The American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer was born on October 6, 1917 in
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
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.
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
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
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
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
In June 1964 the first contingent of volunteers arrived in
Fannie 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
Hamer and others had concluded that the only way to oppose the segregated
The MFDP’s stated goal was to challenge the seating of the regular party’s all-white
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
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
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
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
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.
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