FANNIE LOU HAMER

FANNIE LOU HAMER

1917-1977

Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman who nearly lost her life while trying to register African- American voters in the Deep South, was bom a sharecropper in a family of 20 in Ruleville, Mississippi. In sharecropping, the land was leased from a white landown¬ er. The family would live and work the land and split the crop with the landlord.

Often all expenses, including fertilizer and seed, came from the sharecropper’s share. Because the work was so hard, constant, and exhausting, children like Fannie had to leave school at a very early age to help sup¬ port the family. She was picking cotton at the age of six, and working full-time cutting cornstalks by early adolescence.

In 1944, Fannie left her family’s farm and moved in with her husband, Perry Hamer. He too was a sharecropper, and Fannie worked with him, rising to a relative position of prominence as the plantation timekeeper.

In the early 1960s, when the South was still resistant to the growing civil rights movement, the Southern Christian Leader¬ ship Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) traveled through the South, encouraging African-Americans to take the dangerous steps towards claiming their right to vote.

Fannie Lou Hamer decided to register. She was fired from her job the day after she did. After 18 years on the planta¬ tion with her husband, Hamer was told by her landlord that pressure from the Ku Klux Klan would be so excessive that she had to leave. Hamer fled that night. The house where she and other registered voters stayed was sprayed with bullets soon after.

With a new commitment, Hamer joined other brave people in organizing a voter registration drive that not only covered Mississippi, but grew into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Enduring a vicious beating during a four-day detainment in Greenwood, Mississippi, Hamer learned firsthand how powerful and frightening her actions must be.

After detaining her and fellow activists, police officers ordered other black prisoners to beat her with a blackjack until they were too tired to continue. Neither Hamer nor her fellow protesters gave up. If they had, men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (see no. 91) might not have been able to gain the support of African-Americans in the Deep South.

Adding to a movement that touched not just Mississippi’s politics, but the politics of the nation’s new generation, Hamer forced Mississippi’s all-white delegation at the Democratic Convention in 1964 to respond to the accusation that it adhered to tradi¬ tions that deliberately and consistently excluded African-Americans. This kind of pressure, steady and determined, was invaluable to the guarantee of voting rights for all Americans.