Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was an outspoken advocate for civil rights for African Americans.
For more than half of Fannie Lou Hamer's life, she was a rural agricultural worker who saw no end to the cycle of poverty and humiliation that was the plight of most southern African Americans. Fannie Lou, born October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, was the last of twenty children born to Jim and Ella Townsend. When she was two years old the family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi, where Fannie resided for the rest of her life. At age six she joined the other family members working as a sharecropper picking cotton. By the time she was 13 she could pick between two and three hundred pounds of cotton a day.
In spite of intensive labor the Townsends were always in need because sharecroppers had to give a portion of their crop, as well as repayment for seeds and supplies they had purchased on credit, to the owner of the land on which they toiled. One year, when their crop was especially bountiful, Jim Townsend, hoping that his family's economic status would permanently improve, rented a parcel of land with a house and purchased some animals and farm implements to boost the farm's productivity. The family's hopes for prosperity were dashed, however, when a jealous white neighbor poisoned the Townsend's animals.
The condition of African Americans in the South caused young Fannie to wonder why they had to suffer such hardship while working so hard. In spite of her circumstances Fannie was able to attend school for a few months each year until she reached the sixth grade. After her formal schooling ended, she continued to study and read the Bible under the direction of teachers at the Stranger's Home Baptist Church. Fannie's religious beliefs and training were dominant influences during her entire life. She regularly prayed that someday she would have the opportunity to do something to improve the condition of African Americans in Mississippi.
During the 1940s Fannie Lou married Perry "Pap" Hamer, who worked on the W.D. Marlow plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi. Fannie also worked for the Marlows, first as a sharecropper and then—after the owner learned that she was literate—as the timekeeper. In the evenings she cleaned the Marlow's home. The Hamers supplemented their income by making liquor and operating a small saloon. Unable to have children of their own, the Hamers adopted two girls, Dorothy Jean and Vergie Ree.
In 1962, when she was in her mid-forties, Hamer's life changed drastically. She was invited to attend a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "Snick") meeting at a church near her home. SNCC, an organization founded in 1960 by a group of young African Americans who used direct action such as sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience as a means of ending segregation in the South, encouraged its workers to travel throughout the South to win grassroots support from African Americans. When Hamer heard the SNCC presentation she was convinced that the powerlessness of African Americans was based to a degree on their complacency and fear of white reprisals. She decided that no matter what the cost, she should try to register to vote. Though her first attempts to pass the voter registration test were unsuccessful they nevertheless resulted in the loss of her job and threats of violence against her and those who attempted to register with her for trying to alter the status quo.
In 1963 Hamer became a registered voter and a SNCC field secretary. She worked with voter registration drives in various locales and helped develop programs to assist economically deprived African American families. She was regularly threatened and faced beatings, a bombing, and ridicule. Nevertheless, she was a founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), formed in April 1964 to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention. The MFDP sent 68 representatives in August 1964 to the Democratic National Committee meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Hamer was one of the representatives who testified before the party's Credentials Committee. In a televised presentation, Hamer talked about the formidable barriers that southern African Americans faced in their struggle for civil rights. She talked about the murders of civil rights activists such as Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
"If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America, " she said. "Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook, because our lives be threatened daily." Hamer discussed the abuse she had suffered in retaliation for attending a civil rights meeting. "They beat me and they beat me with the long, flat blackjack. I screamed to God in pain. … " As a compromise measure the Democratic Party leadership offered the MFDP delegation two seats, which they refused. Hamer said, "We didn't come for no two seats when all of us is tired." And no MFDP member was seated.
In 1965 Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine ran for Congress and challenged the seating of the regular Mississippi representatives before the U.S. House of Representatives. Though they were unsuccessful in their challenge, the 1965 elections were later overturned. Hamer continued to be politically active and from 1968 to 1971 was a member of the Democratic National Committee from Mississippi.
Hamer was also a catalyst in the development of various programs to aid the poor in her community, including the Delta Ministry, an extensive community development program, and the Freedom Farms Corporation in 1969, a non-profit operation designed to help needy families raise food and livestock, provide social services, encourage minority business opportunities, and offer educational assistance. In 1970 Hamer became chair of the board of Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center, an organization established by the National Council of Negro Women. She also served as a member of the boards of the Sunflower County Day Care and Family Services Center and Garment Manufacturing Plant. She became a member of the policy council of the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971, and from 1974 to 1977 was a member of the board of trustees of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Hamer underwent a radical mastectomy in 1976 and died of cancer March 14, 1977, in the Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Hospital.
Further Reading on Fannie Lou Hamer
There are several biographies of Hamer, including Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine:the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1993), and a children's book, Fannie Lou Hamer:From Sharecropping to Politics, by David Rubel with an introduction by Andrew Young (1990). Many histories of the civil rights movement in the South include information about Hamer. These include Vicki Crawford, Jacqueline Rouse, and Barbara Woods, Women in the Civil Rights Movement:Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 (1990); Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize:America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (1987); and various histories of SNCC and its leaders. A collection of Fannie Lou Hamer papers is available on microfilm from the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.