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A force to be reckoned with, strong-willed Fannie Lou found herself in the midst of making history. Her quest: to raise herself and her people from very deplorable conditions. Learn here how politicians shook in their boots while she spoke.  

 

Fannie Lou Hamer wasn’t raised to be an activist. Her parents were sharecroppers; they lived in a system that was very unjust, very one-sided. They didn’t leave the South like a lot of people did during the great migration of the early 1900's. They, for whatever reasons, stayed where they were. In consequence, the youngest of twenty children, Fannie Lou witnessed throughout her childhood the white cruelty, political exclusion, and relentless economic exploitation that defined black existence in Mississippi. 

 

 
She was a plantation field hand and timekeeper until her forties, when she emerged as a file activist and grass roots leader of the Mississippi Freedom Movement. Her efforts in the civil rights movement were not just a battle to end segregation, but rather functioned as a broad-based battle against poverty, illiteracy, economic exploitation, and all forms of dehumanization and oppression.

 

In 1962, Hamer attended a meeting about black voter registration sponsored by SNCC. A couple of days later, she traveled to Indianola, Miss., with a group of other African Americans and attempted to register to vote. When she refused to withdraw her voter registration application, Hamer lost her job and was kicked off the plantation where she had worked for nearly two decades.

 

That was when Hamer, at age 45, found her voice. And what an incredible voice it was. Her voice, as one author put it, could marshal armies.

 

Her spirit was very instrumental with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, in Mississippi. Also, in the Freedom Summer, she traveled to train students who were coming into the South and work during the Freedom Summer.

 

When SNCC started the Freedom Summer and they talked about bringing in college students from the North and particularly, having white college students come down to help with voter registration, she was one of the people in the organization, who spoke up and said, “We have to do this because if we segregate, we’re being just like them.” That was her moral compass… If we start segregating ourselves off as black people, we’re just like they are.

 

Hamer's dramatic appearance at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where she led a group from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in a bid to unseat the all-white Mississippi delegation, brought both Hamer and the virtual powerlessness of black Mississippians to the nation's attention.  

 

Her speech at the Convention became one of the most pivotal moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

Fannie Lou Hamer wasn’t one of those dainty, soft-spoken Southern ladies who drank sweet tea with a congenial smile and a Sunday go-to-church wide-brimmed hat. No. She was a tough, in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is presence who spoke truth to power and stood up to the white power structure that ruled the state of Mississippi. Hamer’s big spirit was only matched by her passion for civil and human rights.

 

That passion was on display 50 years ago, when on Aug. 22, 1964, the poor Mississippi sharecropper sat before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. She spoke about her experience in Mississippi trying to register to vote, being basically terrorized and assaulted by sheriffs and state troopers, and then she described in graphic detail the vicious 1963 beating she received by law enforcers that left her with severe kidney damage, a blood clot behind one eye and a permanent limp. She revealed the demeaning discrimination that nearly crippled the souls of black folks in Mississippi and pulled the covers off the horrific living situation of African-Americans in that state.

 

In a pivotal moment, Hamer declared in her plaintive, outspoken way: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!” It was a phrase heard around the world.

 

Hamer’s passionate testimony was televised before a national audience. People were glued to their television sets. There were only a few stations back then, unlike today with cable, and they broadcasted the testimonies in full the next day.

 

Bob Moses,  who was involved with SNCC, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, says:

“Lyndon Johnson (who was the President at the time) wasn’t afraid of Martin Luther King, he was afraid of Fannie Lou Hamer.”

She impacted him in a way that many people didn’t because she wasn’t there to sit and negotiate something. She was there to express what she knew was wrong. President Johnson, in an effort to stop the media coverage of her testimony, gave an impromptu press conference during Hamer's speech, interrupting her televised remarks. But the damage was already done.

 

It is believed by many biographers and historians, that Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech and work in the Civil Rights Movement was key in Lyndon B. Johnson’s response in signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Her powerful voice definitively shook him up!

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Sources: Excerpts from an interview between Devon Leger and Mark Puryear called Intimate Look at a Legendary Civil Rights Activista review of For Freedom's Sake by George Lipsitz, author of A Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s, the Daily Beast article Remembering Civil Rights Heroine Fannie Lou Hamer, and the University of Illinois's book presentation of Chana Kai Lee's biography, The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer

Illustrations: Ekua Holmes from the children's book Voice of Freedom, Fannie Lou Hamer

 

 

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