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Fannie Lou Hamer: From Jim Crow Apartheid to Power in the Deep South

Fannie Lou Hamer, civil and human rights activist and organizer, was born on this da

y, October 6th in 1917 in Mississippi and lived most of her life in the small town of Ruleville in Sunflower County on the Mississippi Delta. The granddaughter of enslaved people, she was born into the hard labor and chronic hunger of sharecropping, the informal slave-system that, along with Jim Crow terror and convict leasing, followed the formal abolition of slavery. The youngest of 20 children, she was just six when she was lured with the promise of treats into picking cotton by the plantation owner under which her parents labored. She realized years later this was essentially a predatory debt trap that began many years of 12-14 hour days picking cotton alongside her family.


Finally, through additional deprivation and extra work late in the evenings gleaning bits of cotton that remained in the fields, the family scraped together the means to purchase freedom in the form of a few mules and cows and some farm equipment, with plans to rent a plot of land. But this was too much for the neighboring whites. They vindictively poisoned all their animals, forcing them back to complete destitution and back to the plantation, this time laboring for even less. Amid this constant hardship, Fannie Lou’s mother taught her both to recognize and hate the injustice around her while keeping love in her heart and, despite her own illiteracy, to see reading as a form of empowerment. Sadly, her mother never lived to see all these materialize in her daughter’s later fight for justice.


In 1962, when activists from the Freedom Movement sweeping the South came to her small town, the fire now smoldering in Fannie Lou ignited and she became a tireless and tenacious organizer and activist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced ‘snick’). First, she attempted to register to vote with a busload of other Black Mississippians. They were met with a swarm of armed and hostile police and it was only Fannie Lou’s powerful singing voice ringing out the Freedom songs she’d learned that gave the others the courage to leave the bus and confront the officials in the courthouse. The racists won the battle that day but defeat only made Fannie Lou more determined and ultimately she became one of the first Black people to vote in Mississippi.


In 1965 Fannie Lou, together with other determined activists, forced the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Like many others, she faced a a daily barrage of racist violence, from intimidation, stalking, and death threats, “We had to sleep with our telephones off of the hook because our lives be threatened daily,” to drive-by shootings and violent beatings, all amid the general Ku Klux Klan terror of lynchings, bombings, and burnings that permeated the South.


Fannie Lou suffered permanent injuries from the racist violence she experience throughout her life, first in the removal of her uterus without her consent by a white doctor while under anesthesia for a surgical procedure, a form of forced sterilization so common it was called a “Mississippi appendectomy,” and later, from a brutal beating she endured while in police custody after leaving a citizenship school training program in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 1963. The beating left her with permanent damage to her vision and kidneys, the latter likely contributing to her early death.


Despite this, Fannie Lou fought on right up till she was near death, and her long list of accomplishments include: helping to force the integration of the Democrat Party, founding the Mississippi Freedom Party (MFDP) to expose and confront the persistent racism in both parties; waging a primary challenge and a run for congress, putting out a manifesto demanding reparations. She also championed Black Women’s rights; working to provide services like sewage systems, power and paved roads in the rural south; and founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative, a collective of thousands of volunteers who farmed acres of land, providing food and housing for many impoverished residents of Sunflower County.


Despite these numerous achievements, Fannie Lou’s proudest moment came when she visited the African country of Guinea, newly freed from its century-long enslavement by the French. Part of a SNCC delegation personally welcomed by Guinean president and Pan-Africanist Sekou Toure, Fannie Lou marveled at seeing this peaceful African country, governed by Black people, led by a Black president, defying all the stereotypes of Africans as savages she’d been taught in her early years of schooling.

Finally, in 1977 at 57, exhausted and ill from decades of stress and violence and now cancer, Fannie Lou Hamer died, leaving a heartbroken husband and children and thousands mourning her in Sunflower County and throughout the country. She’d worked for and saw many changes throughout the South, and indeed the country, but, she’d said adamantly months before her death, “not enough yet.”


Image credits:

Image 1: Fannie Lou Hamer from political poster, Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Image 2: FBI photo of Hamer after being beaten in jail, June 1963

Image 3: Fannie Lou Hamer (center) via redmountaintheatre.org


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