Fannie Lou Hamer’s legacy is more profound than what’s come to be known as the Civil Rights Movement catchphrase: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Perhaps the most underappreciated, least celebrated political figure in the pantheon of civil rights was American voting rights and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, a truly unsung hero. Fannie was the central figure in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and was catapulted to national prominence during the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Hamer’s Mississippi grassroots, plain speaking manner and fervent commitment to be a voice for her people would be on display for the world to see as she articulated the feelings of Southern Blacks trying to exercise their constitutional right to vote and run in political electoral arenas. Her passionate speeches inspired and electrified the National Democratic Convention which touched the hearts of blacks and progressive whites as she talked about the plight of Southern Blacks under the restrictive, unconstitutional methods “Jim Crow” Mississippi would use to deny Blacks the right to vote.
Fannie Lou Hamer (birth name Fannie Lou Townsend) was born on Oct. 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, as the youngest of 20 children to sharecropper parents, Ella and James Townsend. The Townsends’ income depended upon the harvested crops they would gather for the landowner, who in turn would pay a small amount for their share during harvest. At age 6, Hamer was weeding (clearing or removing weeds) the cotton fields then helped pick the cotton. Hamer went to school up until the eighth grade, a lot more schooling in a plantation economy than most black children opportunity to attend at that time. Fannie Lou Townsend married Perry “Pap” Hamer in 1944 and they settled on the Marlow plantation as sharecroppers outside Ruleville, Mississippi.
Hamer, a plantation records keeper, could read and write very well, which impressed many. The Hamers did not have any children of their own but raised two girls that came from two different impoverished homes and later adopted the two daughters of one of the girls who died. Hamer had deeply religious beliefs and was someone many came to for help with disputes. When young civil rights workers arrived in Ruleville in the Mississippi Delta in 1962, they were looking for local Blacks to help register Black voters amid the White hostility that could result in harassment, violence or death. It was there that these civil rights workers found 44-year-old Hamer. In turn, Hamer was attracted to these young activists, especially those in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, where another middle-aged committed woman named Ella Baker would help establish the organization. Baker is commonly regarded as the “Godmother of SNCC.”
Hamer’s courage and tenacity came to the attention of SNCC chief organizer Bob Moses, who would train many Freedom Riders to descend upon the South and the challenging Mississippi Delta. Hamer became a SNCC field secretary in early 1963. Months later, Fannie attended a citizenship training school sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr lead Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, to learn how to instruct her neighbors about the benefits of citizenship and their right to vote as citizens. Hamer lost her job as a timekeeper, where she worked for 18 years because of these organizing activities.
Hamer remained committed to the civil rights voting cause and the young organizers who brought her into the struggle. Hamer was quoted as saying, “they treated us like we was special and we loved ’em and trusted ’em.“ Hamer would dedicate the rest of her life to the Civil Rights Movement on the regional and national level. Civil and voting rights became her calling and mission. During this time in Mississippi, state voter registration requirements had a person who would determine and interpret a randomly selected section of the state constitution which was a complicated stipulation. Prospective Black voters inevitably failed the test, whether well-educated or not, often by a White person who would not pass legalized voter criteria themselves without the road block set up for Blacks. By the spring of 1965, after years of voting efforts by Blacks in Sunflower County, only 155 black people were registered to vote, which represented only 1.1 percent of those eligible to vote, while more than 7,000 Whites were registered, which amounted to around 80 percent of Whites who were eligible to vote.
During the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party or “Freedom Democrats” was organized with the purpose of challenging Mississippi’s all-White delegation that ignored the democratic rights of black residents to have a hand in the political process that all Mississippians were afforded, not representative of the state’s constituency. Hamer was elected vice-chair and Aaron Henry, a longtime NAACP activist, headed the group. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would descend upon Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the 1964 Democratic National Convention would take place. Prior to this effort, Blacks in Mississippi tried to participate in selecting delegates who would nominate the party’s presidential candidate, but they were turned away.
Actor and activist Harry Belafonte, who would often appear with Hamer at movement events in the South, said that Hamer’s voice was so inspirational and “from the heart would bring another dimension.” The Freedom Democrats efforts drew national attention to blacks in Mississippi and the entire South and challenged then-President Lydon B. Johnson seeking re-election. Johnson could have conceivably lost states electoral votes because Southern delegates were leaning toward Barry Goldwater — Johnson’s Republican challenger. Hamer drew a great deal of attention from the media, which angered Johnson who he referred to Hamer as “that loud illiterate woman.” Hamer was invited to address the convention’s Credentials Committee where she articulated the problems she and other Blacks had trying to register to vote. One of Hamer’s poignant and dramatic moments during her testimony was her statement, “All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America? Land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our phones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings. Is this America?”
At the White House, President Johnson called an emergency press conference in an effort to divert press coverage away from Hamer’s testimony, however many television networks ran her speech late at night and the Credentials Committee received thousands of calls and letters in support of the Freedom Democrats. Hamer’s dramatic testimony would lead to a compromise involving President Johnson, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Walter Reuther and J. Edgar Hoover. The Democratic Party later adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation from their state’s delegations in 1968 that recognized the rights of all. Hamer continued her work in Mississippi for the Freedom Democrats and for local civil rights causes. She ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965 and was seated as a member of Mississippi’s official delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1968 where she spoke out against the Vietnam War. Fannie Lou Hamer died of heart failure from hypertension on March 14, 1977, in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, at the age of 59 years old and she is buried in her hometown of Ruleville. On Hamer’s tombstone is engraved one her most famous quote, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” On the Mount Rushmore of civil rights leaders, she was indeed an unsung hero.
Malik Ismail is an international traveler, historian and activist. He’s explored many cultures in Africa, including Ghana, South Africa and Egypt. He’s traveled to Cuba and South America. He has visited Rio de Janeiro and Salvador Bahia, Brazil including the favelas of Rocinha and Cidade de Deus (City of God) in Rio and just recently returned from Haiti and Dominican Republic. A former Panther Minister of Information (NPVM) whose writings have been featured in the L.A. Watt’s Times, It’s About Time BPP Newsletter, rolling out magazine and The Black Panther International News Service. Email: [email protected] , Website: http://malikaismail.wix.com/malikismail#!home/mainPage