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Fannie Lou Hamer: A Civil Rights Activist

by,
Shannon Cobb

AASP 201
8/13/2017
For Professor Felicia Thomas
Introduction

In the mid 1950s the Civil Rights Movement gained national attention. It was a mass

protest movement that sought to bring about social change for African Americans. Blacks fought

for equality. They wanted to be treated as citizens. During this time, they fought against

segregation laws that were passed known as Jim Crow Laws. These laws ultimately took away

black rights to vote and hindered social and educational equality. The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court

decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was the fuel for the turning point in

the movement. The law banned racial segregation in public schools. White despised this

decision. And southern white supremacist fought against desegregation. (Davis, 2014)

There were many people who are well known for their roles in the civil rights movement.

One civil rights activist that often goes unknown for her vital role and significant contributions is

Fannie Lou Hammer. Hamer was a civil rights activist who encouraged and helped many

Mississippians register to vote. She worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,

co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, ran for congress in 1965, worked

to help the poor in her community, she established a Farm Cooperative, The Freedom Farm

Cooperative of Sunflower County, and a pig bank and helped establish the National Womens

Caucus in 1971. Hamer is mostly remembered for her role as a delegate at the Democratic

National Conference in 1964. (NWHM, N.D) Without her efforts, many blacks in Mississippi

wouldnt have fought for their right to vote. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

empowered blacks politically. Hamer great leadership skills and hard work, helped result in the

civil rights Act of 1965.

Background

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Fannie Lou Hamer was born October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. Born

to Lou Ella and Jim Townsend who were sharecroppers. Her father was also a Baptist preacher.

She was the youngest of twenty children. Hamer stopped attending school at the age of 12,

because her family couldnt afford it. Fannie married her husband Perry Hamer in 1944. They

worked as sharecroppers for a Mississippi plantation. The couple adopted two girls. Fannie was

unable to have children of her own due to having an illegal hysterectomy performed on her. This

type of thing wasnt uncommon for African American women during that time. (NWHM, N.D)

Fannies Inspiration and Story

Hamer was inspired to help other African Americans to vote after attending a protest

meeting in 1962. The objective of the meeting was to encourage blacks to vote. At the time,

Hamer didnt know blacks had the right to vote. (Biography.com, 2015) Hamer spent the rest of

her life fighting for civil rights. She was well known for her role in the Student Nonviolent

Coordinating Committee. The SNCC was an organization led my African American students to

fight racial segregation and injustice. She attended an SNCC meeting and attempted to register to

vote after the meeting. This led to her and her husband being fired from their job. As well as to

Hamer being beaten so bad by police she was left with permanent kidney damage. This would be

the story she later told at the Democratic National Convention of 1954. This resulted in Hamer

becoming the secretary for the SNCC.

Many African American women played a huge role in the founding and forming of the

SNCC. Ella baker, who was also a civil rights activist at the time, efforts significantly helped

result in the formation of the SNCC. Baker was the director of the Southern Christian Leadership

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Conference and encouraged student protesters to form their own organization. Many African

American women were also active in the SNCC Voting Rights Campaign in Mississippi. Helping

blacks register to vote and fighting against the laws and tactics that oppressed blacks from

voting. (Standford.edu, n.d)

Hamers passion for civil rights led her to co-founded the Mississippi Freedom

Democratic Party in 1964. Blacks sought an alternative organization due to the Mississippi party

being predominantly white and conservative. President Lyndon B Johnson attempted to help

African Americans by forming a partnership between liberal Democrats and liberal and moderate

Republicans. The partnership aimed to address important concerns of blacks. Conservative

Southern Democrats responded by encouraging members to vote for Bay Goldman, who was a

Republican presidential candidate at the time. He opposed civil rights legislation. In response to

this MFDP was formed to represent African American interest at the 1964 Democratic National

Convention. Also, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine and Victoria Gray were nominated to run

for the 1964 congressional elections. Hamer ran for congress man however, was unsuccessful in

the bid. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017)

Hamers most memorable contribution to the civil rights movement was her powerful

testimony she gave at the 1964 the Democratic National Convention held in Atlantic City, NJ.

The MFDP goal was to be acknowledged as delegates at the national convention. However, the

group had gained a great deal of negative attention and President Johnson didnt want that kind

of media attention surrounding the election. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017). At the convention

members of the MFDF gave speeches describing the horrifying conditions they dealt with in

Mississippi. Fannie Lou Hamer was one of the members who spoke at the. The DNC was

broadcasted nationally. Hamers testimony was cut out and switch to a meaningless press

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conference held by President Johnson to prevent her testimony from being heard. This tactic

ended up working in Hamers favor. Her testimony was put in newspapers and replayed for days.

