“I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me, and it seemed like they’ve been trying to do that ever since I could remember.” That was the ringing voice of Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), famed civil rights leader from Mississippi. She was respected and reviled for her unflagging spirit of resistance to injustice and her bold voice for impoverished southern Black communities.
Hamer concentrated her powerful skills in the historic battle for Blacks’ right to vote and in fighting racist segregation. There was vast unemployment and poverty in the American South. Segregation and the lack of access to education prevented southern Blacks from attaining literacy, which was required to vote, to keep African Americans from voting.
Economic struggle and institutional racism. Hamer was the 20th child born to her parents. She became moderately literate by attending school for a few years but stopped for the lack of money. The family’s economic circumstances were so bad from sharecropping debt that she recalled wishing she were White. Her mother told her to respect herself as a Black woman.
Hamer went to a hospital in 1961 for a minor tumor removal and was secretly sterilized. She was enraged and exposed it very publicly, calling it the “Mississippi Appendectomy,” a common outrage to many poor Black and white Southern women, women with disabilities, or those deemed by physicians as “unfit to reproduce.” That outrage was Fannie Lou Hamer’s declaration of war as a lifetime warrior against a racist, segregated USA.
Freedom summer and police brutality. Shortly after her forced sterilization, Hamer attended a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) where James Forman, a leader of the group, invited her to help register voters. She eagerly agreed and soon was a leader herself in the organization that played a major role in the famous sit-ins against segregation, the national freedom rides for voting rights, Freedom Summer, and the March on Washington in 1963.
Forman and Hamer were co-founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which fought hard for integrated state delegations in the national, white-controlled Democratic Party. She famously spoke at the convention in 1964, revealing how she was severely brutalized and injured in prison by white men and Black inmates who were ordered by state police to beat her. “All of this on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens,” Hamer told the convention. “And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.” (The Freedom Socialist Party, founded in 1966, was named after Hamer’s party, replacing the word “Democratic” for “Socialist”).
President Johnson infamously interrupted her fervent words by calling a major press conference in the middle of Hamer’s speech — an intentional distraction. Instead, she was widely televised. Said Martin Luther King, “her testimony educated a nation and brought the political powers to their knees in repentance, for the convention voted never again to seat a delegation that was racially segregated.’’
After President Johnson’s compromise of offering two observer seats to MFDP, his dismissal of Hamer as illiterate, and his specifically denying her a seat in the Mississippi delegation, Hamer and SNCC organizers rejected Johnson’s offer and left the convention. They clearly saw that the mainstream Democratic Party worked for the business elites and segregationists.
Keepin’ on. The Democrats criticized Hamer and Forman for “not understanding” compromise and politics. Forman countered in his book, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, “We in SNCC understood politics … we could compromise but not sell out the people. We did not see the Democratic Party as the great savior of black people in this country. Therefore we did not have the habit of following blindly. …”
Forman writes that in 1964, SNCC decided to “stir further mass consciousness” and “move into the international arena.” Ten members including Hamer travelled to the “self-proclaimed socialist nation of Guinea and to other nations … we went to Africa, we were broadening our struggle, we were going to become revolutionaries of the world.”
Hamer never stopped fighting even though she was assaulted frequently and received death threats. She established a farming cooperative, helped organize a strike by cotton pickers, founded Head Start programs in the Delta, and in 1971, helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus. Her life was a model of what Russian Bolshevik Trotsky wrote about revolutionaries in his book, Their Morals and Ours: “They know how to swim against the stream in the deep conviction that the new historic flood will carry them to the other shore … To participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will — only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!”
Claudia Li is an Asian American immigrant from Hong Kong who lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.