Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

The American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer was born on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. The youngest of 20 children of Jim and Lou Ella Townsend, Fannie Lou was a year old when she contracted polio, which left her with a lifelong limp. When she was two-years-old, the family moved to Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta, where they became sharecroppers.

Like thousands of other sharecroppers, the Townsend family lived on the edge of survival. As Fannie Lou was growing up, her home was a tarpaper shack without running water or electricity, her "bed" a cotton sack stuffed with dry grass, and her "shoes" swatches of cloth wrapped and tied around her feet. Often the Townsends’s only food was greens and flour gravy or bread and onions.

Fannie Lou often played next to the fields where her parents and brothers and sisters worked. One day, the plantation owner drove up. He asked her if she would like a can of sardines, a box of Crackerjacks, and a gingerbread cookie. He told her she could have them if she would pick 30 pounds of cotton in a week. Since she was always hungry, she agreed. Thus, at the age of 6, she picked cotton for the first time. By the age of 12, she was picking 200 to 300 pounds a day. Yet, as many bales as the Townsends picked, they usually ended the year in debt.

During the four winter months and sometimes two months in the summer when there wasn’t much field work, Fannie Lou went to school, which was held in a one-room shack on the plantation. She soon became an avid reader, reading fragments of newspapers and magazines she picked up at the side of the road.

When Fannie Lou was 21, Jim Townsend suffered a stroke and died, leaving Lou Ella with the sole responsibility for keeping the family together.

In 1945, at the age of 27, Fannie Lou fell in love with Perry "Pap" Hamer, a 32-year-old tractor driver and sharecropper. They got married and she went to live with him on the W.D. Marlowe plantation, just outside the town of Ruleville, in a small house which had running water, but no bathroom. Soon Lou Ella came to live with them, staying with them until she died, ten years later.

For the next 18 years, Hamer worked in the fields during the day, chopping cotton and serving as the plantation’s timekeeper. Whenever possible, she helped her fellow workers by trying to ensure that they were paid fairly and interceding on their behalf with the landowner. Among the field workers she was recognized and respected as a leader. 

In 1962 Hamer, now 44-years-old, attended her weekly church service on August 25. After services, the minister announced there would be a meeting at the church the following night, co-sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Up to this time, people in the Ruleville area had remained largely unaware of the civil rights movement.

The Williams Chapel Church was packed that hot, humid Monday night. As Hamer remembered the meeting, "James Bevel preached [on] Discerning the Signs of the Times. Then James Forman talked about how it was our constitutional right to register and to vote. Until then…I didn’t know a Negro could register and vote…. When they asked for those to raise their hands who’d go down to the courthouse, I raised mine."

On August 31, Hamer and 17 others took a bus to Indianola, the county seat, to register to vote. As a literacy test, the applicants had to read, copy, and interpret a section of the Mississippi Constitution concerning de facto laws. Fannie Lou was not able to explain its meaning to the satisfaction of the white registrar and so failed the test, as did the others. When Hamer finally got home that evening, Marlowe gave her the choice of withdrawing her registration application or leaving the plantation. She left.

Soon after, Pap was fired from his job. The family lost their car, furniture, and house. Fannie Lou responded to these setbacks by becoming active in the growing movement to register blacks to vote. Under black activist Robert Moses’s leadership, SNCC field offices had been set up all over Mississippi for the purpose of canvassing for voter registration. Seeing that Hamer had natural leadership abilities, Moses offered her a position as a field secretary-at-large for Mississippi, at a salary of $10 a week. She went into fields, homes, and churches and talked to people about the movement and about their right to vote. She also organized a food and clothing drive for the needy families of Ruleville.

It was soon apparent to the SNCC leadership that Hamer was a forceful speaker who could move people. She became one of SNCC’s most effective fundraisers, traveling throughout the northern states, speaking to mostly-white audiences about the desperation of black Mississippians and their desire for change. "I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired," Hamer told her listeners.

On December 4, 1962, Hamer tried to register a second time. She got the impression that she had failed the exam again, but later she learned that she was registered. But when she tried to vote that fall, she was told that she couldn’t vote because she hadn’t paid her poll tax in the previous two years.

In June 1963 Hamer attended a two-week SNCC-sponsored workshop on voter registration held in Charleston, South Carolina. On the way home, the bus stopped in Winona, Mississippi. Several of the passengers got out to eat at the lunch counter in the bus terminal. When a server told them they couldn’t eat inside, they protested, pointing out that this was against the civil rights law on interstate travel. The police arrived and drove them out of the restaurant with billy clubs. When the activists started to collect badge numbers, the police arrested them. Hamer, who had remained on the bus, saw her friends being arrested, got off the bus, and was arrested, too.

