Klux Klan and was fired on 16 times – National Endowment for the Humanities