“Nobody is free until everybody is free”

When young civil rights workers arrived in Ruleville in the Mississippi Delta in 1962, they were looking for local black people who could
help convince their neighbors to register to vote. They found
forty-four-year-old Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer was attracted to the
young people, especially those in the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC). “They treated us like
we were special and we loved ‘em,” she said. “We trusted
‘em.” For the rest of her life, Hamer would work in the Civil
Rights Movement on both the state and national stage. She felt
that civil
rights was her calling, her mission.

After the meeting at
Williams Chapel Church in Ruleville, seventeen people went with Hamer to
the Sunflower County seat of Indianola to try to register on August 31,
1962. The prospective voters felt threatened by men with rifles in the
back of their pickup trucks who circled the courthouse ominously. At
that time, Mississippi required people registering to vote to interpret a
randomly selected section of the state constitution, a complicated
document. Prospective black voters inevitably failed the test, whether
they were well-educated or not. Even after several years of effort in
Sunflower County, by the spring of 1965 only 155 black people — 1.1
percent of those eligible to vote — were registered, while more than
7,000 whites were registered, or 80 percent of those eligible to vote.

No one was registered that August day. Hamer, who had a booming voice,
sang to try to calm people’s fears on the bus taking them home.
Years later, Harry Belafonte, who often appeared with Hamer at movement
events, said her songs “from the heart would bring another dimension”
to the action when people got down to whatever business was at hand. Before
or after her speeches, Hamer would inspire her listeners by singing a
song that soon became associated with her, “This Little Light of

The day of the registration attempt in Indianola, Hamer lost her job
on the W. D. Marlow plantation where she had worked as a timekeeper for
eighteen years, and where her husband, Perry Hamer, worked as a tractor
driver. The owner objected to her attempt to register to vote. Later that
fall Hamer attended a SNCC leadership training conference at Fisk University.
She then returned to the Indianola courthouse until officials finally
allowed her to register to vote that December.

Hamer, born Fannie Lou Townsend on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County,
Mississippi, was the youngest of twenty children. Her parents, Ella and
James Lee Townsend, were sharecroppers, which meant that at harvest time,
they turned their crops over to the landowner and were paid a small amount
for their share. They moved to Sunflower County to work on the E. W. Brandon
plantation when Hamer was two years old. By age six, she was weeding the
cotton field, then helping to pick the cotton. Hamer went to school through
the eighth grade, which was more schooling than many black children had
at the time.

In 1944, Fannie Lou Townsend married Perry Hamer, whom everyone called
“Pap,” and they lived on the Marlow plantation outside Ruleville.
When Marlow learned that Mrs. Hamer could read and write, he made her
the record keeper for the plantation. The Hamers had no children of their
own, but they raised two girls from impoverished homes, and later adopted
the two daughters of one of them who died. Hamer was respected in both
the white and black communities as someone who could help settle disputes
and always had a moment to hear a neighbor’s problem. She had deep
religious beliefs; she had been brought up in the church and relied on
its strength.

In the fall of 1962, Robert Moses of SNCC invited
Hamer to a convention at Fisk University, thus launching her career as a
leader of the civil rights movement. In 1963, she again tried to
register to vote, this time succeeding. In June of the same year, Hamer
and several other black women were arrested for sitting in a
“whites-only” bus station restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.
That night, the group was brutally beaten at the jailhouse. Hamer
suffered a blood clot in her eye, kidney damage, and permanent injury
to her leg. After three days in jail she was released, immediately
resuming her work as an activist with renewed commitment to the

For the next several years, Fannie Lou Hamer
worked to secure the social, economic, and political rights of the
community. Hamer became a SNCC field secretary in early 1963. A few
months later,
she attended a citizenship training school sponsored by the
Southern Christian
Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Charleston, South Carolina, to
learn how
to teach her neighbors about the benefits of citizenship. On the
bus trip
home in June, the bus made a rest stop in Winona, Mississippi.
Ponder of SCLC, who was traveling with the group, said that
three or four
of the people went in to the café to be served. They sat at the
counter but the waitress refused to serve them. A highway
patrolman came
from the rear of the café and tapped some of the group on the
with his billy club, saying, “Y’all get out — get out.”
Ponder reminded him it was against the law to refuse them
service but
he said, “Ain’t no damn law, you just get out of here!”

On the way back to the bus, Ponder wrote down the license number of the
patrol car and at that, the patrolman and police chief came out of the
restaurant and put the cafe group under arrest. As that was occurring,
Hamer got off the bus to see whether the rest of the group should go on
to Greenwood. The police chief arrested her as well. Later the police
had two other black prisoners beat Hamer and 15-year-old June Johnson,
who would not say “sir” to the men. In a trial later that
year, an all-white jury acquitted the law officers. Hamer recalled, “After
I got out of jail, half dead, I found that Medgar Evers had been shot
down in his own yard.”

In Freedom Summer 1964, more young people, white and black, came to Mississippi
to join the voting rights effort. Civil rights workers decided to dramatize
the discrimination blacks faced in Mississippi by challenging
the all-white delegation that would be selected to represent the state
at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Black people from around the state tried to participate in selecting delegates
who would nominate the party’s presidential candidate, but were
turned away.

In 1964, she co-founded the Mississippi
Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and spoke at the Democratic National
Convention at which
she called for mandatory integrated state delegations.They held their
own meetings and selected sixty-eight people
to represent them at the convention. Aaron Henry, a druggist
from Clarksdale
and longtime NAACP activist, headed the delegation, and Hamer
was the
delegation’s vice chair.

