Women You Missed in History Class: Fannie Lou Hamer

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Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

My social studies classes talked about the Civil Rights Movement several times over the course of 12 years of public school, but they never mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer.  And unless you grew up in Ruleville, Mississippi, yours probably didn’t, either.  Fannie Lou Hamer is one of the great heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, but she never achieved the celebrity of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or Rosa Parks.

Born October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Fannie Lou (Townsend) Hamer was the youngest of sharecroppers Ella and James Lee Townsend’s 20 children.  From the age of six, she worked the fields with her parents and siblings, picking cotton for the plantation owner.  She attended school at the plantation’s one-room schoolhouse, but had to drop out after six years to work the fields.

Hamer’s first forays into civil rights came in the 1950s, when she started attending conferences of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.  But it was her 1961 forced sterilization that really drove her to activism.  While in the hospital for an unrelated minor surgery, Hamer was given a hysterectomy without her consent.  She would go on to speak out about her experience and the experience of so many other poor black women who were given hysterectomies without their consent, and she is credited with coining the term “Mississippi appendectomy” as a euphemism for the forced sterilization of black women.

In August of 1962, she traveled with a group led by Reverend James Bevel of SNCC to Indianola, Mississippi, to register to vote.  This was her first of many actions with SNCC, and she was recruited to become a community organizer after she caught the eye-or rather, the ear-of Bob Moses with what would become one of the hallmarks of her activism: her singing of hymns.

Over the course of the 1960s,  Hamer played a crucial role in organizing voter registration drives, the Freedom Ballot Campaign of 1963, and Freedom Summer in 1964.  In 1964, she was elected vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, organized to challenge Mississippi’s all-white, anti-civil rights delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention.  At the convention, Hamer gave a passionate speech before the Credentials Committee, in which she recounted her experience of being jailed and beaten by police while trying to register voters.  You can read (and I highly recommend you do) the full text of her testimony here, but it was her stirring conclusion which caught the attention of the country:

“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party 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 of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

Fannie Lou Hamer continued to fight for civil rights and reproductive justice until her death from breast cancer at the age of 59 on March 14, 1977.  Civil rights leader Andrew Young, then the US Ambassador to the United Nations, gave the eulogy at her funeral.  She is buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, and on her tombstone is written one of her most famous quotes: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

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