Fannie Lou Hamer Essay, Research Paper
“If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question American. 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 hook because of our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings in America?” Fannie Lou Hammer before the Democratic National Convention, 1964. Fannie Lou Hamer is best known for her involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC). The SNCC was at the head of the American voter registration drives of the 1960’s. Hamer was a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Freedom Party (MFDP), which ultimately succeeded in electing many blacks to national office in the state of Mississippi. Through her work with the SNCC and her part in the MFDP Hamer has had a large impact in America’s History.
There is no evidence to show that Fannie Lou Hamer’s work in the civil rights movement was meant to be, other than her own heartbreaking childhood. “Hamer’s involvement in the civil rights cause was more than a function of generic identification with the collective suffering of her race, class, and sex. What seemed an insurmountable combination of poverty and racism to many sharecropping families was, for Hamer, an inspiration to relentless effort”. October 6, 1917 Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi; the youngest of 20 children. She had 14 brothers and 5 sister. Her parents Jim and Lou Ella Townsend, were sharecroppers who fed their whole family on $1.25 a day. While Fannie was outside playing the plantation owner drove up and asked if she could pick cotton. After Fannie agreed to pick cotton after the owner promised her “a ‘reward’ of sardines, a quarter-pound of cheese, some Cracker Jack, and a gingerbread cookie called a Daddy-Wide-Legs, all in exchange for picking thirty pounds of cotton in a week”. When accepting the offer Fannie gave no thought that she would continue to pick cotton day after day. By the time Hamer was six she began to work in the fields. When asked about her childhood later in life, Fannie Lou stated that:
“Life was very hard; we never hardly had enough to eat; we didn’t have clothes to wear. We had to work real hard, because I started working when I was six years old. I didn’t have a chance to go to school too much, because school would only last about four months at the time when I was a kid going to school. Most of the time we didn’t have clothes to wear to that (school); and then if any work would come up that we would have to do, the parents would take us out of the school to cut stalks and burn stalks or work in dead lands or things like that. It was just really tough as a kid when I was a child”.
By the time Hamer was twelve, her parent had saved up enough money to rest some land and buy a tractor of their own. It was this difficult childhood, which lead Hamer to fight for the rights of the black people.
Up until 1962 Fannie was like many black people ignorant of voting knowledge. She did not even know how to register. However, one changed her life. She attended a mass meeting at the Williams Chapel Church in Ruleville, Mississippi. This meeting was lead by workers from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They were sharing information of voter registration. It was here where her eyes were opened to the opportunity of voting, and taking part in decisions that affect her. Realizing the dangers of such an action, Fannie was unafraid. Fannie’s real adventure in the civil rights movement began on August 31, 1962 when she and 17 others took a bus to the courthouse in Indianola, the county seat, to register to vote. Fannie explained about this experience, they drove to Indianola to register, “there were people there with guns and just a lot of strange—looking people to us.” They walked into the office where they needed to register. The person behind the desk would only allow two of the eighteen members to attempt to register. Fannie and one other member from her group were allowed to take the literacy test. “So the registrar gave me the 16th section of the Constitution of Mississippi. He pointed it out in the book and told me to look at it and then copy it down just like I saw it in the book: Put a period where a period was supposed to be, a comma and all of that. After I copied it down he told me right below that to give a real reasonable interpretation then, interpret what I had read. That was impossible. I had tried to give it, but I didn’t even know what it meant, much less to interpret it”. “I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote”.
Fannie remarks about what happened when she returned from trying to register, “Well, when we got back I went on out to where I had been staying for eighteen years, and the landowner had talked to my husband and told him I had to leave the place…He said, ‘you’ll have to go down and withdraw your registration, or you’ll have to leave this place.’ I answered the only way I could and I told him that I didn’t go down there to register for him; I went down there to register for myself. This seemed like it made him madder”. So Fannie left that same night, however her husband stayed to help harvest the crop so the plantation owner would give them the rest of there belongings.
After Hamer’s first attempt to register to vote in Indianola her participation in politics began increasing as well as the harassment. Here involvement in attempting to register made her susceptible to many unsuccessful attempts to destroy her life and her job. These attempts did not discourage Hamer; they only made her commit deeper and stronger to the cause. December 4, 1962 Fannie Lou Hamer finally passed the test that allowed her to vote. However this was not the end to Hamer’s fight for herself and her people.
