The Heart and Soul of Fannie Lou Hamer, An Extraordinary African American Leader

Fannie Lou Hamer, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 22, 1964; photograph by Warren K. Leffler. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)Fannie Lou Hamer was born October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, to Ella and James Lee Townsend (her sharecropping parents), who taught her to never quit in her endeavors-a creed she tried to live by her entire life. Of course, if Fannie Lou Hamer were alive today she would probably be disappointed by the sad state of our society. Voter ID and voter suppression laws are taking our democracy back to the bad old days when black people were denied their voting rights in some states. In other words, recent years have not been good for voting rights in this country. The black vote is often diluted in southern states through a process called gerrymandering, by which congressional district lines are drawn to favor one political party over another. A transgressive radical of the first order who bucked against a racist voting system that mostly excluded African Americans, Hamer would roll over in her grave if she knew that black voting rights remains imperiled today.

With all her might, Hamer pursued the goal of eradicating the second-class citizenship of blacks in segregated Mississippi and nationwide. She was infuriated that we didn’t have a more inclusive society and a more just and righteous world. She always wanted to know why black people were treated so unfairly by some white populations in the United States, particularly in the South. Raised in poverty, she picked cotton on B. D. Marlow’s plantation until she was fired for attempting to register to vote along with other blacks at the Indianola County Courthouse in Mississippi on August 31, 1962. Hamer often wondered why it was so wrong for African Americans to participate politically by voting. She later passed the infamous Mississippi "literacy test" and fortunately was able to register to vote. She firmly believed that American government at all levels should be making it easier for minorities to vote, not harder.

Hamer was a robust, intelligent black woman, a formidable presence who had more than a little charm, and her instincts about racial matters of the day were on target. For example, she relentlessly and unequivocally fought against discriminatory Jim Crow laws that subjected poor black Americans to inequality, intimidation, and humiliating treatment. She tackled racial issues head on and was not reluctant to get involved in politics. She realized what she could do, and when she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, it became apparent to all in this organization that she would be an effective leader for black people in Mississippi. As a civil rights activist, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to fight against the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party. At the forefront of the southern voting rights movement, she knew, without a doubt, that African Americans and other people of color had the constitutional right to vote in all elections. She didn’t want to watch from the sidelines and do nothing; she did what she thought was right, trying to secure civil rights and opportunities for disadvantaged African Americans.

It wasn’t easy for Hamer to deal with hardcore racists during her time in the political sun. White supremacists considered her a nuisance that had to be crushed at all costs. But these virulent racists failed at almost every turn. Never one to suffer fools, Hamer faced their ignominious hatred with resilience and grace. People listened to Hamer because, with her strong southern accent, she spoke from the heart. She elicited a positive response from both the black community (who loved her dearly) and progressive whites throughout the country. In the eyes of black people, she was a champion who cared deeply about their rights as citizens and the future of their children. Hamer wholeheartedly believed that African Americans needed to address the intractable racial issues that affected their lives, because whites in the Deep South wouldn’t voluntarily do anything to advance the cause of freedom for black people. She tirelessly fought for fair and affordable housing for impoverished African Americans in Mississippi. For example, by going on fundraising ventures across the country, she financed low-income housing in Mississippi and helped black people in Ruleville buy land. In the course of her anti-poverty efforts, she also helped black farmers buy livestock. Hamer’s work helped to relieve black people who were burdened by racism, disenfranchisement, segregation, and racial discrimination, and who often struggled to put food on the table just to survive.

Resisting the racist powers-that-be was Hamer’s greatest legacy. Her unyielding dedication to both the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement was beyond compare. But it was also a double-edged sword for her in that she risked her own life, fighting against racial injustices and sex discrimination. On July 10, 1971, Hamer co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), which advocated for women’s rights and full inclusion in the American political system at all levels. She also supported the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution.

Hamer encountered opposition from southern whites at almost every turn, particularly when she dared to register black citizens in Mississippi and elsewhere to vote. But, thanks to her tremendous courage, she prevailed in spite of the dangerous repercussions. She took action and discovered that standing up to white segregationists would make her dream of inclusion happen faster than expected. She had vision, and her hard work in breaking down the barriers of racial segregation positively impacted the lives of many, particularly in Mississippi, in terms of social justice and voting rights. A sage and a sight to behold, Fannie Lou Hamer had the nation hanging on her every word, and became a legend because of her wisdom. Addressing the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, she gave a profound, memorable, and heartbreaking speech on freedom, justice, and civil rights. Members of Hamer’s MFDP showed up at the convention, challenging the all-white delegation from Mississippi and demanding to be seated.

White supremacy and implacable racism will always be a part of our nation’s history. However, Hamer heroically tried to eliminate them by stem and root. In her view, the odiously racist undertakings of American whites posed a continual threat to the lives of African Americans and other people of color and needed to be eradicated. She wanted whites to share some of their political and economic power with the less fortunate and to acknowledge the humanity of black people. She believed that racism shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere, under any circumstances, because we are inextricably intertwined as human beings who should move forward in our evolution toward a goal of togetherness. Proudly seated at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Hamer proclaimed that it was imperative for black people to continue to agitate for social justice and equal rights through nonviolent protest. In 1971 she would run for the Mississippi State Senate; she lost the election, though she stood out as a candidate.

Fueled by righteous anger, Hamer put her heart and soul into the civil rights movement during taxing times, which tested her faith. Armed with personal experiences and the hard truth, she put white segregationists in their place. In her view, white hate groups and supremacists were always the villains in American history, and she spent years trying to convince the public of this. She achieved so much for black Mississippians and our nation-perhaps even more than she could have imagined during her lifetime-and this will always be remembered. Before she died of cancer in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1977, she had a lot of hope for the country’s future. If the great Fannie Lou Hamer, who bore the physical scars of being attacked by the KKK, were alive today, she would probably cry with angst and sing "Walk with Me," an old Negro spiritual. A largely unsung hero, Hamer deserves to be remembered and celebrated for what she was able to accomplish. She was relentless in her fight for racial integration and voting rights for all US citizens, and she is sorely missed today.

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Earnest N. Bracey is Professor of Political Science and African American History at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas. He is the author of Fannie Lou Hamer: The Life of a Civil Rights Icon (McFarland, 2011).