Leading From Behind: Woman Power in the Civil Rights Movement, Part 3
By Rodney K. Strong, JD
Presented by Omni-University
Ancestor Fannie Lou Hamer
This is the third and final post of a three-part series that outlines the basic biographies of three women, Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Most Americans are familiar with the most prominent male leaders of the Classic Civil Rights Movement. During this period, from 1954 to 1968, the African American struggle resulted in an end to legal racial segregation in the United States. Leaders such as Justice Thurgood Marshall and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are well known. But, there were many unsung individuals, both men, and women, who contributed and made the Movement successful. The three women highlighted in this series were pivotal and critical to the ultimate success of the Movement. Each of the women we highlight altered the course of the Civil Rights Movement in essential ways. Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer changed American History and deserve to be better understood and celebrated.
Fannie Lou Hamer (October 6, 1917- March 14, 1977) was born Fannie Lou Townsend in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was the youngest of 20 children born to Ella and James Lee Townsend. In 1919, after her family's livestock was poisoned by a local racist, the Townsends moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi to work as sharecroppers on W.D. Marlow’s plantation. Young Fannie Townsend began picking cotton at age 6. She attended the one-room school on the plantation, which was only open between picking seasons, and excelled in her limited studies. At age 12, young Fannie went to work full-time and even though stricken with Polio, she regularly picked between 200 and 300 pounds of cotton a day. A devout Christian, Fannie continued to improve her reading skills after her formal education ended by regularly attending bible study at her church. After the plantation owner discovered her writing and math literacy, she became the time and record keeper on the plantation.
In 1942, Fannie Townsend married Perry Hamer, a tractor driver on the Marlow plantation. Mr. and Mrs. Hamer very much wanted to have children. Unfortunately, Mrs. Hamer was the victim of forced sterilization by a white doctor who performed a hysterectomy on her -without her consent- while she was undergoing surgery to remove a uterine tumor. These types of forced sterilizations were not uncommon in the United States at that time and were advocated by the white supremacist Eugenics Movement. The Hamers later adopted two girls. One of her daughters died after being refused medical care at a local hospital because of her mother's Civil Rights activism.
During the 1950s, Mrs. Hamer became interested in the Civil Rights Movement and began to attend the annual Regional Council of Negro Leadership meetings in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. An all-Black town in the northwest Mississippi delta, Mound Bayou, was the center of civil rights activity in the region. The Regional Council of Negro Leadership, founded by Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a surgeon, and entrepreneur, held yearly conventions in Mound Bayou with often as many as 10,000; people in attendance. Mrs. Hamer, as evidenced by her participation with the Regional Council, was committed to civil rights and was readily recruited by the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee (SNNC) when they sought volunteers to defy the local white supremacist authorities in their efforts to register to vote.
Mrs. Hamer quickly became known to the SNCC organizers as a “grassroots leader”. Bob Moses, then the Director of SNNC's "Mississippi Project", is among those who have recounted the story of the emergence of Mrs. Hamer as a leader within SNCC. In August 1962, eighteen local people from Sunflower County, including Mrs. Hamer, volunteered to travel from Ruleville to the county courthouse in Indianola to attempt to register to vote. The group was traveling in an old yellow school bus previously used to transport cotton pickers. When they got to Indianola, a group of armed white men were milling around the courthouse. Many of the volunteers were fearful, but Mrs. Hamer began to sing out church songs in her powerful voice and calmed the fears of the volunteers, and perhaps also her own.
Mrs. Hamer was the first through the door at the registrar’s office. When the group left to head home, the bus was pulled over at the edge of town because the Indianola police said it was “too yellow” and the driver was arrested for driving a bus "the wrong color". Once again, Mrs. Hamer began to belt out religious songs and calmed the fears of her comrades. It was clear to Moses, who was on the bus, that Mrs. Hamer was the leader of the group.
When Mrs. Hamer arrived back at the plantation, B.D. Marlowe, the plantation owner, demanded that she retract her application to vote or face eviction. Mrs. Hamer refused to retract her application and she and her family were evicted from the plantation. Mr. Hamer, her husband, was forced to stay on the plantation until he brought in that year’s crop, but Mrs. Hamer was immediately kicked off the land. Mrs. Hamer moved in with a family friend in town. After a few days, Mr. Hamer had a premonition that Mrs. Hamer was in danger and surreptitiously moved her to another home. The next day a white man pumped 16 bullets into the home where Mrs. Hamer had been staying, barely missing the occupants.
Mrs. Hamer became a leader and full-time organizer within SNCC. Her ability to “speak plainly and persuasively impacted almost everyone who encountered her, especially SNCC workers, who paid careful attention to her arguments and were swayed by her charisma”. After becoming Field Secretary for SNCC, in 1963, Mrs. Hamer traveled by bus to a citizenship conference in Charleston, South Carolina, sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). While returning home, the bus stopped in Winona, Mississippi and some of the group entered a local café and were denied service. A Mississippi State patrolman came and demanded the activists leave. One member of the party took down the officer’s license plate number and, at that point, the local police chief arrested the entire party. Mrs. Hamer, who was still on the bus, exited the bus and when she asked if the rest of the party could continue to Greenwood, she was also arrested. In the county jail, Mrs. Hamer was viciously beaten- almost to the point of death- and sexually assaulted, as well, It took over a month, after her release on June 12, 1963, for Mrs. Hamer to partially recover. She was left with permanent damage to her left eye and one of her kidneys. She never fully recovered.
In 1964, Mrs. Hamer was a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) which was organized under the rules of the Democratic Party as an alternative to the lily-white “official” Mississippi Democratic Party. Mrs. Hamer and the MFDP delegation presented themselves to the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention as the legitimate Democratic Party representatives of the State of Mississippi. While Mrs. Hamer was testifying before the Credentials Committee on national television, President Lyndon Johnson heard her testimony and staged an impromptu press conference to drown out coverage of her story. After describing her brutal treatment at the hands of Mississippi law enforcement, she concluded by asking the committee, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we…[are] threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?" Mrs. Hamer’s testimony was so powerful that all three national networks ran her testimony again in primetime, blunting President Johnson’s attempt to silence her. At that point, Mrs. Hamer became a nationally known, and highly effective, voice for the Civil Rights Movement.
The MFDP challenge to the credentials of the “official” Mississippi Democratic Party ultimately failed, in 1964, because of opposition from President Johnson. But, by the spring of 1965, the momentum of the Mississippi movement carried over to the movement in Selma, Alabama. The brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was signed into law on August 6, 1965, less than a year after Mrs. Hamer’s testimony at the Democratic National Convention.
Mrs. Hamer’s fearlessness was on display when she made one of her most famous statements: “I'm gonna be standing up. I'm gonna be moving forward and, if they shoot me, I'm not going to fall back. I’m going to fall 5 feet 4 inches forward." Mrs. Hamer remained active until her health failed in the middle of the 1970s. She passed away at the relatively young age of 59.
Each of the women we highlighted in this series made a vital contribution to the interminable struggle against white supremacy. Pauli Murray became a premier legal scholar. Ella Baker became the consummate organizer. Fannie Lou Hamer became the voice of the people who had no voice. Each Ancestor made an invaluable contribution and earned immortal veneration.
"Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement" by Carole Boston Weatherford
"Fannie Lou Hamer: America's Freedom Fighting Woman" by Meagan Parker Brooks
"The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is" Edited by Meagan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck
"A Voice That Could Stir an Army: Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rhetoric of the Black Freedom Movement" by Meagan Parker Brooks
"Fannie Lou Hamer and the Right to Vote" by Penny Colman