Fannie Lou Hamer

Civil Rights Movement Leader

Fannie Lou Hamer, 1965
Fannie Lou Hamer, 1965. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Known for her civil rights activism, Fannie Lou Hamer was called "the spirit of the civil rights movement." Born a sharecropper, she worked from the age of six as a timekeeper on a cotton plantation. Later, she became involved in the Black Freedom Struggle and eventually moved on to become a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 


Dates: October 6, 1917 - March 14, 1977
Also known as: Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer

About Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer, born in Mississippi, was working in the fields when she was six, and was only educated through the sixth grade. She married in 1942, and adopted two children. She went to work on the plantation where her husband drove a tractor, first as a field worker and then as the plantation's timekeeper. She also attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, where speakers addressed self-help, civil rights, and voting rights.

In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) registering black voters in the South. She and the rest of her family lost their jobs for her involvement, and SNCC hired her as a field secretary. She was able to register to vote for the first time in her life in 1963, and then taught others what they'd need to know to pass the then-required literacy test. In her organizing work, she often led the activists in singing Christian hymns about freedom: "This Little Light of Mine" and others.

She helped organize the 1964 "Freedom Summer" in Mississippi, a campaign sponsored by SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP.

In 1963, after being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to go along with a restaurant's "whites only" policy, Hamer was beaten so badly in jail, and refused medical treatment, that she was permanently disabled.

Because African Americans were excluded from the Mississippi Democratic Party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was formed, with Fannie Lou Hamer as a founding member and vice president. The MFDP sent an alternate delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, with 64 black and 4 white delegates. Fannie Lou Hamer testified to the convention's Credentials Committee about violence and discrimination faced by black voters trying to register to vote, and her testimony was televised nationally.

The MFDP refused a compromise offered to seat two of their delegates, and returned to further political organizing in Mississippi, and in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

From 1968 to 1971, Fannie Lou Hamer was a member of the Democratic National Committee for Mississippi. Her 1970 lawsuit, Hamer v. Sunflower County, demanded school desegregation. She ran unsuccessfully for the Mississippi state Senate in 1971, and successfully for delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1972.

She also lectured extensively, and was known for a signature line she often used, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." She was known as a powerful speaker, and her singing voice lent another power to civil rights meetings.

Fannie Lou Hamer brought a Head Start program to her local community, to form a local Pig Bank cooperative (1968) with the help of the National Council of Negro Women, and later to found the Freedom Farm Cooperative (1969). She helped found the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971, speaking for inclusion of racial issues in the feminist agenda.

In 1972 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her national and state activism, passing 116 to 0.

Suffering from breast cancer, diabetes, and heart problems, Fannie Lou Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977. She had published To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiograpy in 1967. June Jordan published a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer in 1972, and Kay Mills published This Little Light of Mine: the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer in 1993.

Background, Family

  • Father: Jim Townsend
  • Mother: Ella Townsend
  • youngest of 20 children
  • born in Montgomery County, Mississippi; family moved when she was two to Sunflower County, Mississippi

Education

Hamer attended segregated school system in Mississippi, with a short school year to accommodate field work as a child of a sharecropping family. She dropped out by 6th grade. 

Marriage, Children

  • Husband: Perry "Pap" Hamer (married 1942; tractor driver)
  • Children (adopted): Dorothy Jean, Vergie Ree

Religion

Baptist

Organizations

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), others