Welcome back to my blog and happy new year! I’m going to skip the usual apologies and promises to post more even though I hope to be better at posting this year and just jump right in. It’s the first WCW of 2017, so we’re going to start off strong with the incredible Fannie Lou Hamer.
Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was born on October 6th, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the youngest of twenty children in the Townsend family. Hamer began picking cotton at the age of six and dropped out of school before seventh grade to help her family full time with their plot on a sharecropping plantation. Hamer contracted polio when she was sixteen. Due to her physical challenges after catching the virus and her ability to read and write, Hamer was promoted to the position of book keeper. In her late twenties, Hamer married Perry “Pap” Hamer, one of the tractor drivers at the plantation.
The couple wanted but was unable to have kids; Hamer was told that a uterine tumor was affecting her fertility and that she needed to have it removed. During surgery and without her consent, the doctor performed a hysterectomy. Hamer was rightfully furious when she came out of the procedure, and after finding out how common the eugenic practice was, began to speak out against and raise awareness for what she coined “Mississippi appendectomies.” Now completely unable to have children, Pap and Fannie Lou adopted two daughters.
Hamer became active in the civil rights movement in 1962 when she attended a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting about voting rights. The meeting inspired her to take a trip to a nearby city to register to vote with about twenty other students. However, the group was immediately barred from registering – except for Hamer and one man, who were given but failed a literacy test. On the drive back, the group was unlawfully stopped and harassed by police. No one was hurt, but the extreme difficulties Hamer faced over the course of the whole event inspired her to dedicate her life to advocating for desegregation and voting rights. Once home, the plantation owner that Hamer worked for kicked her and her family off the property; they struggled with debt and finances for several years after, which drove Hamer to add economic security for all to her advocacy list. Gaining in renown and protest inspiration, she and the SNCC travelled around the southern US for several months on a speech circuit. Hamer and a group of protesters made a stop at a café in Winona, Mississippi in 1963, and made a political statement by sitting at a whites-only counter. They were immediately arrested and were subject to many brutal beatings while imprisoned; injuries to her eyes, kidneys, and leg stuck with Hamer for the rest of her life. Following her release, Hamer’s reputation grew, and she became a national speaker for civil rights.
In 1964, Hamer founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDR) to oppose the pro-segregation democrats. The party struggled to gain support until later that year when Hamer ran for Congress; she lost, but put the MFDR in the national eye. At the Democratic National Convention in the same year, Hamer made a speech challenging the Mississippi representatives and advocating for integration. Her speech was so incendiary that President Lyndon B Johnson launched an emergency press release in an attempt to interrupt her broadcast. His plan backfired, as the excitement around the speech and interruption raised American interest in Hamer’s work. After the drama of the convention, Hamer returned to Mississippi, where she worked for over a decade organizing protests, training volunteers, helping with relief work, registering voters, and instituting agricultural co-ops and Head Start programs for low income families and children. One of Hamer’s trademark protest techniques was the use of hymns and spirituals to encourage marchers and spread hope for change.
Throughout the late 70’s, Hamer was widely recognized for her efforts. She was awarded honorary doctorates from four universities, received the National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Award, and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Hamer passed away on March 14th, 1977 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi due to complications from cancer and hypertension. Inscribed on her tombstone is one of her most well-known quotes “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said when asked why she continued fighting for equal rights when all the odds were stacked against her.
To learn more about the inspiring life of Fannie Lou Hamer, check out these PBS, American Public Media, History Channel, and Howard University pages. Additionally, you can find several albums of her top songs online. My personal favorite is her rendition of Wade in the Water (which unfortunately isn’t on YouTube), but she’s best known for This Little Light of Mine – both and all the rest are wonderful and I really hope you can take a second to listen.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays!