Community Organizers: A Small Town Girl and a Powerful Political Presence

It does not look like I can do a new Community Organizer post today. So besides the posts I have already done, please find a modified repost from last year’s “Did You Know.” This community organizer is not only significant for the many works she did to make this country better but also for the powerful impact she had on national level politics. She proved that a small town girl from rural Mississippi could change the world just by being a community organizer.

Fannie Lou Hamer

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Ms. Hamer was a voting rights activist who started her own democratic party. She worked on children’s rights, poverty, peace, and voter registration during her powerful time as a community organizer. Her legacy includes a radical shift in the exercise of the franchise, the democratic platform, and the view of women and people of color in politics. And her tireless work also helped young and poor people meet their basic needs: food, shelter, and care. Finally, in a time of war she fought for diplomacy and peace and to help integrate returning soldiers back into society with the benefits and care they earned.

Like many black people in antebellum South, Hamer 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. Her work alongside fellow community organizers helped insure access to the franchise for 1000s of African Americans actively being thwarted from voting.

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 she publicly criticized the Mississippi DNC delegation for only granting 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 energized 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 because of voter corruption. Interference with the ballots means we will never know how close Fannie Lou Hamer 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 her 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 all of the other causes upon which she worked, she worked tirelessly to ensure a peaceful world and diplomatic solutions to international conflict
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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 and that has become a regular catch phrase sadly detached from its history (ie the powerful work Fannie Lou Hamer did and why she continued to be a community organizer even after state and national threat against her):

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.

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