In the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, many of the most important leaders were women. One of those leaders who stands out in history is Fannie Lou Hamer, born into a family of poor black sharecroppers in rural Mississippi on October 6, 1917. This was a time when most black people in the U.S. worked for little or nothing on plantations in the rural south. They were denied any rights, including the right to vote. Hamer, like many other black children, began working the fields when she was only six years old. The police and Ku Klux Klan stood ready with clubs, guns and lynch ropes to enforce white supremacy against black men and women who resisted oppression.
Fannie Lou Hamer was among the first poor blacks from Mississippi to organize ordinary people like herself, saying black people “were sick and tired of being sick and tired.” On August 31, 1962, she travelled with 17 of her neighbors to the county court house to register to vote, facing harassment by the police and state troopers. After being denied the right to register, she was fired from her job and evicted from her home. Fannie was not defeated. Later she told a reporter: “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.”
Violence against black organizers increased in the next few years. Many were murdered and Hamer herself was arrested and beaten after attending a voter rights conference. She never fully recovered from injuries to her kidneys while being beaten in the jail. But violence simply intensified her determination, and her courage was contagious.
Hamer was one of the founders in 1964 of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). This was a grassroots attempt to challenge the white supremacist character of the Democratic Party. The MFDP organized tens of thousands of black Mississippians, and a few whites, to demand the Democratic Party and the administration of President Johnson act immediately to enforce the constitutional rights of blacks in the south. MFDP activists traveled to the 1964 Democratic Convention to demand that the Democratic Party throw out racist, southern Democratic Party leaders, whose power was based on the denial of black participation in politics. Hamer led this effort, speaking passionately from personal experience of the system of violent oppression and poverty that black people lived under.
President Johnson, while promising to enforce blacks rights in the future, rejected the MFDP appeal, offering only meaningless gestures. Pressured by Democratic Party politicians and union leaders to call this a victory, Hamer still convinced the movement to reject any fake compromise. Senator Hubert Humphrey claimed that his chance at Vice President depended on the MFDP accepting the token gestures the Democrats offered. Hamer told him, “Mr. Humphrey, do you mean your position is more important to you than 400 thousand black people’s lives?” News coverage of Hamer’s speech to the Democratic Convention inspired wide awareness of the situation blacks faced in the South and inspired new black militancy throughout the country.
Fannie Lou Hamer always urged the movement to fight against poverty along side of fighting for civil rights. In 1965 she threw herself into the fight to build the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union. Not supported by most other Black leaders and ignored by the big unions, this effort ultimately failed. “These Bourgeois Negroes aren’t helping,” said Mrs. Hamer. “It’s the Ghetto Negroes who are leading the way.” In the late 60’s and early 70s, Hamer organized a co-op for small farmers in the county where she lived. Local banks and the government were hostile to this and the effort eventually failed for lack of financial support.
Fannie Lou Hamer died on March 14, 1977. As long as she could, she held on and worked hard to sustain the fight for a society based on freedom and social equality. Today when young people by the thousands are looking for ways to fight for change, her courage and convictions should be an inspiration.
For more information, you can read her biography, This Little Light of Mine by Kay Mills.