October 6, 1917 – March 14, 1977
Notable: Community Organizer & Activist
Fannie Lou Townsend was the last of 20 children born to Lou Ella and James Townsend in Montgomery County, Mississippi. As a result of being sharecroppers, the Townsend family remained in debt and were very poor. Townsend began picking cotton with her family at the age of six and had to drop out of school at the age of 12 to pick cotton full time.
In 1944, Townsend married Perry “Pap” Hamer and the two became sharecroppers on the B.D. Marlowe cotton plantation. Despite her education having been cut short, Hamer was the only worker that could read and write. She became the timekeeper on the plantation which was less physically demanding than working in the fields.
The couple had been unable to have children of their own as Hamer’s pregnancies had resulted in stillbirths. In addition, Mississippi had implemented a plan to decrease the Black population, specifically the amount of poor Blacks in the state. During a surgery that was supposed to only remove a tumor, a White doctor performed a hysterectomy on Hamer without her consent. The performance of these unauthorized hysterectomies occurred so frequently that the procedure came to be known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.” As an alternative, the Hamers adopted two girls and raised them as their own.
Experiencing this violation in 1961 played a role in Hamer attending a civil rights meeting later that summer. By 1962, Hamer was a member and organizer of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She led a group that attempted to register to vote in Indianola, Mississippi. Most of the participants were outright prevented from registering while Hamer and a man were denied after they failed to pass a rigged literacy test.
The group had taken a bus to Indianola and it was stopped on the ride back home based on the trumped up charge of the bus being “too yellow.” The driver was arrested and charged a fine of $100 while the passengers, including Hamer, were made to stay on the bus. While the passengers worked to gather their money to cover the fine, Hamer sang spirituals.
Upon returning home Hamer was fired and forced to leave her home for attempting to vote. She along with the other participants and their supporters faced retaliation and intimidation. Her husband was forced to remain on the plantation until harvest to cover the family’s debts from sharecropping. He later joined the rest of the family in Sunflower County and all of their household possessions were confiscated.
While the Hamer’s suffered great losses from the attempt to register to vote the event brought Hamer to the attention of SNCC field secretary Bob Moses. Hamer was invited to attend a SNCC conference which motivated her to become even more committed to the movement. Her weekly $10 SNCC stipend supported the family of four.
Hamer remained active with various voter registration and relief programs throughout Mississippi and the Southeast. While participating in one such program, Hamer and other activists were arrested for sitting at a Whites-only lunch counter. They were held for several days in jail during which time they were savagely beaten by police officers and other inmates who were forced to participate. Hamer suffered permanent damage to her eyes, legs, and kidneys.
The following year Fannie Lou Hamer became a co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The MFDP attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention with the goal of being recognized as voting delegates to ensure the participation of Black people in the democratic process.
Appearing before the Credentials Committee in a nationally televised broadcast Hamer spoke about her experiences in the South and the Civil Rights Movement. It was during this speech that Hamer uttered the words, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
In efforts to silence Hamer, President Lyndon B. Johnson staged an impromptu press conference that shifted attention away from Hamer. But the ploy backfired as it caused Hamer’s speech to be re-aired later in the day to an even larger audience. The MFDP was unable to vote as delegates at the 1964 Convention but achieved its goal at the 1968 Convention.
Fannie Lou Hamer went on to run for Congress, assisted with organizing Freedom Summer, developed farming co-ops to provide economic opportunities for Black people, and helped to implement childcare and education programs for low-income children. Fannie Lou Hamer passed away from cancer on March 14, 1977 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
- Bond, Zanice. “Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) • BlackPast.” BlackPast, 4 June 2019, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/hamer-fannie-lou-1917-1977.
- Brown, DeNeen L. “Civil Rights Crusader Fannie Lou Hamer Defied Men – and Presidents – Who Tried to Silence Her.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Oct. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/10/06/civil-rights-crusader-fannie-lou-hamer-defied-men-and-presidents-who-tried-to-silence-her.
- “Fannie Lou Hamer.” National Women’s History Museum, http://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/fannie-lou-hamer.
- “Fannie Lou Hamer.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedomsummer-hamer.
- “Fannie Lou Hamer.” SNCC Digital Gateway, http://snccdigital.org/people/fannie-lou-hamer.
- “Fannie Lou Hamer.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 15 Apr. 2019, http://www.biography.com/activist/fannie-lou-hamer.
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