In her testimony, Hamer spoke about the ordeal her and 18 others members faced when

trying to register to vote at the county courthouse in Indiana on August 31, 1962. They were

stopped by police and were told the bus they were in was the wrong color and were fined. She

spoke about being fired later that day after returning from Indiana for trying to register to vote.

While staying with friends, on 10th of September 1962 sixteen bullets were fired into their home

attempting to kill Hamer. That same night two black girls were shot. The most powerful part of

her testimony was when she spoke about what happened on June the 9th, 1963 after leaving an

SNCC meeting. Her and others were traveling on a bus and stopped at a restaurant to use the

restroom. She was arrested along with five others. They were put in cells. She described the

sound she heard as horrible licks and screams. And could hear the police talking to a woman

and asking her "Can you say, 'yes, sir,' nigger? Can you say 'yes, sir'?" She stated that they

called the woman terrible names. Three police men came to Hamer cell one telling her that they

were going to make her wish she was dead. She was moved to another cell where police had two

black men beat her. When Hamer started to scream one of the policemen began to beat her in her

head. One person they were with was murdered. At the end of her testimony she gave what is

now one of her famous quotes; 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? (American

Experience PBS, 2014)

The Democratic National Party leader tried to compromise with MFDP by allowing the

MFDP members to attend the convention as honorable guests, giving two members speaking

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rights and promising full integration of the Mississippi Democratic Party by 1968. The offer was

rejected by the MFDP. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017)

The MFDP may have not succeeded in its attempt to become delegates at the

Democratic National Convention, however the story it left behind showed the country what

African Americans in the south faced daily in just wanting to be first class citizens with equal

rights. Black Mississippians along with blacks around the nation continued to fight for full

voting rights when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didnt address the right to vote. The MFDP

played a huge role in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Balcckpost.org, 2017). The

act brought equality to African Americans by prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. It was

an expansion to Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned

employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. (A&E

Television Network, 2017).

Hamer continued to fight against poverty in her community. She set up organizations to

help in the progression of blacks. One of those organization she created was The Freedom Farm

Cooperative of Sunflower County. 50 pigs were donated to the organization from the National

Council of Negro Women. The organization attained 700 acres of land. The land was used to

grow, produce and raise livestock. Its goal was to provide black families with nutritious food and

produce income for single black mothers and the young individuals who worked on the farm.

(Walker, 2013) Hamer also helped found the National Womens Political Caucus in 1971. Today

it is only national organization dedicated entirely to increasing womens participation in all areas

of political and public life. (NWPC, n.d)

Conclusion

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Fannie Lou Hamer played a vital role in the civil rights movement. We often dont hear

about her role and how important she truly was since she wasnt always on the T.V screen like

other activists during the time. Her work was hands on and in the background. Hamer was a

powerful leader with a strong presence. She was able to bring national attention to the issues

blacks in Mississippi were facing. She motivated, inspired and empowered blacks politically.

She contributed greatly to the movement, helping in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

And therefore, her story should never be forgotten. In 1976 Hamer developed breast cancer. She

died at the age of 59 in 1977. Hamers tombstone is engraved with her most famous quote I am

sick and tired of being sick and tired. (NWHM, N.D)

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References:
Davis, Jack E. "Civil Rights Movement." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online,
2014. Web. 1 July 2014. Accessed 6 August 2017
https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/civil-rights-movement-overview/
NWHM. Fannie Loue Hamer 1917-1977. National Womens History Museum. n.d. Web. 8
August 2017. https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/fannie-lou-
hamer/

Biography.com. Fannie Lou Hamer Biography.com. Biography.com. 17 January 2017. Web. 8


August 2017 https://www.biography.com/people/fannie-lou-hamer-205625
Standford.edu. Student nonviolent coordinating committee. Standford.edu. n.d. Web. 1 August
2017. https://web.stanford.edu/~ccarson/articles/black_women_3.htm slide 4
Encyclopedia Britannica, INC. Mississippi freedom democratic party. Encyclopedia
Britannica, Inc. 2017. Web. 5 August 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mississippi-
Freedom-Democratic-Party
American Experience PBS. Fannie Lou Hamers powerful testimony freedom summer.
American Experience PBS. 23 June 2014. Web. 1 August 2017.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07PwNVCZCcY
Blackpost.org. Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Blackpost.org. 2017. Web. 1 August
2017. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/mississippi-freedom-democratic-party
A&E Television Network. Civil rights act. A&E Television Network. 2017. Web. 1 August
2017. http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-act
Walker, J. (2013, August 28). Fannie Lou Hamer and her dreams for jobs and freedom. Rewire
News.com. 28 August 2013. Web. 1 August 2017. https://rewire.news/article/2013/08/28/fannie-
lou-hamer-and-her-dream-for-jobs-and-freedom/
NWPC. About the caucus. NWPC. N.d. Web. 1 August 2017.
http://www.nwpc.org/about/nwpc-foundation/

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