A civil rights activist and role model for other activists, Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the youngest of the twenty children of sharecroppers James Lee and Lou Ella Bramlett Townsend. Townsend grew up on the E. W. Brandon Plantation in Sunflower County, where her parents moved in 1919. She began picking cotton on the plantation at age six and after sixth grade left school entirely to help support her family by working in the fields. In 1944 she married Perry “Pap” Hamer, also a sharecropper, and the two moved to the W. D. Marlow Plantation outside Ruleville.
On the Marlow Plantation, Fannie Lou Hamer worked with her husband in the fields, performed domestic work for the white family, and served as timekeeper for the plantation. Her life during this period was no less difficult than the years of her youth. For example, in 1961, during surgery to remove a small cyst in her stomach, a white doctor performed a hysterectomy without her knowledge or permission. In 1962, after Hamer attempted to register to vote, W. D. Marlow evicted the Hamers. That year the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to the Mississippi Delta, and Hamer worked with the group on voter registration drives. Whites responded by threatening her with violence, and in 1963 she and several other SNCC workers returning from a voter registration conference in South Carolina were arrested and taken to the Winona jail and severely beaten. Hamer never completely recovered from injuries sustained in the attack.
Despite such physical and emotional intimidation, Hamer persisted in her work with SNCC, becoming one of the most visible and influential of Mississippi’s grassroots activists. In 1963 she passed the voter registration test, and the following year she cast her first vote in a Mississippi election. Later in 1964 Hamer became one of the founding members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the seating of the state’s all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Hamer’s “I Question America” speech at the convention catapulted her to national prominence despite President Lyndon Johnson’s attempts to prevent the nation from seeing and hearing her. When the Democratic Party offered to give two convention seats to the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, she replied, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.” While she failed to win a seat at the 1964 convention, she served as a delegate to the 1968 and 1972 Democratic National Conventions.
With a powerful voice rooted in African American religious traditions, and determined to face obstacles and opponents directly, Hamer could inspire awe in fellow activists and great irritation in her opponents. Many of her words—phrases such as “I question America,” “Sick and tired of being sick and tired,” “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free”—became memorable rallying points and expressions of both discontent and resilience.
She twice ran unsuccessfully for the US Congress from Mississippi’s 2nd District. Legal action that she initiated against Sunflower County voter registration officials (Hamer v. Campbell, 1965) eventually led to the eradication of discriminatory procedures such as the poll tax.
After 1964 Hamer devoted much of her energy to alleviating the plight of other economically impoverished Delta residents. She organized clothing and food drives, worked with the Head Start program in Sunflower County, and supported the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, which represented day laborers, domestics, and truck drivers. Most significant were two efforts Hamer undertook with assistance from charitable organizations outside the South: the Pig Bank, established in 1968 with help from the National Council of Negro Women, and the Freedom Farm Cooperative, founded in 1969, with funding from several outside sources. Both programs provided food for local residents; in addition, Freedom Farm Cooperative provided agricultural jobs, food stamps, housing, and scholarships for young people; support for African American entrepreneurial efforts; and assistance with acquiring home loans, including down payments. Hamer served as assistant director until Freedom Farm dissolved in 1974.
Hamer was also a driving force in the desegregation of Sunflower County schools, initiating legal action that resulted in the creation of one merged public school system and protected the jobs of African American teachers and administrators (Hamer et al. v. Sunflower County, 1970).
Hamer’s health declined, and she died on 14 March 1977 of heart failure brought on by cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. Her legacies of courage, straight talk to powerful people, and activism on behalf of poor people continue to offer inspiration.
- Chris Myers Asch, The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer (2008)
- Fannie Lou Hamer, To Praise Our Bridges (1967)
- June Jordan, Fannie Lou Hamer (1972)
- Susan Kling, Fannie Lou Hamer: A Biography (1979)
- Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1999)
- Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1999)
- Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1993)
- J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (2004)
- Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)