Fannie Lou Hamer (née Townsend, born on October 6, 1917) is one of the most important activists of the Civil Rights Movement. The 20th and last-born child of sharecroppers, with a leg damaged by polio, she was a diligent student at the one-room schoolhouse she could only attend in summer’s cotton picking off-season.
Hamer experienced unspeakable violence: shot at, extorted by White Supremacists, denied the right to vote despite the 1870 Fifteenth Amendment’s theoretical provision of universal suffrage (Blacks in the South remained disenfranchised through bogus “literacy tests” and poll taxes for years). An excruciatingly brutal 1963 police station beating in a Mississippi jail left her nearly dead, with permanent kidney damage.
She’d been subjected to involuntary sterilization as a young woman (“Mississippi appendectomies”), and one of her adopted daughters hemorrhaged to death because the local hospital refused to admit her, to “punish” Hamer for her political agitation. In the face of so many personal travails, it is almost unimaginable that she had the strength to help lead the Civil Rights Movement, but this she did, becoming one of the organizers of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, advancing voting rights for Blacks in the South through the groundbreaking activism of the Freedom Democratic Party (the “official” Democratic Party we know today being virulently anti-Black in that era).
Also dedicated to the rights of women, Hamer co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, which advocated for the recruitment of women across cultures seeking election to public office. In her remarkable life, she would also fight to liberate Black farmers from sharecropping—basically an updated form of enslavement. She would also help start the children’s Head Start program, and take on a key role in Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.
Although many of the injustices she suffered were due to her race, Fannie Lou Hamer also considered women’s rights important, once remarking: “A white mother is no different from a black mother. The only thing is they haven’t had as many problems. But we cry the same tears.” How does this stance resonate with you?