American civil rights activist, 19171977.

Fannie Lou Hamer was a Mississippi sharecropper with a sixth grade education whose trouble in registering to vote propelled her into activism. Although one of the key figures in organizing Mississippi's "Freedom Summer" for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she would gain national attention for speaking in Atlantic City, New Jersey on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.

President Lyndon Johnson had a problem. He’d just signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, fracturing his political support in the South. Leading Democrats were ready to publicly support the likely Republican nominee for President, Barry Goldwater. As the Democratic National Convention in August approached, Mississippi was shaping up to be a real problem.

Mississippi’s official Democratic delegation to the Democratic National Convention that year was 100% white, and on the whole, opposed to civil rights legislation. Mississippi was 40% black (but, thanks to a long tradition of exclusion and discrimination, only 5% of eligible black voters were registered). Civil rights organizations including SNCC formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the exclusion of African-Americans in the state's "regular" Democratic Party. Fannie Lou Hamer was elected Vice Chair. The MFDP let everyone know it was going to crash the convention.

If Johnson unseated the official delegation, he’d alienate not only the few potential electoral votes he had in Mississippi, but other all-white Southern states. Excluding the MFDP wasn’t going to win him any friends either, since the theme of the convention was going to be a celebration of Johnson’s civil rights efforts.

August 22, 1964. Two days before the Convention would start. Hamer and the MFDP went to address the Convention’s Credentialing Committee. The news media followed. When Johnson found out, he immediately called an impromptu press conference, hoping to draw attention away from the MFDC. The plan backfired, as the networks ran Hamer’s testimony unedited on the evening news. And America got to hear her story:

Mr. Chairman, and the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland, and Senator Stennis.

It was the 31st of August in 1962 that 18 of us traveled 26 miles to the country courthouse in Indianola to try to register to try to become first-class citizens.

We was met in Indianola by Mississippi men, Highway Patrolmens and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the City Police and the State Highway Patrolmen and carried back to Indianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.

After we paid the fine among us, we continued on to Ruleville, and Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for 18 years. I was met there by my children, who told me that the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down to try to register.

After they told me, my husband came, and said that the plantation owner was raising cain because I had tried to register, and before he quit talking the plantation owner came, and said, "Fannie Lou, do you know--did Pap tell you what I said?"

And I said, "yes, sir."

He said, "I mean that," he said, "If you don't go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave," said, "Then if you go down and withdraw," he said, "You will--you might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi."

And I addressed him and told him and said, "I didn't try to register for you. I tried to register for myself."

I had to leave that same night.

On the 10th of September 1962, 16 bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also Mr. Joe McDonald's house was shot in.

And in June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop, was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is in Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people--to use the restaurant--two of the people wanted to use the washroom.

The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out I got off of the bus to see what had happened, and one of the ladies said, "It was a State Highway Patrolman and a Chief of Police ordered us out."

I got back on the bus and one of the persons had used the washroom got back on the bus, too.

As soon as I was seated on the bus, I saw when they began to get the four people in a highway patrolman's car, I stepped off of the bus to see what was happening and somebody screamed from the car that the four workers was in and said, "Get that one there," and when I went to get in the car, when the man told me I was under arrest, he kicked me.

I was carried to the county jail, and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell I began to hear the sound of kicks and horrible screams, and I could hear somebody say, "Can you say, yes, sir, nigger? Can you say yes, sir?"

And they would say other horrible names.

She would say, "Yes, I can say yes, sir."

"So say it."

She says, "I don't know you well enough."

They beat her, I don't know how long, and after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.

And it wasn't too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman and he asked me where I was from, and I told him Ruleville, he said, "We are going to check this."

And they left my cell and it wasn't too long before they came back. He said, "You are from Ruleville all right," and he used a curse word, and he said, "We are going to make you wish you was dead."

I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack.

The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State Highway Patrolman for me, to lay down on a bunk bed on my face, and I laid on my face.

The first Negro began to beat, and I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted, and I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.

After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.

The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit upon my feet to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me my head and told me to hush.

One white man-since my dress had worked up high, walked over and pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back, back up.

I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.

All of this is on account of us wanting to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America, is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

Thank you.

The Credentialing Committee received thousands of letters and phone calls demanding that the “Freedom Democrats” receive seats. Johnson and his allies came up with a compromise, which would give the MFDP two seats as well as other concessions. The compromise received the endorsement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but neither Hamer nor the MFDC found it acceptable. “We didn't come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here,” said Hamer. “We didn't come all this way for no two seats, 'cause all of us is tired." Hamer and the MFDC were barred from the convention, but stayed to protest. When the official Mississippi delegation walked out, Hamer and others got their floor passes and led freedom songs on the floor of the convention.

After the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights act, Hamer worked to unite the black and white wings of the Mississippi Democrats. She was elected as part of the official delegation to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. She would go on to work on grassroots anti-poverty projects, including food and farm cooperatives. In 1972, she assisted in the creation of the National Women's Political Caucus. Hamer was also known in later years for her work on school desegregation and low-income housing.

Her severe injuries to her eye and kidney from the 1963 beating would bother her the rest of her life. SNCC lawyers filed suit against the Winona police, but all the white men involved who were charged were found not guilty.

Sources:
"Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer." The Glass Ceiling Web Site.. <http://www.theglassceiling.com/biographies/bio14.htm> (accessed May 24, 2005)
"Who is Fannie Lou Hamer?" PageWise, Inc. 2002. <http://nd.essortment.com/fannielouhamer_rgrh.htm> (accessed May 25, 2006)
Ron Daniels. "This Little Light of Mine: Fannie Lou Hamer; Courageous Freedom Fighter." Michigan Citizen. 29 March 1997. VOl. XIX, Iss. 17
Sarah K. Horsley. "Fannie Lou Hamer." FemBio. <http://www.fembio.org/women/fannie-lou-hamer.shtml> (accessed May 25, 2006)
Ian Huntington. "Blue Blood Woos Red States with Purple Heart." The Philadelphia Independent. September 2004. <http://www.philadelphiaindependent.net/public/articles/31.html> (accessed May 25, 2006)
Abiola Sinclair. "Fannie Lou Hamer: Freedom Fighter." New York Amsterdam News. 26 March 1994.
Wikipedia contributors, "Civil Rights Act of 1964," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Civil_Rights_Act_of_1964&oldid=55059469> (accessed May 26, 2006).
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---. "Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mississippi_Freedom_Democratic_Party&oldid=49673712> (accessed May 25, 2006).

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