Fannie Lou Hamer wasn’t one of those dainty, soft-spoken Southern ladies who drank sweet tea with a congenial smile and a Sunday go-to-church wide-brimmed hat.
No. She was a tough, in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is presence who spoke truth to power and stood up to the white power structure that ruled the state of Mississippi. Hamer’s big spirit was only matched by her passion for civil and human rights.
That passion was on display 50 years ago, when on Aug. 22, 1964, the poor Mississippi sharecropper sat before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Hamer described in graphic detail the vicious 1963 beating in a Mississippi jailhouse that left her with severe kidney damage, a blood clot behind one eye and a permanent limp. She revealed the demeaning discrimination that nearly crippled the souls of black folks in Mississippi.
Hamer declared in her plaintive, outspoken way: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!”
It was a phrase heard around the world. Hamer’s passionate testimony was televised before a national audience. Her powerful perspective shed light on the conditions of blacks and the injustices they endured fighting for civil rights. The event became a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement and a historic time in Mississippi politics.
In the recent documentary "Freedom Summer" by Stanley Nelson, Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee noted that President Lyndon B. Johnson wasn't "afraid of Martin Luther King's testimony, he's afraid of Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony." Johnson gave an impromptu press conference during Hamer's speech, interrupting her televised testimony. But the damage was already done. Moses told The Crisis magazine that Hamer’s plea helped to shift the political party structure in Mississippi. Indeed. The all-white, male Southern Democrats who ruled the state switched to the Republican Party and Mississippi remains a solidly Red state today.
“Fannie Lou Hamer became the authentic voice of Mississippi and the struggle of black people in Mississippi to the nation at the National Democratic Convention,” said Moses, who was co-director of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. “Her testimony really undermined the levees that Mississippi had built against the whole country. Once she broke through that the gate was up. You needed someone who expressed Mississippi in their bones to be able to reach through.”
Born in Montgomery County, Miss., Fannie Lou Hamer was the youngest of 20 children. Her parents were sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta and Hamer started working in the fields at age 6. She eventually dropped out of school and worked full-time to help her family. Hamer married in 1944 and moved with her husband to Ruleville, Miss., where they were sharecroppers on a plantation. After going to the hospital for a minor surgery, she was sterilized without her knowledge and was unable to have children, though she later adopted.
In 1962, Hamer attended a meeting about black voter registration sponsored by SNCC. A couple of days later, she traveled to Indianola, Miss., with a group of other African Americans and attempted to register to vote. When she refused to withdraw her voter registration application, Hamer lost her job and was kicked off the plantation where she had worked for nearly two decades.
But it was then that Hamer, at age 45, found her voice.
Earnest Bracey, author of Fannie Lou Hamer: The Life of a Civil Rights Icon, heard that voice when he was a young kid growing up in Jackson, Miss. He saw Hamer speak while she was campaigning for the rights of African Americans and was moved by the presence of this unconventional leader. Bracey says he considers Hamer the First Lady of Civil Rights.
“I was impressed with her voice, her stance, her ability to connect with people,” says Bracey, a professor of political science and African American studies at the College of Southern Nevada. “She was able to appeal to people without being a college-educated person. She had the ear of the masses and could influence them to put aside their fear so that they could register and vote to make a difference.”
Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of the late Mississippi civil-rights leader Medgar Evers and former chairwoman of the NAACP, recalls there were those who criticized that Hamer did not have the smoothness of what they wanted a female spokesperson to be, “but that was her strength.”
“She didn’t care what people thought about her. She had a passion and she spoke on that passion,” says Evers-Williams, whose husband was murdered in 1963. “She stepped up when nobody else did. She took a stand and refused to move from it.”
After her famous stance at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, Hamer continued her fight for civil rights and social justice. Until her death she worked on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. She helped organize a strike for black cotton pickers and worked with the National Council of Negro Women to establish a farm cooperative and create “pig banks” for poor residents. According to the biography This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer by Kay Mills, Hamer was active in several anti-poverty efforts in Mississippi including Head Start programs and federal funding for housing. The book notes that in 1971, Hamer joined with feminists to form the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization that works to increase women’s political participation.
Hamer’s great niece, Cherraye Oats (her paternal great-grandmother was Hamer’s sister) is following in the footsteps of her aunt as a community organizer. She is the executive director for the Fannie Lou Hamer Center for Change in Webster County, Miss.
“I think about how courageous she was back in those days, how her work could have ended her life, how powerful she was and how she wanted to make a difference and change lives at 40-something years old,” says Oats. “Aunt Fannie’s work made a tremendous difference, especially around voting. It got more African Americans engaged in the political process.”
The goal now is to build on Hamer’s legacy.
“We’re trying to figure out what her unfinished business was,” says Oats.
When the United States Post Office issued a series of stamps on civil rights leaders, Evers-Williams asked that Hamer appear on a stamp alongside her husband, Medgar, and in June during the BET Awards, the civil rights leader marked the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with a dedication to civil rights leaders using the famous words of Fannie Lou Hamer.
Evers-Williams noted that few in the young hip-hop audience had heard of Fannie Lou Hamer or the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an interracial political party that sent delegates to Atlantic City in 1964 to challenge the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention.
“She’s one of my she-roes and I just have tremendous admiration for her,” says Evers-Williams. “I hope that young people, especially young females, get to know more about this woman.”
Hamer died March 17, 1977 from complications of heart disease and breast cancer. She was 59. There are numerous books written about her life and throughout the nation there are parks, schools, community centers and organizations named in her honor. The Fannie Lou Hamer Institute on the campus of Jackson State University in Mississippi works to keep her memory alive through programs about the Civil Rights Movement and activities to expand social justice. And though the civil rights leader has received many posthumous honors there are still too many who don’t know of her sacrifice.
“The world needs to know about Fannie Lou Hamer, just like they know Dr. King and Rosa Parks,” says Bracey. “She should be right up there.”
Lottie Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and senior editor of The Crisis magazine.