It would seem that Fannie Lou Hamer was too easy a “Did You Know,” which makes me very happy.
Ms. Hamer was a voting rights activist who started her own democratic party. Hamer, like many black people in antebellum South, did not know she had the right to vote. When she found out, she was the first to raise her hand to go register. As a result of her decision, she was beaten by police and evicted from the farm she was sharecropping in Mississippi. Ms. Hamer responded by speaking that night at the SNCC conference and lifting her skirt so that everyone could see the bruises that marked every inch of her legs for the beating.
In 1963 she gained the right to vote – passing the racialized tests designed to prevent black people from voting. She worked diligently with the SNCC on voter registration drives and aiding poor and working poor black people. During which time she faced constant police threat and death threats from white supremacists.
In 1964 Hamer started the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to further civil rights and political participation. She demanded that black people be included in the delegation to the Democratic Convention from Mississippi and called the organizers out when they responded by only giving the MFDP 2 representatives at the convention allowed to speak.
Hamer was one of those two voices and she used the opportunity to raise awareness about the murders of civil rights activists like Medgar Evers. She spoke about economic and political disparity built into racism that left most black people working hard for less than subsistence and without representation at the local, state, or national level. She also asked the poignant question: 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 be threatened daily?
Hamer’s speech was televised and is thought to have galvanized the nation. She was such a powerful voice that President Johnson actively tried to silence her and re-direct her audience.
In 1965 Hamer ran for Congress. All though she was defeated, the Mississippi elections were later thrown out for corruption, so we will never know how close she came to winning or if, in fact, she did win.
Hamer was also an economic activist. She was involved in several programs to bring economic justice to the poor, including founding Delta Ministry a community development program. She also worked with the Freedom Farms Corporation – a service agency that helped families raise food and livestock, encourage and train people of color entrepreneurs, and provided needed social services.
She was committed to providing adequate day care to children of color. In 1970, she was on the board of the Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center named in honor by the National Council of Negro Women. She was also on the Board of the Sunflower County Day Care Center which provided both care and services to garment workers.
From 1974 until she died in 1977, Hamer was also on the board of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Like many strong activist women of color today and in the past, Hamer contracted cancer. She died after a radical mastectomy in Mississippi – surgeries that were often performed unnecessarily on women of color and had a high rate of failure through complication.
She is credited with a quote we black women all know to well, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It is written on her gravestone.
As we move into election season, let us not forget the powerful voice of Fannie Lou and what she and others like her fought for. As Anxious Black Woman put it, Fannie Lou Hamer is not part of the Women’s Studies Curriculum or the WS canon. Somehow, I think she should be. How about you?