At the county jail, they were cursed at, shoved, and kicked. One at a time, they were taken into a cell and beaten. Hamer heard the screams of her friends and then it was her turn. She was taken to a room where two black prisoners were told to beat her with a blackjack. "If you don’t beat her, you know what we’ll do to you," the police told the two men.

On learning about Fannie Lou Hamer’s arrest, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called SCLC headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama. Activists Andrew Young, James Bevel, and Dorothy Cotton drove to Winona, posted bonds of $300 each, and managed to secure their releases. Hamer, by now only half conscious, was brought to a doctor in Greenwood, who stitched and bandaged her wounds. 

Freedom Summer chalkboard

By November 1963, Hamer had resumed her duties as a field secretary for SNCC. At an SNCC meeting in November, Moses and Allard Lowenstein proposed the Mississippi Summer Project or Freedom Summer, which called for recruiting people from the North—mainly whites who believed in the movement—to come to Mississippi to help with voter registration drives and to set up Freedom Schools where adults would be taught about voting and children would be tutored in basic skills.

In the spring of 1964 SNCC and the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) set up a training center in Oxford, Ohio to train volunteers for Freedom Summer. Hamer, James Forman, and Moses warned about the dangers and urged volunteers to leave if they had any doubts about their ability to stand the strain.

In June 1964 the first contingent of volunteers arrived in Meridian, Mississippi. Among them were two white students from New York, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and one black student from Mississippi, James Chaney. While investigating a church bombing, the three disappeared. Although aware that Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman might have been murdered, no volunteers turned back.

annie Lou Hamer had tried to work within the regular Mississippi Democratic Party, but she had been locked out of party meetings and denied the right to vote. Because blacks weren’t allowed to vote and couldn’t belong to the Democratic Party or run for office, wealthy plantation owners—such as Senator John Stennis and Senator James O. Eastland from Hamer’s Sunflower County—kept getting elected to Congress year after year. Their seniority allowed them to chair important committees, giving them inordinate power over political affairs.

Hamer and others had concluded that the only way to oppose the segregated Mississippi political machine was to establish a racially integrated Democratic Party, which they did in April, naming it the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). During Freedom Summer 1964, volunteers went into homes, churches, and cotton fields throughout the state and signed up 60,000 members. Precinct and county primaries were held and delegates to a state convention were elected. At the MFDP state convention in Jackson, 64 blacks and 4 whites were chosen as delegates to the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Aaron Henry, a black pharmacist, was elected chair and Hamer was elected vice-chair. By the time the MFDP delegates arrived in Atlantic City, they had won the support of 9 other state delegations, 25 congresspeople, and the United Auto Workers.

The MFDP’s stated goal was to challenge the seating of the regular party’s all-white Mississippi delegation and to be seated in their place as Mississippi‘s legal and rightful delegation. This possibility made President Lyndon B. Johnson furious. His greatest concern was to beat the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, and he worried that he would lose southern political support if the MFDP were seated. Having been instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, Johnson couldn’t understand why blacks in the South weren’t satisfied. Yet, while the new law outlawed racial discrimination in public places, it did not promote black voting rights, which Hamer and many others felt were at the heart of the civil rights struggle.

For the MFDP delegates to be seated, they would have to be recognized by the majority of the 108-member Credentials Committee. To prevent this, LBJ’s staff urged Committee members to reject MFDP’s challenge. The Freedom Democrats thought if they could get just 11 votes on the Committee, the fight would have to go to the convention floor, where they felt they could win.

Johnson pressured his expected running mate, Senator Hubert Humphrey, to see that arms got twisted. On Saturday, August 22, the Credentials Committee met before a national television audience to hear MFDP’s request to be seated. Many civil rights leaders testified, including King, but it was Hamer’s testimony that riveted the nation. She described the hard life of the 850,000 blacks in Mississippi and the way they were locked out of the political process. She explained that in her own Sunflower County, 80 percent of the 8,000 white residents of voting age were registered, while only 1.1 percent of the 13,000 black residents of voting age were registered. She told of her beating in the Winona jail. She challenged the Committee to do the right thing, saying, "If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives are threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings in America?" 

Hamer before the DNC Credentials Committee

During Hamer’s testimony, Johnson made a last-minute request for television air time and the networks switched over to the president’s news conference. But enough of Hamer’s message got through to the nation and viewers from all over the country sent telegrams to their delegates urging support of the MFDP.

