Fannie Lou Hamer was born on October 6 1917; she was the daughter of Jim and Ella Townsend. She was one of twenty children – 14 boys and 6 girls. In growing up in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the young Hamer suffered from the twin insults of poverty and racism. One has to keep in mind the daunting cultural, economic and political realities that a black person faced in Mississippi at that time; Mississippi had the most repressive racist policies of that era.
Throughout the American South, African-Americans were subjected to the satellite of laws and customs that were instituted to actively repress blacks and enforce their inferior status. Collectively, these restrictive policies were referred to as Jim Crow. Some examples of Jim Crow included –
· Separate and unequal education
· Separate hotel, bathroom, restaurant and sports accommodations which even included drinking fountains
· Poll taxes and voter qualification tests specifically designed to exclude blacks from voting
· Laws outlawing mixed-race marriages.
In regards to the origin of the word Jim Crow, it seems to have first appeared around 1930. A white minstrel show actor, Thomas "Daddy" Rice, darkened his features using charcoal and danced a ridiculous dance to the lyrics of a song entitled, "Jump Jim Crow." Some believe that Jim Crow was the name of a slave holder who "owned" the slave that Rice mimicked in his routine.
These were the conditions of life Hamer experienced as a girl and young woman. Her father was a Baptist preacher and a bootlegger, and her mother was a domestic servant. Jim and Ella Townsend were sharecroppers. The life of a sharecropper was one of hard work, poverty, exploitation and violence. Sharecropping was, in fact, an ante-bellum system designed to replace slavery with cheap labor. Although the institution of slavery had been abolished, the extreme economic disparity between the races was maintained. The landlord provided tenants with housing, food, seed and farm equipment from the owner's plantation store at typically exorbitant interest rates and half of the crop. This system was designed to make it exceedingly difficult for the sharecropper to break free from this onerous system and get ahead. As a matter of fact, Hamer related a story that testifies to this system. There was a time when the Townsends were actually getting ahead when a white neighbor intentionally poisoned their animals when they were away. This singular event proved to be a major economic setback and undermined all the progress they had made.
Hamer started picking cotton when she was six - working twelve to fourteen hours per day. By the time she was thirteen, she was picking 200-400 pounds of cotton per day and receiving one dollar for her efforts. She had a markedly inferior education. The school year for black sharecroppers lasted for four months and was three months shorter than for their white counterparts living in rural Mississippi. The average expenditure for black children in the state of Mississippi was about twenty percent of what it was for whites. Hamer left school when she was twelve and joined the Strangers Home Baptist Church where she continued her education.
Her mother exerted the most powerful influence in her life. According to Hamer, "My mother was a great woman. She went through a lot of suffering to bring the twenty of us up, but she still taught us to be decent and to respect ourselves, and that is one of the things that has kept me going." In her own admission, her faith contributed to her strength. One of the important lessons that Hamer learned from her mother was that hating made one weak, and that she should honor and appreciate her heritage. It was from her mother that Hamer learned the horrors of slavery. Her maternal grandmother, Liza Bramlett, was a slave and had twenty-three children; twenty of these children were the products of rape on the part of powerful white men.
Hamer ultimately became a remarkably influential civil rights leader. In appearance, Hamer seemed unassuming – she was short, stocky and walked with a limp. This limp resulted from an attack of polio she had as a child. She was desperately poor and lived in a house without hot water and no indoor toilet. The work on the plantation was arduous and exhausting. In striking contrast, the plantation owner's dog had his own bathroom. Hamer was also known for her sense of humor – a quality that probably helped maintain her sanity under exceedingly trying conditions. As a married woman, she and her husband, Pap, often took upon themselves the care of other people's children.
There was another dramatic event in her life that helped shape her thinking and her resolve to actively work towards a better world for her people. When she was in her early forties (1961), she went to the hospital to have a small uterine tumor removed. Following the operation, she discovered that she was sterilized involuntarily - her uterus had been removed. This was an outrage of major proportions to her, yet it was not a totally uncommon practice in regards to black women's healthcare in that region of the country.
In 1962, the civil rights movement was well underway; Hamer was 44 years old and still was unable to vote. In Mississippi at that time, blacks were required to take a "literacy test" before being legally allowed to vote. The test was purposefully designed to exclude blacks from voting. As a result, she joined the struggle to gain the right to vote. At that time, blacks were relegated to being servants, working in the cotton fields, teaching in all-black schools, preaching or working as funeral directors. All aspects of social and economic life was under the iron-fisted control of whites. Those who attempted to defy the numerous prohibitions imposed on their lives were treated harshly and extra-legal and summary executions were quite common. The reality of lynching parties, a common phenomenon in the American South at that time, has been recently brought under public scrutiny. It was not unusual for black males to not only be lynched but also tortured and physically mutilated. It should be noted here that when the horrible fate of the young black Emmett Till came to light in the national press, the conditions of blacks in the American South became widely known.
On August 28, 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen years old African-American boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta, was brutally murdered after allegedly flirting with a white woman. He was physically removed from his relative's home and transported to a barn, where he was brutally beaten, mutilated and shot through the head. His body was subsequently disposed of in the Tallahatchie River, weighted with a 70-pound (32 kg) cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was discovered three days later. This event outraged the entire nation and helped to propel and energize the civil rights movement.
As a result of the extremely repressive conditions that plagued the black population, many fled to East St. Louis, the South side of Chicago, Gary Indiana or Detroit Michigan. It is the cumulative effect of these experiences that awakened Hamer to the horrific conditions of her people and made her determined to work tirelessly for change. She exclaimed that, "All of those things, when they would happen, would make me sick in the pit of my stomach and year after year, every time something would happen it would make me more and more aware of what would have to happen in the state of Mississippi."
