Born today in 1917 — the youngest of 20 children in a sharecropping family — Fannie Lou Hamer started working in the cotton fields of Sunflower County, Mississippi at age 6. When she was twelve years old, she had to drop out of the plantation’s one-room schoolhouse to work full time.
Hamer married in 1945, but never had any biological children, because when she had surgery to remove a tumor, the physician performed a hysterectomy on her without her knowledge or consent (a common medical abuse throughout the segregated South, calculated to suppress black population growth). She and her husband ultimately adopted two girls.
In 1962, she volunteered to help SNCC — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group — register black voters. The plantation promptly fired her.
Hamer became a full-time organizer for SNCC, inspiring others with her oratory and her hymns. While jailed in Winona in June 1963, the police held her down while directing inmates to beat her with a blackjack. It took her more than a month to recover from the injuries.
“I always said if I lived to get grown and had a chance, I was going to try to get something for my mother and I was going to do something for the black man of the South if it would cost my life; I was determined to see that things were changed.”
The next year, Hamer helped coordinate Freedom Summer, bringing northern college students to Mississippi to register voters, set up schools and libraries, and bring national attention to the evils of Jim Crow.
Also in 1964, Hamer helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the credentials of the all-white, pro-segregation delegates that presumed to represent her state at the 1964 Democratic convention. Over Hamer’s objections, President Lyndon B. Johnson engineered a compromise to offer limited at-large representation to the MFDP in 1964. Democratic delegations from Mississippi have been integrated ever since.
“It is only when we speak what is right that we stand a chance at night of being blown to bits in our homes. Can we call this a free country, when I am afraid to go to sleep in my own home in Mississippi?… I might not live two hours after I get back home, but I want to be a part of setting the Negro free in Mississippi.”
Hamer ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 1964 and 1965. She continued to work for civil rights, expanded educational opportunity, and an end to the Vietnam War.
She died in 1977.
If you enjoyed this article, then please hit the little green heart down there to help others find it. I invite your comments. Thank you for reading.