Who was Fannie Lou Hamer?
She was born to sharecropper parents on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. The family worked on a plantation and at the age of six Fannie Lou was already helping in the cotton fields.
Hamer’s life change in 1962 when she attended a meeting and met several civil rights activists, including members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC members were in were in Mississippi to encourage African Americans to register to vote. Hamer was inspired by what she heard and got involved. She also decided that it was time for her to exercise her right to vote.
When Hamer tried to register she was asked to interpret a portion of the Mississippi constitution. Naturally, she failed the test. During this period Mississippi, and much of the south, had a policy that required people, particularly African Americans, to take literacy tests before they be allowed to register to vote. Those tests were almost impossible to pass and if African Americans did pass they were threatened with physical violence when they attempted to vote.
Also, blacks faced consequences from their white employers and landlords if they attempted to register. Hamer was no exception. When word got out that she had tried to register to vote, her landlord, for whom she also worked, threatened her with eviction if she attempted to register again. Not willing to give up that right, Hamer moved in with a relative.
Finding herself with no means of income, she went to work for SNCC. The organization need local black citizens to encourage their friends and neighbors to register. Hamer became a voice for voter registration. She also participated in sessions that SNCC held to help citizens interpret the Mississippi constitution. In December 1962 she passed the literacy test and became a registered voter.
This was really just the beginning of Hamer’s activism. She continued her work with SNCC and became a strong voice for voter registration. In 1963 she attended a citizenship training school in Charleston, South Carolina to learn how to teach her neighbors the benefits of citizenship. On the bus trip home from Charleston, she and others were arrested and beaten by law enforcement officers during a confrontation that occurred following their attempt to be served at a café lunch counter.
In the early 1960s grassroots activists particularly black activists, were often threatened and beaten. Hamer endured it all and sustained injuries that would stay with her for the rest of her life, yet she never gave in and continued to speak out.
In 1964 civil rights workers in Mississippi decided to challenge the all-white delegation that was selected to represent the state at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Hoping to give African Americans in Mississippi a voice in the selection of the presidential nominee, they formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and selected sixty-eight people, including Hamer to represent them at the convention. Hamer gave a passionate speech at the convention and talked about how she had been jailed and beaten because she wanted to be treated like a first-class citizen and be allowed to register and vote. She also asked that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s delegates be seated* at the convention. When that request was not granted Hamer questioned America’s failure to provide equal justice for all.
Hamer did not get the outcome she wanted but she had been heard. Two MFDP delegates were seated at the convention. Also the Democratic party voted that future conventions would not welcome segregated delegations.
After the convention Hamer continued with her activism and her fight for voting rights, civil rights and equality. She died in 1977.
*Seated meant you could vote and help determine who should run for president for your political party.
Fanny Lou Hamer Quotes
“When I liberate myself, I liberate others. If you don’t speak out ain’t nobody going to speak our for you.”
“One day, I know the struggle will change. There’s got to be a change – not only for Mississippi,
not only for the people in the United States, but people all over the world.”