Black History Month: Remembering Activist Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer was born in 1917 in Mississippi.  Hamer was one of 20 children born to Lou Ella and James Lee Townsend. When Hamer was six years old, she picked cotton alongside her family. During this time in history, many Black families in the South earned a living by working as sharecroppers. In most cases, this was not a viable way to survive as many of the sharecroppers lived on rented plantation land in hopes of a fair exchange for shelter and income for crops gathered, which mostly consisted of cotton, tobacco, and rice. The local laws favored white landowners and included a common  practice called crop liens.  Crop liens were a way for sharecroppers to get credit before the planting season by borrowing against the anticipated projected crops.  After the Civil War, survival was difficult with very little access to cash. This practice led many merchants to over-tax Black sharecroppers and keep faulty books without an accurate or fair account of the monies owed.

After slavery, about 56% of formerly enslaved individuals were still forced to work as servants or on plantations to survive. 

They encountered arbitrary and unfair pay policies, and were victimized by literacy barriers. Eventually, some of the sharecroppers began to organize, demanding better rights for their survival. In September of 1919, in Arkansas, Black sharecroppers gathered to discuss the unfair practices. During a meeting in a church where the sharecroppers were gathered, white men shot into the church, which ignited three days of fighting. As a result, five white men were killed, and over 200 Black men, women, and children were murdered. This event was one of many horrific terrors inflicted on Black people, known as the Red Summer

The Red Summer incident sparked the ordering of the U.S. Army troops to descend on Elaine, Arkansas, and Blacks were placed in enclosures and tortured. When this case went to trial, 122 black men were charged for this incident that they did not start. After the trial, some pleaded guilty, and 12 went to death row. The NAACP and other civil rights activists assisted with an appeal for those sentenced to death, known as the “Elaine 12.” The appeal won, after a Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court ruled that the trial had been prejudiced by a white mob threatening to lynch all of the Black men if they weren’t sentenced to death. While this particular gathering and horrific incident took place in Arkansas, in other former slave states, freed slaves were dealing with Jim Crow Laws established circa 1865 that kept Blacks from accessing personal and financial freedom, in every aspect, and from creating any form of generational wealth and prosperity.

From age six, Hamer worked in the fields.

During the off seasons of sharecropping, she attended school with other children who were also sharecroppers’ children. Her love of reading and poetry positioned her to be selected by the plantation owner as a record keeper. Hamer eventually married and looked forward to starting a family, but that right was taken away. A white doctor decided to give Hamer a hysterectomy without her consent, leaving her unable to have children of her own. This practice of sterilizing Black women was a common practice in Mississippi, known as the “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Hamer was able to adopt children, but one of her daughters died of internal hemorrhaging later in her life after being refused medical care.

Hamer learned in 1962 that Black people could vote; she was 45 then. During this time, passing a literacy test to be allowed to vote was part of the state’s constitution, and they were frequently unfairly complicated for Black registrants. Further, if a person registered to vote in the state of Mississippi, their name and address was published in the paper for two weeks. As a result, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups would terrorize Black would-be voters. Hamer was determined to register to vote. She and 17 others took a bus to Indianola to register and on their journey back, their bus was stopped by the police for supposedly being the wrong color and the group got a fine of $100. After Hamer finally made it home, the owner of the plantation on which she worked told her to withdraw her name to vote or leave the plantation. She left because she believed in her right to vote.

Before her death, Hamer helped others register to vote.

In 1963, she was arrested along with other volunteers who were trying to help register voters, and while detained, two officers took turns beating her. As a result, she suffered permanent kidney damage, a blood clot behind her eye, and a permanent limp. Hamer died on March 14, 1977 at the age of 59.

It is important to remember and recognize the sacrifice dedicated Civil Rights activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer made to ensure that all Americans possess equal rights.  Throughout the year and not just during Black History Month, these tireless leaders deserve our attention and admiration for their efforts to support fairness and respect for all citizens. 

*Editor’s note: Benicia Magazine’s choice to capitalize Black and not white takes into consideration the erasure of traceable ethnic lineage records of Black people as a whole by the institution of slavery.