“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” – Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964
Fannie Lou Hamer’s work and contributions to the Civil Rights effort for Black people in Mississippi were based in localized, community-based work that affected state- and nation-wide politics.
Hamer grew up a cotton-picker in the Mississippi Delta. Joining her family of sharecroppers in the cotton fields at 6 years old, by adolescence she managed to complete several years of school and pick hundreds of pounds of cotton a day. In 1961, she set on the path to the forefront of the Movement that was forming in the rural South. From her small town of Ruleville, Mississippi, she volunteered to go on a bus to Indianola to try to register to vote with 17 of her Black neighbors. She failed the literacy test, but stood out as a potential leader by her defiance of the police on the bus ride back to her hometown, Ruleville. The story goes that when the bus of volunteers were pulled over by the police after leaving the county seat, Hamer began to sing spirituals. This action became a defining characteristic of her activism. She was known for singing these hymns and exhibiting her spirituality while in the midst of working in the freedom movement. Her strong faith gave her the courage to speak out against the political oppression that was not only faced by herself, but also by the members of her rural community and Black people all over the country. The traditional singing of hymns was her effort to bring spiritual energy toward social, political, and even physical problem-solving and healing.
After her first attempt to register to vote, she returned to the land she sharecropped with her husband. The plantation owner immediately demanded that she withdraw her application for voter registration or leave his land. She left.
Hamer was a grassroots activist whose public profile increased in the summer of 1963 after years of desegregation and voter registration work. She attended several conferences and trainings in community organizing and activism held all over the South by organizations such as SNCC and CORE. She began Head Start programs, farm co-ops, and worked with MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign. One of the major roles she played was during Freedom Summer, where she trained hundreds of volunteers in Ohio and led the development of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Through the newly formed political party, she ran for political office several times, including two runs for Congress and a seat as a member of Mississippi Delegation of the Democratic National Convention. A strong-willed force, Hamer contributed to the fight for both racial and economic equality. During her fifteen-year career as a grassroots activist, she had to endure several encounters with the police, some of which ended in her arrest and being beaten. Hamer’s activism demonstrated that she understood the connection between jobs, education and political influence. She was able to use her story of police brutality, poverty and disenfranchisement to work on a local and state level fighting for the equality ofBlack Americans. We remember Hamer for her strength & endurance, her propensity for socio-political activism and her commitment to Black liberation.