Black History Month: Civil Pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer was a fearless Mississippi sharecropper who became a powerful champion for civil rights, voting rights, and political representation during the turbulent 1960s.

Fannie Lou Hamer, 1971

Fannie Lou Townsend was born in Ruleville, Mississippi in 1917.  She was the youngest of 20 children born into the family of James and Ella Townsend.  By the age of 6, Fannie Lou was working in the cotton fields picking cotton on a plantation where her parents were sharecroppers. She was able to attend school during the winter but had to quit at age 12 to work full time in the fields to help support her parents.  By age 13 she was picking 300 to 400 pounds of cotton each day.

She married in 1942 and spent nearly 20 years working as a sharecropper in Mississippi before her attendance at a voter registration rally sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. At the rally, they encouraged her to exercise her constitutional right to vote. This decision changed her life. She became personally engaged in the process of helping Black people in rural Mississippi to register to vote.

In 1962, while with a busload of voter registration in Mississippi, she was arrested, taken to the county jail, and beaten so severely that she nearly died. She sustained permanent injuries resulting from this incident. Despite this, she continued to organize voter registration drives and later co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to give Black Mississippians a political voice. The group attempted to be recognized at the 1964 Democratic Convention but was rebuffed. After much political maneuvering, they were finally seated at the 1968 Convention.

Hamer had little formal education, but her oratorical style and language connected with audiences. One of her most famous speeches entitled “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired” was delivered alongside Malcolm X in Harlem in 1964.

During the balance of the 1960s, Hamer continued her work in politics and became involved in agricultural programs designed to help sharecroppers.  She received numerous awards and accolades during her life. In 1971, she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.

She died from cancer at age 59 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.

Contributed by Adrian Clark, Diversity and Inclusion Officer

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