In 1963 Hamer and Annelle Ponder attended a voter registration workshop. On their way home they were arrested in Winona, Mississippi for trying to eat in a white-only restaurant. It was here where Fannie experienced prison and true racism. “She was taken into a cell with two Negro prisoners, forced down on a bunk bed and beaten by both prisoners with a heavy blackjack.” “The blows became so hard to bear that Hamer began wishing that the two men would strike that “one lick that could have ended (her) misery”. Normal people might have given up after this incident, but not Hamer. This only intensified the fire inside of her to fight for the right of black people everywhere.
After Hamer got back to Mississippi she found out that on the same night she was beating in Winona the NAACP field director Medgar Evers had been murdered. This added wood to her fire inspired her to fight even harder.
Fannie was asked about the activities she did as a voter registration worker in her first year of working for the SNCC. This was not easy work for Hamer and those who worked with her. They would go from place to place and educate people about their right to vote and how to register. The frustration came in when they would return to that town and someone would have scared the people they have talked to the pervious day and those people would not talk to them. This was very disappointing to Fannie and her fellow workers, to work so hard and then have someone come along and destroy their efforts. Hamer took her work seriously and would not give in at any cost.
Every struggle Fannie went through just added flame to the fire that burned inside. Well working with the SNCC Fannie did many things. “She returned to her political activities more energized that ever, rising with the sun and going out in the early hours of the morning to canvass among day laborers in the fields, and making evening rounds to small countryside churches where she sang and preached a message of hope to anyone who would listen about the power of the vote”. Hamer was employed by the SNCC, making ten dollars a week, provided they had the money.
“For months, she tried unsuccessfully to work with the traditional Mississippi Democratic Party by offering to go to work on the precinct level. She had no luck at all”. However after many attempts to join this party, “Hamer and SNCC activists concluded that the only way to attack the tight Mississippi political machine was to establish and political party of their own. They did, and they named it the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)”. Civil rights organizers formed the MFDP in March 1964 and chose their name to distinguish themselves from the mainstream Democratic Party. The reason the MFDP was formed to challenge the legitimacy of the all-white state Democratic delegation. “As an “independent movement-led party,” the MFDP would also introduce black men and women to the empowering prospects of political ownership—which they had experienced almost solely, if at all, in the black church”. Fannie ran for a seat in congress under the MFDP ticket in the Democratic primary. Because of her previous work in 1964 the MFDP got more votes than the regular Democratic Party. This new party sent a delegation, which included Fannie Lou Hamer, to Atlantic City, where the Democratic Party was holding its presidential convention. Its purpose was to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation on the grounds that it didn’t fairly represent all the people of Mississippi, since most black people hadn’t been allowed to vote. Despite the fact the MFDP received more votes in the primary then the national party it would not seat the MFDP delegates at the convention in Atlantic City. The national party finally compromised and said they would seat two delegates from the MFDP. Fannie Hamer responded to this idea, “We didn’t come all this was for no two seats when all of us is tired.” It was here at the convention that Hamer spoke on behalf of the Freedom her speech is what she is most known for. “Here the mighty voice from Mississippi set the stage for other leaders to shine.” She was heard that day and she made sure that the nation new the struggles black of the black civil right movement. Hamer brought light to the nation of unfair, unjust treatment that was happening in Mississippi. She did this by telling the nation of her experience in the Winona jail where she was beaten. “Hamer proved to be force to be dealt with seriously in Atlantic City. She testified before the Credentials Committee and her televised testimony held such emotional power.” Fannie was talking about the 1964 convention she had this to say, “Not I learn politics at its fullest—well, that’s where politics was in 1964 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I will never forget what they put us through.” Fannie Lou Hamer surprised the nation, no one expected a Mississippi housewife who had never been exposed to politics to have so much affect on the nation’s government and be able to change the minds of people. They were scared of Hamer and the knowledge she had. This is why when Fannie was speaking at the 1964 convention President Johnson told the camera men “to get that godamn television off them niggers from Mississippi” and put it back on the convention, because see, the world was hearing too much” President Johnson was so worried that what Fannie had to say would affect the nation and capture their heart that he decided to make a request for air time so all station would switch over to the president’s news conference instead of listening to Hamer’s speech. Despite Johnson’s plan Hamer was seeing on television and it had a huge affect. As a result of her speech, two delegates of the MFDP were given speaking rights at the convention. However the eleven votes needed to make the MFDP official, did not happen. Johnson had shown his power by influencing other’s votes, he used threats to get the results he wanted.
