On this day in history, Fannie Lou Hamer (nee Townsend) was born in Mississippi. She came from a family of poor sharecroppers, often wearing rags tied around her feet instead of shoes.
In the 1940s she met her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer, who worked on the W. D. Marlow plantation, where they worked together for eighteen years until she was fired for trying to vote.
In 1961 she went into a hospital to have a small uterine tumor removed; without her knowledge or consent, she was sterilized by a white doctor as a part of the state of Mississippi’s plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. (Forced sterilization was so common among African-American women in those days that it became known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”)
On August 23, 1962, Hamer attended a sermon by Rev. James Bevel, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who ended his talk with an appeal to those assembled to register to vote.
At the time, only 6 percent of eligible black citizens in Mississippi were registered. They knew that to register was to place at risk to their job security, personal safety and even their lives.
Nevertheless, Hamer was the first volunteer to register. She later said:
I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”
On August 31, she traveled on a rented bus with other attendees of Bevel’s sermon to Indianola, Mississippi, to register. People in the group were scared, and Hamer began to sing hymns to boost their morale. But none of it was to any avail. As Peter Dreier reported in his book The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012):
Before they could register, they had to take one of the infamous literacy tests designed to disenfranchise black people. Among other questions, they were required to write down the names of their employers, information that would promptly be used against them. They were also required to interpret a section of the state constitution to the satisfaction of local white officials. For Hamer, the clerk pointed to a section of the Mississippi Constitution dealing with de facto laws. As she later explained, ‘I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day.’
She failed the test. By the time she returned home, she had lost her job, but she had discovered her passion. She became a leader and public figure in the civil rights movement.”
(She passed the test the next year, making her one of 28,000 blacks registered in Mississippi out of a total of $22,256 eligible black voters.)
Hamer came to the attention of SNCC organizer Bob Moses, who dispatched Charles McLaurin from the organization with instructions to find “the lady who sings the hymns.” Hamer was recruited by SNCC, and she began traveling around the South doing activist work for the organization.
On June 9, 1963, Hamer was on her way back from Charleston, South Carolina with other activists from a literacy workshop, and the group was stopped in Winona, Mississippi and arrested on a false charge. In jail, Hamer and her colleagues were beaten savagely by the police, almost to the point of death. It took Hamer over a month to recover from the beating.
Again, she was not deterred. She returned to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives. In the summer of 1964 she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or MFDP, organized to challenge Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Hamer was elected Vice-Chair.
MDFP sent an integrated delegation of sixty-eight members, including Hamer, to represent Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in August. This was a direct challenge to the official all-white delegation, which excluded blacks from voting. When they arrived in Atlantic City, the MFDP demanded that the national Democratic Party seat them rather than the segregated official delegation.
In Washington, D.C., President Johnson, fearful of the power of Hamer’s testimony on live television, called an emergency press conference in an effort to divert press coverage. The television networks switched to the White House from their coverage of Hamer’s address, in the belief that Johnson would announce his vice-presidential candidate for the forthcoming November election. Instead, he arbitrarily announced the nine-month anniversary of the shooting of Texas governor, John Connally, during the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But many television networks ran Hamer’s unedited speech on their late news programs. The Credentials Committee received thousands of calls and letters in support of the “Freedom Democrats.”
Johnson then dispatched several Democratic Party operatives to negotiate with the Freedom Democrats, including Senator Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Walter Reuther, and J. Edgar Hoover. They suggested a compromise which would give the MFDP two non-voting seats in exchange for other concessions, and secured the endorsement of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the plan. But when Humphrey outlined the compromise to the Credentials Committee, saying that his position on the ticket was at stake, Hamer sharply rebuked him:
Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand black people’s lives? Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Now if you lose this job of Vice-President because you do what is right, because you help the MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take [the nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I’m going to pray to Jesus for you.”
Hamer’s speech to the Committee brought many to tears, and gained her national attention.
While the MFDP rejected the compromise, they had managed to put the issue to the forefront; the Democratic Party adopted a clause that year which demanded equality of representation from their states’ delegations in 1968. At that convention, Hamer became the first African American delegate since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and the first-ever woman delegate from Mississippi. She was seated to a thunderous ovation as part of Mississippi’s official delegation to the convention.
Hamer continued to work for Civil Rights until she died of complications of heart disease and breast cancer on March 14, 1977. She is buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, where her tombstone reads one of her famous quotes, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
You can listen to her testimony to the 1964 Democratic Convention Credentials Committee here: