There have been a lot of searches that pointed people to the blog looking for Fannie Lou Hamer. I am heartened by the fact that we have already featured Ms. Hamer as a Community Organizer and “Did You Know” figure on this blog. While Ida B. Wells can be regarded as the “mother of the civil rights movement” long before the 1960s, Fannie Lou Hamer is definitely the one of the mothers of powerful black citizenship in the Americas as civil rights unfolded.
We will revisit Fannie Lou’s important contributions again when I am able to return to my original goal of highlighting collective movements by or started and supported primarily by women this month, but for now I give you a basic bio of this powerful woman.
Fannie Lou Hamer
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.
Fannie Lou Hamer and her family were sharecroppers in the poorest area of antebellum Mississippi. Hamer’s family was one of the few black sharecroppers able to circumvent the unfair pricing system and actually buy their own piece of land and livestock. Shortly after they began farming for themselves, a white farm owner poisoned and killed their livestock forcing them back into the sharecropping system.
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 from the beating.
Hamer flunked the deliberately misleading test for black people to vote in Mississippi. She refused to be daunted. She told the test administrator that he would see her every 30 days for the rest of her life until she passed the test.
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. She and her family were evicted from their home and all their property was confiscated.
Her work alongside fellow community organizers helped ensure access to the franchise for 1000s of African Americans actively being thwarted from voting.
Fannie Lou Hamer was permanently disabled from a beating outside Charleston South Carolina by police officers. White officers arrested her and a group of other activists and then told black officers to beat them or be beaten alongside them. Later, Hammer over heard those same officers plotting to kill them all by setting them free and then killing them while claiming they had escaped.
Despite these repeated abuses, Hamer encouraged black people to continue fighting for equality alongside white anti-racist activists claiming:
“It wouldn’t solve any problem for me to hate whites just because they hate me.”
Her discussion of discrimination also highlighted violence against black women. She always tried to highlight those cases that involved the abuse or death of black women, not because she felt that would garner more sympathy for the cause but because she wanted their stories to be permanently included in the record of civil rights abuse and civil rights activism.
In 1963 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.
Hamer had begun to embrace a philosophy of global social justice that had economic injustice at its roots. She partnered with other community women to work on economic social justice and raise awareness about the plight of poor women. She also worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King to create a multi-cultural coalition of activists committed to ending poverty globally.
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 conflicts.
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. I thought of this quote not only when writing about the New York Post cartoon, but also in reading several of the comments and posts by women of color bloggers this weekend. There seemed to be a general sense that continuing to have to defend one’s presence in feminism, in the feminist blogosphere as writers on mainstream blogs bringing the perspective of woc to mainstream readers who would not otherwise bother to find them and as writers of alternative and radical feminisms outside of these blogs because of a continued failure to produce consisten decolonized feminism or make a consistent commitment to the publication and promotion of woc voices and feminist publishers who support woc voices, and in radical social justice movements in the real world for being too feminist or being to interested in racial justice as a multiplier of of other injustices. I thought of how being “sick and tired” changed our voices, our writing, our purpose, and our ability to work in concert with one another and across difference. I though about how being “sick and tired” made it that much harder for us to work toward the kind of community and global empowerment that we all need and then I thought about the fact that Fannie Lou Hamer didn’t say she was “sick and tired,” she said she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and that in order to stop, she worked to make her life, her community, and her world better and let other people suffer foolishness on their own.
Despite seldom being included in the traditional feminist canon, and not being included in Obama’s list of examplers of “black citizenship in the Americas,” Fannie Lou Hamer has inspired calenders, documentaries, and even plays including performances by mZuris, EP McKnight, and Billie Jean Young.
Singer/Actress mZuris one-woman play
Billie Jean Young’s performances have been see around the world and she said that her audiences were primarily women and girls. When she performed Fannie Lou Hamer’s story in Pakistan, she said they were so inspired that they wanted to put on their own performances about powerful women from their own community in order to keep their stories alive. Indian and Ghanian women reported that they had never heard about Fannie Lou Hamer’s courageous fight for equality but that they were inspired by her life and her strength to fight for their own rights. Their reports remind how important it is to continue to tell the story of ALL powerful women activists as part of our shared herstory and in order to inspire continuing to struggle for our equality and freedom.
Fannie Lou Hamer died of breast cancer. She received inadequate health care most of her life because of her own long term poverty and race and gender based health disparities. Her hard fought battle for women, people of color, youth, and poor people, ended the way far too many women of color’s activists have. In her last days, the community rallied around her and built her and her family a home. Let us not forget Hamer’s legacies nor wait so long to care for those who fight so hard for us, or to care for ourselves.