Fannie Lou Hamer and Civil Rights in Ruleville

The story of the Civil Rights Movement in Ruleville cannot be told apart from the story of Fannie Lou Hamer. The youngest of 20 children in her family, Hamer experienced the hardships of life as a sharecropper. Like many other African American children at the time, she went to school for just four months each year, attending classes in a one-room shack after the harvesting season ended.

Blessed with a sharp analytical mind, Fannie Lou Hamer was able to use her limited formal education in a positive manner, rising to leadership positions on the various plantations on which she worked. She was among the first group of African Americans from the Ruleville area to attempt to register to vote. Her commitment to the pursuit of civil rigths led to the founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). A delegation from the MFDP attended the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964, where they exposed the oppression experienced by African Americans in Mississippi (and throughout the South) in front of a national audience. Mrs. Hamer’s testimony at the convention included an impassioned description of the savage beating she received in a Winona, Mississippi jail. In the summer of 1963, Hamer and a group of activists were returning from a meeting of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) in South Carolina; when the bus stopped in Winona, several members of the group were arrested for using “whites only” restrooms or sitting at the white lunch counter. While in jail the guards–and several African American prisoners whom they coerced–brutally beat Mrs. Hamer and other members of the group using nightsticks, fists, and a studded leather strap. Mrs. Hamer never fully recovered from the injuries she sustained in this sadistic attack.

Mrs. Hamer’s testimony was many Americans’ first appalling confrontation with the calculated savagery of white supremacy. Calls and telegrams poured into the convention, and the Democratic Party pledged that future conventions would not honor any delegation that had not been democratically chosen. A year later, president Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to curtail voter discrimination and enable the participation of all citizens in the political process.

Mrs. Hamer continued to be a leader in the struggle for civil rights until her death on March 14, 1977. A Memorial Garden was dedicated near her grave site in Ruleville in 2005, and is the final stop on this tour.

Sources:

“Ruleville Civil Rights Driving Tour”