Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was born on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi. Fannie was the youngest of twenty children and was the granddaughter of slaves. She, like most children at that time, received a poor education due to working in nearby cotton fields as sharecroppers; she never exceeded the sixth grade.
Mrs. Hamer worked as a timekeeper for much of her life on the Marlow Plantation, which is right outside of the Ruleville city limits in Sunflower County. In the early 1950s, Hamer attended an RCNL (Regional Council of Negro Leadership) meeting in Mount Bayou, Mississippi. The RCNL was similar to COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), which served as a combination of civil rights and self help organizations also. COFO was a major asset to the northern part of Mississippi, but the RCNL was influential in the Delta and southern parts of Mississippi. The RCNL was led by a wealthy black surgeon and businessman, Dr. T.R.M. Howard. Entertainers such as Mahalia Jackson, speakers such as Thurgood Marshall and Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan, and panels on voting rights and other civil rights issues were featured at the annual RCNL conferences.
On August 31, 1962, Hamer traveled to Indianola, Mississippi to register to vote. She began singing Christian hymns, such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “This Little Light of Mine,” to the group in order to strengthen and prepare them for what was to come. Hamer believed that the civil rights struggle was a spiritual and emotional journey. She became a victim of police harassment. When the plantation owner heard of her efforts to register to vote, he gave her an ultimatum: either leave or stop trying to register. She chose to leave. Mrs. Hamer became a registered voter in 1963, despite the threat of violence.
On June 9, 1963, Hamer, along with other activists, was on her way to Charleston, South Carolina, for a SNCC conference (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). They stopped in Winona, Mississippi, for a bite to eat. After their arrival, the group was arrested on false charges and jailed by white policemen. Once in jail, Hamer and her colleagues were brutally beaten by the police. On June 12, she was released from their custody and prepared herself for a long month of recovery.
Despite this experience, she became a field worker for SNCC and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), and was a founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Hamer also organized voter registration drives, including the “Freedom Ballot Campaign”in 1963, a mock election, and the “Freedom Summer” proposal in 1964.
The MFDP challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Mrs. Hamer served as the spokesperson for the group, providing testimony about the violent system of disfranchisement in Mississippi. In her speech she noted that “if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America, is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Her political activism continued, as she served as a member of the Democratic National Committee for Mississippi from 1968 to 1971, and on the Policy Council of the National Women’s Political Caucus from 1971 to 1977. She was also an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
Mrs. Hamer worked to address the far-reaching problem of poverty in the Delta. She helped start the Delta Ministry, a program for ministers outside the state to help with civil rights work, and helped form the Freedom Farms Cooperation in 1969, which helped provide social services and food for the poor. She also founded a daycare with the assistance of the National Council of Negro Women.
Mrs. Hamer received honorary degrees from Tougaloo College, Shaw University, Howard University, and Columbia College. In 1995, the post office in Ruleville was named in her honor.
Mrs. Hamer is buried at Freedom Farms Cooperative, in the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Gardens.
Fannie Lou Hamer, Speech before Credentials Committee, 22 July 1964, http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/programs/pauleyg/voices/fhamer.htm
Olson, Lynne. Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. New York and London: Scribner, 2001.