In response LBJ had Humphrey appoint Minnesota‘s attorney general Walter Mondale to negotiate a settlement. Mondale worked out a "compromise" that called for the seating of every Mississippi regular who would sign a party loyalty oath. There would be two seats for the MFDP whose occupants would be designated by Mondale. Finally, the national party pledged that no segregated delegations from any state would be seated at the 1968 convention.

On the night before the convention officially opened, the MFDP delegates held a meeting to decide whether or not to accept the Mondale compromise. Hamer and others spoke strongly against it. After discussion, the delegates voted to reject it. As Hamer said, "We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired." At this meeting, the MFDP delegates voted to accept a compromise that Congressperson Edith Green, a member of the Credentials Committee, had proposed, that each individual on both Mississippi delegations be given the chance to sign a loyalty oath and that any member of either delegation who signed should be seated and all others rejected.

The convention opened with both Mississippi delegations seated in the gallery. At a noon meeting called by Humphrey, the Freedom Democrats informed Humphrey and members of the Credentials Committee that they would accept the Green proposal. They were then told that if they kept pushing for their challenge to come to the floor of the convention, Humphrey wouldn’t be nominated for vice president. In response to this, Hamer said, "Senator Humphrey, I been praying about you and I been thinking about you and you’re a good man and you know what’s right. The trouble is you’re afraid to do what you know is right. You just want this job and I know a lot of people have lost their jobs and God will take care of you, even if you lose this job. But Mr. Humphrey, if you take this job, you won’t be worth anything."

Civil Rights protest outside the Convention

That evening the MFDP held a spirited rally along the boardwalk to show the strength of its support from other state delegations. Led by Hamer, over 3,000 people joined in singing. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the boardwalk encouraging delegates to seat the Freedom Democrats. After this rally, MFDP delegates felt confident that they would be seated if their challenge could only make it to the convention floor. Yet, even while this rally was taking place, support from members of the Credentials Committee was dwindling due to the political pressures being exerted behind the scenes.

The next day the Credentials Committee went into a closed session in which the only representative from the MFDP was their chief counsel Joseph Rauh, a white attorney. In this meeting, pressure was exerted on the remaining holdouts to accept the Mondale plan. Rauh was not allowed to complete his presentation. A rushed vote was taken and the Mondale proposal passed. Even though Rauh thought he had heard seven nays in addition to his own, word went out to the media after this meeting that the Mondale compromise had been unanimously accepted by the Credentials Committee.

The 1964 Democratic Convention floor

On the convention floor, the Credentials Committee gave its report. A majority of delegates, mistakenly thinking that the MFDP had agreed to the Mondale plan, approved the compromise without debate and the business of the convention went on. Meanwhile, the MFDP, whose supporters had been staging vigils on the boardwalk, rallied their allies and, with television cameras and reporters in tow, headed for the convention hall, singing "We Shall Overcome." By the time the MFDP arrived at the hall, all but three of the regular Mississippi Democrats had refused to sign the required oath of loyalty to the convention’s presidential nominee and had walked out. With tickets that had been given them as "honored guests," the black Mississippians headed for the seats the regulars had left vacant. Michigan and North Dakota delegates offered some of their seats too and MFDP delegates took them.

Several MFDP delegates stood silently in a circle on the convention floor. For two hours, there was pandemonium as sergeants-at-arms tried to remove the MFDP delegates and various other delegations put themselves between the MFDP and the sergeants-at-arms.

The Mississippi challenge had wide impact. It opened the Mississippi state party and ultimately other state parties to black participation. At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago four years later, both Georgia and Alabama presented integrated delegations that successfully challenged the all-white party regulars. Hamer, now an official delegate in a reorganized Mississippi Democratic Party, argued at the convention podium for seating the integrated Alabama delegation.

But the struggles to obtain black voting rights, the right to run for public office, the right to a job that paid a living wage, and the right to be free from hunger and privation were far from over, and Fannie Lou remained active. Death threats and other harassments followed her decision to run in 1964 for the Second Congressional House District seat held by segregationist Jamie Whitten. In that election, she cast her first vote, for herself. As sharecropping had given way to day labor, she helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union in 1965. In 1969 she founded Freedom Farms Cooperative to help people survive who had lost their jobs due to mechanization.

During the last years before her death in 1977 at the age of 60, she granted a series of interviews to Dr. Neil McMillen of the University of Southern Mississippi. She was asked, "Do you have faith that the system will ever work properly?" She replied, "We have to make it work. Ain’t nothing going to be handed to you on a silver platter, nothing. That’s not just black people, that’s people in general, masses. See, I’m with the masses…. You’ve got to fight. Every step of the way, you’ve got to fight."


Alice Leuchtag, a freelance writer and activist for civil liberties, peace, and women’s rights, has been an instructor of sociology, community education specialist, and counselor.