When people learn about the Civil Rights Movement, they learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. However, a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer helped form the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement as we know it. While she lived a relatively normal early life, she began to take on a significant role in activism during her early 40s. Her efforts to protest racial discrimination snowballed into major activist groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Hamer’s Early Life
Hamer was born and raised on a Mississippi plantation to sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend. By the age of six, Hamer joined her parents in picking cotton and altogether quit school by the age of twelve. However, Hamer learned to read and write and was the only worker who could, so she was offered the position of timekeeper on the plantation, a less grueling and labor-intensive position. She later married Perry Hamer who labored on the plantation. The newly married couple would continue to work for the plantation until 1962 when Fannie Lou Hamer was fired for her attempt to vote.
The “Mississippi Appendectomy”
The events leading up to Hamer’s participation in the organized effort to register black voters in the county are quite surprising. Hamer was also given a Mississippi appendectomy, a term for nonconsensual hysterectomy of black women after she and her husband tried and failed to have children for several years. Hamer was in the hospital for surgery regarding a uterine tumor when she was forced to undergo the hysterectomy. Ultimately, Hamer and her husband adopted two girls whose families could not support them, and then, Hamer started to make waves in civil rights activism.
Almost immediately after the forced surgery, Hamer attended the SNCC and became an event organizer for the committee. On August 31, 1962, she led 17 volunteers to the local courthouse to register to vote. Only two of the whole group were allowed to complete the application, Hamer and one other man, but upon receiving failing grades on the literacy test, they were both denied the right to vote. If that was not already an awful enough situation, when the group was on the way back home, the police stopped their bus and fined them $100 because their bus was too yellow. At this point, Hamer’s main source of income was a $10 weekly stipend from the SNCC.
Hamer would only continue to be empowered by blacks’ systematic oppression, and she continued to do amazing work for civil rights activism. In June 1963, she and a group of other black women were successfully registering to vote. Following this minor, twisted success, the group headed to a “whites-only” restaurant and sat there. The group was promptly arrested and brutalized in the jailhouse. Hamer would suffer lifelong injuries in her eye, kidney, and leg. However, these permanent impairments drove Hamer to make a direct move in politics.
The year following the “whites-only” restaurant sit-in’s arrests, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The foundation of the MFDP was to counter efforts of the local Democratic Party to exclude black political participation. Hamer and other members of the MFDP attended the Democratic National Convention that same year to demand recognition as the official delegation. However, during Hamer’s testimony, President Lyndon Johnson held a press conference to block Hamer’s televised time and the MFDP, but many news programs played Hamer’s speech, anyway. Eventually, in 1968, Hamer’s efforts came to fruition, and she was able to become a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.
Also, in 1964, Hamer helped organize the Freedom Summer. This historical event brought together hundreds of college students to protest against the impediment of black voter registration. She also attempted to run for the Mississippi House of Representatives, but her candidacy was blocked from the ballot. She would continue to give powerful speeches for civil rights and turn her activist efforts away from politics and more towards economics. As blacks often relied on sharecropping and could not easily or fairly progress in the financial sphere, Hamer began the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) which bought land for blacks to own and farm on without worrying about having their livelihood ripped from them by a plantation owner. With this initiative, she also built several hundred units of housing for poor blacks. However, as the FFC began to flourish, Hamer’s health began to dwindle, halting the success of the FFC, which ultimately folded before her death.
Hamer Is a Martyr
In less than 20 years of her life, Fannie Lou Hamer helped began a local revolution in Mississippi. She inspired people all around the United States to support the Civil Rights Movement. While the continuation of the Civil Rights Movement was no doubt important, we should recognize and acknowledge the suffering of those who first started it before massive support caught on. In other words, Fannie Lou Hamer was an unstoppable catalyst for civil rights, and she is no less than a legacy.
“Fannie Lou Hamer.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedomsummer-hamer/.
Michals, Debra. “Fannie Lou Hamer.” National Women’s History Museum, 2017, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/fannie-lou-hamer.