Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights activist who helped African Americans register to vote and who co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was born Fannie Lou Townsend on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was the youngest of 20 children. Her parents were sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta area. Hamer began working the fields when she was only 6 years old.
Around the age of 12, Hamer dropped out of school in order to work full-time and help out her family. She continued to be a share cropper after her 1944 marriage to Perry “Pap” Hamer. The couple worked on a cotton plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi. They were unable to have children after Hamer had a surgery to remove a tumor. During the operation, her surgeon gave Hamer a hysterectomy without her consent.
Civil Rights Activist
In the summer of 1962, Hamer made a life-changing decision to attend a protest meeting. She met civil rights activists there who were there to encourage African Americans to register to vote. Hamer was one of a small group of African Americans in her area who decided to register themselves. On August 31, 1962, she traveled with 17 others to the county courthouse in Indianola to accomplish this goal. They encountered opposition from local and state law enforcement along the way.
Such bravery came at a high price for Hamer. She was fired from her job and driven from the plantation she had called home for nearly two decades–just for registering to vote. But these actions only solidified Hamer's resolve to help other African Americans get the right to vote. According to The New York Times, she said “They kicked me off the plantation, they set me free. It's the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people.”
Hamer dedicated her life to the fight for civil rights, working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This organization was comprised mostly of African-American students who engaged in acts of civil disobedience to fight racial segregation and injustice in the South. These acts often were met with violent responses by angry whites.
During the course of her activist career, Hamer was threatened, arrested, beaten, and shot at. She was severely injured in 1963 in a Winona, Mississippi jail. She and two other activists were taken in by police after attending a training workshop. Hamer was beaten so badly that she suffered permanent kidney damage.
In 1964, Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was established in opposition to her state's all-white delegation to that year's Democratic convention. She brought the civil rights struggle in Mississippi to the attention of the entire nation during a televised session at the convention. The following year, Hamer ran for Congress in Mississippi, but was unsuccessful in her bid.
Along with her political activism, Hamer worked to help the poor and families in need in her Mississippi community. She also set up organizations to increase business opportunities for minorities and to provide childcare and other family services. She helped establish the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971.
Death and Legacy
In 1976, Hamer was diagnosed with breast cancer. She continued to fight for civil rights, despite her illness. Hamer died on March 14, 1977, in a hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Hundreds crowded into a Ruleville church to say good-bye to this tireless champion for racial equality.
Andrew Young Jr., then a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, gave the eulogy at Hamer's funeral. He explained, “None of us would be where we are today had she not been here then,” according to The New York Times. Young said that the progress of the Civil Rights Movement had been made through “the sweat and blood” of activists like Hamer. On her tombstone is written one of her most famous quotes: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
October 6, 1917
March 14, 1977
- Around the age of 12, Fannie Lou dropped out of school in order to work full-time and help her family.
- In 1964, she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was established in opposition to her state’s all-white delegation to that year’s Democratic convention.
- She brought the civil rights struggle in Mississippi to the attention of the entire nation during a televised session at the convention.
- Along with her political activism, Fannie Lou worked to help the poor and families in need in her Mississippi community.
- On her tombstone is written one of her most famous quotes: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”