At a national convention, the party’s credentials committee considers
any challenges and decides who will be seated to vote on the nominees.
The MFDP lined up its witnesses, including the Reverend Martin Luther
King Jr., the national Civil Rights Movement leader. Hamer gave the most
dramatic presentation. Telling about being jailed and beaten, she concluded,
“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 …”

At the zenith of the Civil Rights
Movement, Hamer pioneered numerous political and humanitarian efforts.
In 1964, she announced her
candidacy for the Mississippi House of Representatives but was barred
from the ballot. In response, the MFDP introduced Freedom Ballots that
included all candidates, black and white. Though it was unofficial,
Hamer won the Freedom Ballot.

U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, who would become the party’s candidate
for vice president, sought a compromise at the request of President Lyndon
Johnson that would give the MFDP two seats and the promise of reform for
the 1968 convention. That made Hamer angry. “We didn’t come
here for no seats ‘cause all of us is tired,” she said. The
MFDP delegates rejected the compromise, but the convention delegates did
not know that when they voted to accept it, and almost all the white Mississippians
walked out.

After the fall election, Hamer and two other women, Victoria Gray Adams
of Hattiesburg and Annie Devine of Canton, challenged the seating of the
five-member Mississippi Congressional delegation, Thomas G. Abernethy,
William Colmer, Prentiss Walker, Jamie L. Whitten, and John Bell Williams.
They charged that because blacks were kept from registering, the election
was unfair. Hundreds of their supporters went to Washington when the Congressional
session opened in January 1965, and Hamer, Adams, and Devine were given
guest seats in the House chamber that day. Yet later, on September 17,
1965, the House of Representatives rejected their challenge, 228-143.

Hamer did not relent in her activities. In 1966, she walked with Dr.
King and Andrew Young as they resumed the march against fear that James
Meredith had launched across the state. Meredith, who had been the first
black student at the University of Mississippi, had to halt his march
when he was shot from ambush. Hamer also raised money to support election
activities in two Delta towns. She lost a bid to become a board member
for the Sunflower County anti-poverty agency in 1967 because she questioned
their authority and the true value of the agency’s programs to poor
people. Local whites had united behind her opponent, a black man.

In 1968 the Democratic Party, which by then required its state parties
to integrate, seated Hamer as a delegate at its presidential nominating
convention in Chicago. Anti-Vietnam War violence in the streets overshadowed
the seating of the integrated Mississippi delegation, but Hamer spoke
from the podium on behalf of a challenge to the Alabama party. In 1968, Hamer
became a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.

That year she started what she called a Pig Bank with the help
of the
National Council of Negro Women to help people in her community
their diets. Hamer bought thirty-five gilts (females) and five
boars (males),
and the pregnant gilts were loaned to local families. They could
the piglets that were produced and return mama pig to the bank.
Some three
hundred families benefited from this program. The following year
established Freedom Farm with a similar goal of providing food
and some
economic independence to local people. She remained active in
efforts such as Head Start because she saw the link between
jobs, and political influence. She also founded “Head Start in
the Delta” and acquired federal funding for housing projects.

1970 Hamer filed a lawsuit charging that Sunflower County schools
were not properly desegregating. The following year, she joined
with feminist
activists in founding the National Women’s Political Caucus.
She helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, speaking
for inclusion of racial issues in the feminist agenda.

said that women of all different colors should join to form a powerful
voting majority in the country. “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.”

Hamer ran for the Mississippi Senate in 1971 against the incumbent, Robert
Crook. She campaigned with Carver Randle, an NAACP leader in Indianola
who was running for the state House of Representatives. The pair ran on
a platform urging that state and local governments hire more minorities
for jobs previously held by whites, and to appoint more minorities to
government positions. Randle said, “I was impressed with her openness
and frankness no matter who was in attendance.” He said Hamer also
felt that educated people in the black community “were much better
equipped to do what she was doing, yet they didn’t have the fortitude
to do it.” Hamer lost the election, 11,770 votes to 7,201. 

Ill health filled Hamer’s last years. She had had polio as a child
and had been sterilized without her knowledge while hospitalized in 1961.
After a lengthy hospitalization for nervous exhaustion in January 1972,
she managed to travel that summer to the Democratic National Convention
in Miami where she seconded the nomination of Texas Lieutenant Governor
Frances “Sissy” Farenthold for vice president. She was hospitalized
again in January 1974 for a nervous breakdown, but a few weeks later reported
that she felt better than ever. That June a group from Madison, Wisconsin,
that had worked with her on Freedom Farm came to Ruleville and found her
“in the worst health ever, heavily medicated for pain and dependent
on Pap and a neighbor” to keep the household going. In the spring
of 1976 she had breast cancer surgery.

These ailments took their toll and she died March 14, 1977, of heart
failure brought on by cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. Hundreds of
people attended her funeral six days later in Ruleville where Andrew Young,
then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gave her eulogy, saying,
“None of us would be where we are now had she not been there then.”

Hamer felt forgotten near the end of her life, which came during an ebb
in national interest in the Civil Rights Movement. Years later, however,
at least two universities — Jackson State University in Mississippi
and California State University, Northridge — named academic institutes
in her honor, and in 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s
Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. The Ruleville post office carries
her name today, as do a community center, a memorial park, a youth activities
center, and the street on which she lived. Fannie Lou Hamer is remembered.

on her headstone in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, are her
famous words: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”