The indomitable political activist Fannie Lou Hamer was one of the most urgent and important voices of the US civil rights movement.
The youngest of 20 children, Hamer was born on a sharecroppers’ plantation in Mississippi, and would live on similar farms until she was 44 years old.
Hamer began fighting for the right to vote as a black woman after attending the Regional Council of Negro Leadership conferences held in a nearby town. But it was with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that she cut her teeth as an activist. At the time, racist laws stopped black people from being able to register to vote.
On 31 August 1962 she tried to register to vote with a delegation of 17 other SNCC members. “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared,” she said. “But what was the point of being scared? “The only thing the whites could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”
Not only were they denied the right to vote based on failing a literacy test, cops harassed them on the way home. They were fined $100 on the trumped up charge that the school bus they were travelling was “too yellow”.
The fallout didn’t stop there. That night, Hamer was fired from the plantation and kicked off the land. This was despite telling her boss, “I didn’t register to vote for you, I registered to vote for me”. Eleven days later white supremacists shot the house they thought Hamer was staying in 16 times.
Hamer was victorious in registering to vote—but her direct action didn’t stop, and neither did the harassment. She was arrested in 1963 for sitting in a “whites only” bus station cafe in Charleston, south Carolina. As a result, Hamer endured a vicious beating and sexual assault inside a police cell.
Although Hamer never fully recovered from the attack, she threw herself into organising when she returned to Mississippi. She looked to the Democrat Party as a mechanism for giving black people better political representation. Challenged Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—a faction within the wider organisation which challenged racism within the party.
She was chosen to address the 1964 Democrat convention, where she argued her delegation should replace the all-white one from Mississippi. She said, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”
Although she unsuccessfully ran for the US Senate that year, Hamer was first and foremost a grassroots political activist. “I can’t afford to sit down and do nothing when I know something out there is happening,” she said. “I’m going get out there and do something about it.”
And in 1971, she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus—a group dedicated to supporting women seeking election in government. As well as looking to the Democrats and formal political representation for change, Hamer focused on tackling poverty and bad housing in Mississippi.
Hamer said that since the police beating in 1963, “that nothing would stop me but death”. And nothing did. Fannie Lou Hamer died on 14 March 1977 at just 59 years old. According to her dying wishes, Hamer wasn’t buried on a plantation, but on land she owned. Her tombstone is inscribed one of her most famous quotes—“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.