Young civil rights workers arrived in Rubeville in 1962. Mass meetings were organized. It was there that Hamer joined the drive to register black voters. The support of organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) helped to mobilize the effort to improve the political and economic plight of the blacks by helping to shatter the feelings of isolation and powerlessness that individuals had come to accept as the inescapable reality of their existence. With a group of seventeen others, she traveled to Indianola, 26 miles from Ruleville, to register to vote. They were met with open hostility; as a matter of fact, a white crowd had congregated with some carrying guns in full view. Indianola was the birthplace of the White Citizens Council – an extremist group believing in white supremacy that was formed in response to the famous Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that deemed segregated schools to be unconstitutional. It was a humiliating process. She and her colleagues were ordered to enter the registration office in pairs. Hamer was required to answer questions containing personal information that she understood could be used against her and her family, since this information would be made freely available to the White Citizens Council. This procedure was designed to intimidate. In fact, violence was subsequently perpetrated against members of her Rubeville community. Following this questioning, she and the others were required to take a so-called "literacy test" to qualify for voting. She was quizzed on section sixteen of the Mississippi state constitution. She, of course, failed in this first attempt. When she returned to the plantation, she was accosted by the owner, who demanded that she withdraw her registration for voting or face severe economic consequences. Refusing to be intimidated, she ultimately left the plantation and her family, at least for a time. She subsequently returned to Indianlola at a later date and passed the literacy test.
This marked a definitive turning point in her life. From this point on, she became very involved with SNCC and traveled with them. Hamer attended leadership training and voter registration workshops. She traveled with SNCC and became a fiery and eloquent spokesperson for the movement for black equality, especially in regards to voter registration. She also became an effective fundraiser. Hamer did this with remarkable courage, especially living in Mississippi in the midst of the horrors of Jim Crow as alluded to above. Her tenacity and courage were inspired by her moral convictions and to some extent by the bitterness she felt towards her oppressors. Her courage was undoubtedly accentuated by the hard life she led that helped make her extremely resilient.
The extent of the horror that Hamer had to endure in her struggle was made clear in the spring of 1963. Hamer, along with a group of other civil rights activists, boarded a bus that would take them across the state border to Georgia. Their purpose was to test the Interstate Commerce Commission ban on segregated bus terminals. Facing extreme and unbridled hostility, they ultimately decided to abandon their efforts and returned to Columbus, Mississippi. While awaiting their transfer to another bus that would take them home, they were physically accosted by the driver and forced to sit in the back of the bus. The next destination was Winona, Mississippi where some of the blacks got off the bus as a rest stop. When they attempted to eat at the lunch counter alongside whites, they met with overt and violent opposition and were eventually arrested by the local authorities and taken to jail. At the jailhouse they were separated into separate cells and horribly beaten. As a result of the injuries Hamer sustained, she was blinded in one eye and her kidneys were permanently damaged. Among those savagely beaten was a sixteen year old girl, June Johnson. They were then taken to court where they were charged and convicted of "disorderly conduct" and "resisting arrest."
With the help of Julian Bond and the United States Justice Department, charges were brought against the offending officers, but they were tried in Mississippi with an all-white jury and the guilty police officers were deemed innocent of all charges – a verdict that was not unexpected. This was undoubtedly Hamer's worst experience in her activist life. It did not deter her, however, from continuing in the struggle.
Hamer ultimately became nationally prominent. She launched a nationwide speaking tour that enhanced her national exposure and highlighted the plight of blacks in Mississippi. On April 26, 1964, some three hundred black citizens of Mississippi arrived in Jackson to form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Hamer took on a prominent leadership role. The party formed a delegation that went to the 1964 Democratic Convention held in Atlantic City, New Jersey for the sole purpose of challenging the all-white Mississippi delegation. Ironically, the delegation ended up with wretched accommodations in a segregated hotel; Jim Crow existed in the North as well.
Hamer had numerous opportunities to emphasize the plight of the blacks in her home state; she was often on national television. These appearances did much to heighten the awareness of Americans to the evils of Jim Crow. The MFDP challenge made the likely Presidential nominee, President Lyndon Johnson, exceedingly nervous. Ultimately, through a series of political machinations, the MFDP lost their bid. Hamer left upset and embittered. By the 1968 Democratic National Convention, however, the Credentials Committee made a momentous policy decision – no delegation would be seated if blacks were excluded from electoral participation in their state.
Hamer continued working for the MFDP and appeared as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago as a member of the Loyalist Democrats that was a coalition of various black-affiliated groups including the NAACP and the MFDP. She spoke before one of the hearings at the Platform Committee and outlined her proposals for inclusion in the party platform - among these were land grants and low interest loans for cooperatives, a guaranteed minimum income, extended day care, comprehensive medical care, increased federal provisions for food programs and free higher education. In regards to foreign policy, she called for an end to the Vietnam War and the draft, renewed diplomatic ties to Cuba and China and an arms embargo imposed on the Apartheid regime of South Africa.
Hamer remained politically active, engaged and involved even when she was plagued by ill health and dying from breast cancer. She suffered considerably in her final days and was exceedingly poor. She had suffered both remarkable successes and serious political setbacks during her life, but she remained deeply involved in causes that touched the heart of her humanity and her generosity of nature. Hamer passed away in March of 1977; she left us a remarkable legacy. She served, unwittingly, as the moral conscience of the nation during her time, and continues to be an inspiration to those who actively work towards a better world.