By Dr. Joy Martinez, Staff Writer
“Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”
These are the words of Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer, one of the most powerful and passionate voices of the civil and voting rights movement.
Born October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Fannie was the 20th and last child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend. At age six Hamer joined her family picking cotton. By age 12, she left school to work. In 1944, she married Perry Hamer and the couple toiled on the Mississippi plantation owned by B.D. Marlowe until 1962. Because Hamer was the only worker who could read and write, she also served as plantation timekeeper.
During her time on the Marlowe plantation, Hamer was assaulted by a White doctor who performed a hysterectomy without her consent while she was undergoing surgery to remove a uterine tumor in 1961. This forced sterilization of Black women was so common, the surgery was called a “Mississippi appendectomy.” Unable to birth children, Hamer and her husband adopted two daughters.
Hamer’s life changed when she attended a civil rights meeting in 1962 led by civil rights activists James Forman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She was 45 years old. “They talked [during the meeting] about how it was our rights as human beings to register and vote,” she told the New York Times. “I never knew we could vote before. Nobody ever told us.”
While the 15th Amendment to the Constitution—ratified in 1870—granted voting rights to all citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” this amendment was not enough because Black people were still denied the right to vote by state constitutions and laws, poll taxes, literacy tests, the “grandfather clause,” and outright intimidation and violence.
Despite these threats, Hamer decided to brave the voter-registration process. She and 17 other activists took a bus to the Sunflower County Courthouse, in Mississippi. Officials kept most of the group from registering. Hamer and one other activist were the only ones allowed to complete the paperwork. But both were told they had failed the literacy test.
Hamer’s right to vote was also challenged by her boss at the cotton plantation. He gave her an ultimatum, Hamer recalled: “If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.” Her boss added, “We are not ready for that in Mississippi.” She did not relent and walked off the plantation. Fannie’s husband was required to stay until the harvest, Marlowe confiscated most of their property, and she dedicated herself to the civil rights movement.
On June 9, 1963, while returning from a voter registration workshop in South Carolina, Fannie Lou and several other Black women were arrested in Winona, Mississippi. Hamer and the other activists had been traveling in the “white” section of a Greyhound bus despite threats from the driver that he planned to notify local police at the next stop. When the bus arrived at the Winona bus depot, the Black women courageously sat at the “white only” lunch counter inside the terminal. Winona Police Chief Thomas Herrod ordered the group to go to the “colored” side of the depot and arrested them when one of the women tried to write down his patrol car license number.
While at the county jail, two Black prisoners were forced to savagely beat Hamer with loaded Blackjacks and she was nearly killed. The beatings lasted four days, and her body eventually shut down. As she regained consciousness, she overheard one of the white officers propose, “We could put them SOBs in [the] Big Black [River] and nobody would ever find them.”
She never fully recovered from the attack; she lost vision in one of her eyes and suffered permanent kidney and leg damage, which eventually contributed to her death.
Fannie Lou persisted.
In 1964, Hamer’s national reputation soared. After President Lyndon B. Johnson established a coalition between liberal Democrats and liberal and moderate Republicans to address issues in the Black community, Democrats openly encouraged their members to vote for the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who opposed civil rights legislation. In response, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative to the dominantly White and conservative Democratic Party of Mississippi. With the support of Martin Luther King, Jr. the MFDP nominated three Black women – Hamer and civil rights activists Annie Devine and Victoria Gray—to run against the Democrats in the state’s 1964 congressional elections. When Hamer spoke before the Credentials Committee, calling for mandatory integrated state delegations, President Lyndon Johnson held a televised press conference so she would not get any television airtime. But her speech, with its poignant descriptions of racial prejudice in the South, was televised later.
Hamer traveled extensively giving powerful speeches. In 1967 Hamer published To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography. By 1968, Hamer’s vision for racial parity in delegations had become a reality and Hamer was a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation. She deployed economics as a strategy for equity. In 1968 she began a “pig bank,” providing free pigs for Black farmers to breed, raise, and slaughter. A year later she launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative, buying up land that Blacks would own and collectively farm. In the 640 acres she purchased with donors, she launched a co-op store, sewing company and boutique. She ensured 200 units of low-income housing were built and the cooperative became one of the largest employers in the county.
Provoked by Congress’ failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970, in 1971 she founded the National Women’s Political Caucus alongside former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; former Congresswoman and former president of Women USA, Bella Azbug and 300 other women including Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.
Despite being beaten, arrested and shot at, Fannie Lou Hamer did not allow herself to hate Whites, explaining many times, “I feel sorry for anybody that could let hate wrap them up. Ain’t no such thing as I can hate anybody and hope to see God’s face.”
Hamer died at the young age of 59 from complications from untreated breast cancer and circulatory issues stemming from the injuries from being beaten. She made history, grounded in the recognition that the act of casting a ballot was a fundamental right of every American citizen. She had grasped its power and was determined never to let it go.