Thank God for her unconquerable soul!
Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was born October 6, 1917 in the Mississippi Delta, the last of 20 children born to sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend, the National Women’s History Museum reports.
Hamer began picking cotton at age 6 and left school to help her family at age 12. Despite limited formal education, Hamer was one of few Blacks who could read and write. When she married Perry Hamer in 1944, the two got a job on a plantation owned by B.D. Marlowe and Hamer put her skills to use as a plantation timekeeper. Unfortunately, Hamer was never able to have children of her own and the couple adopted two daughters, undergoing a forced sterilization by a white doctor during a routine surgery in 1961, something that was a common occurrence during that time.
Despite the violence that was the Jim Crow South, Hamer pressed on, understanding the grave danger that would await her if she dare challenge the white supremacist power structure. According to Smithsonian Mag, in 1962, she attended a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting where she learned of her right to vote at age 44. “They were talking about [how] we could vote out people that we didn’t want in office. That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it,” Hamer said. It was during that moment that she realized her ability to change her conditions, going on to join SNCC and help lead volunteers in registering to vote.
Hamer faced a number of obstacles, being denied through the use of unfair literacy tests, being harrassed and fined by police, and being fired by her boss as a result of her attempts to register to vote. After the plantation owner fired Hamer and her husband and stole their property, the two moved to Ruleville, Mississippi in Sunflower Country where Hamer would continue her fight. As she traveled around the state, registering to vote and assisting and leading along with the help of SNCC and other civil rights activists, Hamer gained much notoriety. In 1963, she and several other women were brutally beaten and jailed, causing permanent injury to her kidneys, leg and a blood clot in her eye.
She went on to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), speaking to members of the Democratic National Convention about the party’s efforts to block Black voters from participating. Her televised DNC speech made history, with President Lyndon Johnson attempting to sabotage Hamer’s live testimony, calling an impromptu press conference simultaneously. His efforts backfired and Hamer’s firsthand account of racial violence in the South became one of the most memorable speeches ever, eventually compelling Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, boosting Black political participation in the South with African American voters increasing from 28,000 to 280,000 and Black elected officials doubling over from 72 to 159 within the span of a year.
Photo Courtesy of William J. Smith
Hamer’s lifelong activism fundamentally changed politics in the South. Over the years she continued her crusade, campaigning for Congressional office on multiple occasions and continuing to stand on the front lines in the fight for Black political rights. In 1969, Hamer founded Freedom Farms, an initiative aimed at addressing economics, poverty and hunger as a means of political empowerment. The farms provided free pigs for Black farmers, a cooperative that allowed Blacks to buy land and farm collectively, a coop store, boutique and sewing enterprise, becoming one of the largest employers in the county.
Her latest venture also focused its efforts on exposing white Southern landowners who were threatening to evict sharecroppers who registered to vote. “Where a couple of years ago, white people were shooting at Negroes trying to register, now they say, ‘go ahead and register—then you’ll starve, Hamer said.’” With the funds from Freedom Farms, Hamer was also able to build 200 units of low-income housing in Ruleville, many of which still stand today.
In 1977, Hamer passed away from breast cancer at the age of 59.
Today, we remember her fight for freedom, her courage, and her will to stand on what she believed in. Below we’ve compiled 10 quotes from Hamer, courtesy of Everyday Power, that are sure to inspire you to never give up.
“When I liberate others, I liberate myself.”
“If I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”
“There is one thing you have got to learn about our movement. Three people are better than no people.”
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
“You can pray until you faint, but unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”
“Never to forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over.”
“Actually, the world and America is upset and the only way to bring about a change is to upset it more.”
“We didn’t come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here. We didn’t come all this way for no two seats, ’cause all of us is tired.”
“To support whatever is right, and to bring in justice where we’ve had so much injustice.”
“This white man who is saying “it takes time.” For three hundred and more years they have had “time,” and now it is time for them to listen.”
Thank you for all of your sacrifice Mrs. Hamer. Rest in perfect peace.
Photo Courtesy of Associated Press