“Mrs. Hamer and her Mississippi comrades were freed by the moral clarity that comes from resisting temptation, freed by their refusal to sell out, from the illusion that the solution to their problems would come from the powers of the political establishment.” Tired and filled with anger Hammer and the MFDP did not comprehend that their work in Atlantic City would help usher in the Voting Rights Act. When the summer of 1968 can around 42 percent of black people living in Sunflower County had registered to vote. This percent was increasing in many counties around Mississippi. Political scientist Leslie McLemore said “The FDP’s Atlantic City performance represented the coming of political age of Black people in Mississippi in a way that had not been seen since Reconstruction.”
After 1964 Fannie Lou Hamer’s life represented her certainty that “God’s power—God’s concrete, worldly presence—was with the poor” Fannie, had traveled with a group of SNCC veterans in September of 1964 to Africa. After this trip she returned to Ruleville, Mississippi where she lived. Fannie live there in poverty until she passed away March 14, 1977. Between 1964 and 1977 when she died Fannie accomplished many things. She continued to build black power in the state by organizing Freedom Democratic initiatives. Hamer also attempted to run for public office in both 1964 and 1965 but failed. “she represented the state as a member of the official delegation of Mississippians in the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago, where she strongly supported anti-Vietnam War actions.” Hamer also organized the Child Development Group of Mississippi, directed the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, and played a important part in the Poor People’s Campaign. Fannie was always saying yes to everyone and in the long run this caught up with her. Her Husband Pap Hamer said “I tried to warn my wife, I told her, ‘You can’’ do everything.’ But they still called on her…They wore her down.” By the 1970’s Hamer was now battling with disease such as depression, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. This caused her to be exhausted and by 1972 she was immobilized and four year after that breast cancer had begun. “By January 1977, Hamer was in a deep depression, a paralyzing gloom that occasionally left her listless.” In March of 1977, Hamer would entire that hospital for the last time. She was not wanting to leave her family, but she was ready to go. On March 14,1977 she died in her hospital room from heart failure.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s work had inspired many and encouraged the fight for freedom and equality. “Like the civil rights movement itself, Fannie Lou Hamer’s Life was filled with both victories and defeats. Also like the movement itself, she kept on fighting regardless of the difficulties.” The amazing energy and conviction she had carried her from the cotton fields to the convection in Atlantic City. Never giving up despite what the outcome may be. “Hamer was willing to sacrifice, and even die , for the movement if, in the end, the world would be a better place for what she had done.”
The work Fannie Lou Hamer did cause many African Americans to register to vote and made it possible for them to be seen has equals. She shaped America’s history by fighting for what she thought was right and making sure it happened. Fannie Lou Hamer once stated that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” This is what is engraved on her headstone. At her funeral Andrew Young remembered Hamer as the women who shook the foundations of this nation, and that is exactly what she did.
Colman, Penny. Fannie Lou Hamer and the fight for the vote. Millbrook Press, 1993.
Falstein, Mark. Fannie Lou Hamer. Globe Fearon, 1994.
Hansen, Joyce. Women of Hope: African Americans who made a difference. Scholastic Press, 1998.
Jordan, June. Fannie Lou Hammer. Crowell, 1972.
Lamb, Brian. Booknotes: Life Stories: notable biographers on the people who shaped America. New York: Times Books, 1999.
Lee, Chana Kai. For freedom’s sake: the life of Fannie Lou Hamer / Chana Kai Lee. University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Marsh, Charles. God’s Long Summer. Princeton University Press, 1997.
Rubel, David. Fannie Lou Hamer: from sharecropping to politics. Silver Burdett Press, 1990.
Books Found on American: History and Life database:
Bryan, Dianetta Gail. Her-Story Unsilenced: Black Female Activists in the Civil Rights Movement. Vol. 5 of Sage: A Scholarly Journal On Black Women 1988. 60-64.
Rooks, Noliwe. The Women Who Said, I AM. Vol. Sage: A Scholarly Journal On Black Women 1988.
Primary Document: Interview with Fannie Lou Hamer April 14, 1972. The interviewer is Dr. Neil McMillen.
“An Oral History with Fannie Lou Hamer” The University Of Southern Mississippi, 17 January 2001 cited 24 April 2001; available from www.lib.usm.edu/~spcol/crda/oh/hamer.htm.