A Powerhouse with an Indomitable Spirit
And you tell me you are not going to vote. I say shame, shame on you. Not only did white women fight to gain their God given right to vote, but the tale and legacy of the Black women who fought for their right to vote is perhaps even more powerful. And you tell me you are not going to vote?
“She was an awesome woman…”
(quote from her daughter)
She was born Fannie Lou Townsend on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, during the era of Jim Crow rule and racial disenfranchisement, the daughter of sharecroppers who began to work the fields at a very young age. The family was dirt poor, struggling financially and they often went hungry. She was the youngest and twentieth child born to the family of six girls and fourteen boys.
“The family would pick fifty-sixty bales of cotton a year, so my father decided to rent some land. He bought some mules and a cultivator. We were doin’ pretty well. He even started to fix up the house real nice and had bought a car. Then our stock got poisoned. We knowed this white man had done it. He stirred up a gallon of Paris green with the feed. When we got out there, one mule was already dead. The other two mules and the cow had their stomachs all swelled up. It was too late to save ’em. That poison knocked us right back down flat. We never did get back up again. That white man did it just because we, were gettin’ somewhere. White people never like to see Negroes get a little success. All of this stuff is no secret in the state of Mississippi.” (Paris green is a highly toxic emerald-green crystalline powder that has been used as a rodenticide and insecticide, and also as a pigment, despite its toxicity.)
When she was 2 the family moved to Rulevill, Mississippi, in Sunflower County, about sixty miles to the west and about thirty miles from the Mississippi River. They lived in a three room, white framed house with a screened porch that is about twenty feet away from a narrow dirt road a short way from the state highway. A large pecan tree grows in the front yard and two smaller ones grow out back. Butter bean and okra plants are filling out in the gardens on the lots on either side of the house. They all worked as sharecroppers on the W.D. Marlow plantation. While technically they were “free” in actuality they were as indentured servants. They were still “owned” and tightly regulated by the boss.
During the winters of 1924 through 1930 she attended the one-room school provided for the sharecroppers' children, open between picking seasons. She loved reading and excelled in spelling bees and reciting poetry, but at age 12 she had to leave school to help support her aging parents. By age 13 she could pick 200–300 pounds (90 to 140 kg) of cotton daily, despite suffering from polio.
In 1944, she married Perry “Pap” Hamer. Times were still tough and she had to continue to work hard in order to just get by. In the summer of 1962, however, she attended a protest meeting. She met civil rights activists who were encouraging African Americans to vote. She made a life altering decision after this meeting to become active in helping with voter registration.
Hamer, as a citizen activist set an example for members of her community, state and the volunteers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during that fateful summer of 1964, Freedom Summer, which she helped organize. . She was subjected to arrests, jail, and physical beatings and brutality resulting in permanent damage, denied employment and received many serious death threats but she was not to be deterred. Fannie Lou Hamer was tireless in her efforts and became a powerful voice for voting and civil rights. Her plain spoken wisdom and her strong singing voice resounded far and wide. This woman made an impact wherever she went. “All my life I’ve been sick and tired,” she shakes her head. “Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Later in 1964, she was part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which was an integrated group of activists who openly challenged the legality of Mississippi’s all white, segregated delegation at the convention that year. Her televised testimony was interrupted by an impromptu speech by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was not afraid of civil rights, he was afraid of Fannie Lou. His attempt to silence her backfired. Most all of the major news networks broadcast her testimony later that evening to the nation. She ended her speech with these words:
“All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) 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 hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”
On bus trips, to quell the fear of her fellow activists who would be intimidated and perhaps done physical harm just because they wanted to vote, she would sing. She sang songs of redemption and salvation and those fellow freedoms fighters were calmed.
A proposed compromise was eventually presented to the group by Senator Hubert Humphrey on behalf of the President, giving the Freedom Democratic Party two seats, stating that it would lead to a convention in 1968 that was reformed. The MFDP solidly rejected the compromise with Hamer stating “We did not come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we'd gotten here. We didn't come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired.” The entire body of white members from the Mississippi delegation walked out. In 1968 the MFDP was finally seated, after the Democratic Party adopted a clause which demanded equality of representation from their states' delegations. In 1971 Hamer co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus. She emphasized the power women could hold by acting as a voting majority in the country regardless of race or ethnicity, saying "A white mother is no different from a black mother. The only thing is they haven't had as many problems. But we cry the same tears.” In 1972, Hamer was elected as a national Democratic Party delegate.
Hamer received many awards both in her lifetime and posthumously. She received a Doctor of Law from Shaw University, and honorary degrees from Columbia College Chicago in 1970 and Howard University in 1972. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.
She also received the Paul Robeson Award from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the Mary Church Terrell Award and Honorary lifetime member from Delta Sigma Theta, the National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Award. A remembrance for her life was given in the US House of Representatives on the 100th anniversary of her birth, October 6, 2017, by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
There is so much more about this wonderful woman out there. I recommend you check out a few of the Youtube recordings that give her indomitable spirit life; hear her voice, listen to what those who worked along side of her have to say. She is a woman that must be remembered.