Fannie Lou Hamer is an unsung icon.
As our country tries to sort through a crowded presidential candidate field and make it through an already divisive impeachment process, Hamer’s legacy becomes evermore important.
Hamer became one of America’s greatest civil rights heroes by marrying a deep devotion to social programs for the poor with a highly sophisticated understanding of machine politics. She took on a president, served her community with groundbreaking economic social programs — and ultimately changed Mississippi politics forever.
More than 60 years after the end of slavery, Hamer and her family spent decades picking cotton as sharecroppers on a plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi, handing most of their earnings over to landowner W. D. Marlow. Hamer, and her 19 siblings were the grandchildren of slaves.
Her desire to get heavily involved in the civil rights movement in her 40s grew organically from a life lived in back-breaking poverty. In books and speeches, she recounted that almost every time her family’s farm got big enough to make any money, white farm owners in the area would poison their animals and destroy their crops.
“That poison knocked us right back down flat. We never did get back up again. That white man did it just because we were gettin’ somewhere. White people never like to see Negroes get a little success. All of this stuff is no secret in the state of Mississippi,” she told The Nation in 1964.
After years of listening to local speeches about Black voting rights, Hamer’s first political move came in 1962 when she took a group of 16 people to Indianola, Mississippi to register to vote. White police officers tried to force the group away from the building but Hamer was the first to step inside. The court clerk refused to register any of the Black people that day, using poll taxes and fake literacy tests to deny them their right to vote.
For this attempt alone, the local Klu Klux Klan threatened to murder Hamer and her family. She was shot at multiple times, and was immediately fired from the plantation when she got back from Indianola. Despite all of these open and very present threats, she went back to the courthouse in Indianola three months later to register to vote. After being denied again, Hamer told the clerk she would be back every 30 days until they let her vote.
Part of how she led her groups was with her powerful voice and ability to call up Bible verses at will. Her hymns literally eased groups of protesters as they faced off with violent police officers.
Bob Moses, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary, sent young activist Charles McLaurin to find Hamer, beginning a lifelong friendship between the two. Hamer and McLaurin went to Fisk University in Nashville in 1962 for a conference, officially kicking off her career as a community organizer.
“One of the big problems with getting African Americans registered to vote in the Mississippi delta in the 1960s was fear. Fannie Lou employed various tactics to help overcome some of the fear. She used her regular mass meetings, her singing and talking from the Bible,” McLaurin said in a phone interview with Blavity.
Hamer’s political career went from there, graduating quickly into very sophisticated political maneuvering that ended up changing the Democratic Party into one that could choose Barack Obama as its candidate.
The moment that sprung Hamer into national prominence came during the 1964 Democratic National Convention. In a deft move of political activism, Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party tried to serve as the representatives of Mississippi after claiming the official delegation was illegitimate because they had systematically kept Black people from participating.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which Hamer co-founded with the help of SNCC and other Mississippi activists, was fully integrated and followed the rules of the official national Democratic Party to a T. They brought legal briefs and dozens of documents detailing their work in conducting a true election with the full participation of Mississippi’s Black population.
The leaders of the Democratic Party, namely President Lyndon B. Johnson, tried to squash Hamer and ignore her concerns. They were largely successful until the country heard Hamer speak.
YouTube | Pamela Cook
At the Credentials Committee on August 22, 1964, witnesses like Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. But none commanded the room like Hamer, who spoke forcefully about the physical violence she faced as a Black woman fighting for voting rights.
She was sterilized against her will and was later nearly beaten to death by police after an arrest.
“All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and 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 the hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?” she told the committee.
YouTube | AmericanExperiencePBS
Her testimony was so powerful, that Johnson called a fake press conference in an attempt to get news cameras off Hamer. The press was preoccupied with Johnson’s choice for vice president and switched over to the White House halfway through Hamer’s stirring testimony — but his move backfired. The press immediately recognized and understood what Johnson tried to do, and this made it an even bigger story. Hamer’s testimony that day played on the nightly news for three straight nights.
The speech also led to a schism in the Democratic Party, with Johnson siding with the segregationists in an attempt to keep his support in the South. However, the delegations from Alabama and other segregated states were outraged that Hamer was allowed to speak at all.
“The president has said he will not let that illiterate woman speak on the floor of the Democratic convention,” Senator Hubert H. Humphrey said at the time.
This kind of political action was groundbreaking because Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party knew they probably wouldn’t succeed, but understood that the attempt alone would mean almost as much. Her ability to outmatch the seasoned politicians behind the Democratic Party machine was truly a lesson in how political experience can be learned far outside of Washington, DC.
“Her strong desire and struggle to escape the plantation system and mentality for herself and her family made her more determined to help others in the same condition. Her limited education did not stop her from facing those in high places and speaking the truth. Fannie Lou Hamer had the courage and conviction that so many people in her historic circumstances would not attempt,” McLaurin said.
Hamer ran for office a number of times, but was always shut down by the local Democratic Party in Mississippi. However, she was able to convert her newfound fame into support for her community and led the Freedom Farm Cooperative. She saw very clearly that Black people needed to be self-sufficient, and used the Farm Cooperative to help Black farmers get their food to Black families, making moves that supported the increase Black land ownership and even creating a pig bank that loaned families piglets. Her efforts enabled dozens of Black families buy land and cultivate farms throughout Sunflower County, Mississippi. Additionally, Hamer created an incubator program for Black farmers and businessmen, as well as financial counseling and scholarships.
While she managed all of these social programs, she still kept up national efforts, giving speeches at events across the country and founding the National Women's Political Caucus.
At a 1971 National Women's Political Caucus event, she gave one of her most famous speeches titled “Nobody's Free Until Everybody's Free."
"Now, we've got to have some changes in this country. And not only changes for the black man, and only changes for the black woman, but the changes we have to have in this country are going to be for liberation of all people — because nobody's free until everybody's free,” she told the crowd.
“And this is something that should have been done for a long time because a white mother is no different from a black mother. The only thing is they haven't had as many problems. But we cry the same tears and under the skin, it's the same kind of red blood," she added.
Hamer’s political legacy alone would be more than enough to make her a hero. But her numerous efforts to help move her community forward make her unmatched.
Few political leaders these days feel connected to the communities they represent. Furthermore, even less can say they live through the problems their constituents face, and civil rights activists with even acute understandings of how to move issues forward within complicated, lobbyist-laden political systems struggle to enact tangible change. All of this further underscores Hamer's accomplishments as monumental, especially given the sociopolitical climate of the era in which she was most active.
Today's activists and political leaders could benefit from taking one of her most potent messages to heart, “I’m gonna be standing up, I’m gonna be moving forward, and if they shoot me, I’m not going to fall back, I’m going to fall 5'4" inches forward,” she once said.
If living by Hamer's example, the key is to always move forward.