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Mississippi Monday: Exploring The Legacy of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer

Updated: Mar 19

Activist. Organizer. Singer. Fannie Lou Hamer was a pivotal civil rights leader born in 1917 in Montgomery County as the final and 20th child of Lou Ella and James Townsend who were sharecroppers. Her family would relocate to Sunflower County in 1919 to work as sharecroppers on E.W. Brandon Plantation where she would join her parents and siblings in the fields by age 6.

Although her literacy afforded her some relative upward mobility, Hamer’s life would still be very reflective of her family’s linkages to the land as Black Mississippians. 

Most of us were taught the genesis of the legacy of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer began when she organized during Freedom Summer, or when she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party or when she said she was "sick and tired of being sick and tired", but she already had been organizing around reproductive rights way before the national stage.

In 1961, Mrs. Hamer would have her bodily autonomy violated at the age of 44 when she went to have a minor surgery, to remove a uterine tumor, now known as a fibroid. During her surgery doctors deemed her as an unfit woman and conducted a hysterectomy.

This procedure that often happened to Black women in The South and, specifically Mississippi; who would have their reproductive organs taken from them through eugenics campaigns of forced sterilizations without consent while under anesthesia.

"[Fannie Lou] Hamer coined the term “Mississippi Appendectomy” to describe the harmful medical practice of forced sterilizations of poor, Black women deemed unfit to reproduce." - Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

After her experience Mrs. Hamer began to spread awareness about the things happening in her community. She talked to other women around her. Hamer found that 3/5 of all Black women from her community Sunflower County, Mississippi underwent unwanted sterilization (Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis).

Just one year later on August 12, 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer's civil rights path is ignited with an invitation from her friend Mary Tucker, she attended a civil rights gathering at a small local church.

It was there, as she listened to speeches by James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and James Forman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, that she was profoundly impacted. Hamer was introduced, for the first time, to her civil rights entitlements—and she resolved to act on them immediately.

Just four days later, alongside 18 others, she journeyed to Indianola, the Sunflower County seat, in an attempt to register to vote.

During her life Hamer worked to increase the visibility of the realities of suppression for Black Mississippians within the state and abroad. After organizing to register other Black farmers and sharecroppers, on June 9, 1963 she and others were jailed and tortured by the police officers in Winona, Mississippi in the Montgomery county jail. She later testified that she was beaten, “until her body was hard.”

Despite a month-long recovery and lifelong disability following the incident in the Montgomery County jail, Hamer’s drive could not be stopped. This moment would launch her deeper into her work as a social advocate.

We all know the quote, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It is often called ‘the quote heard around the world’. It has been touted as a catalyst within the Civil Rights Movement due to the notoriety Hamer garnered at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

There, she gave her testimony about her experiences attempting to register Black people to vote. She spoke out against the practice of barring Black people from participating as delegates, due to Hamer and others’ work on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which was founded by Fannie Lou Hamer along with James W. Wright, Ella Baker, and Bob Moses in response to the disenfranchisement of roughly 80,000 eligible voters as an extension of protest during the Freedom Summer Project of 1963.

This marked a significant shift in the Civil Rights Movement by highlighting the unconstitutional treatment of Black communities across the nation with Mississippians at the forefront. Despite efforts to have her voice silenced by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who interrupted the live viewing from the Convention with an "emergency broadcast" during her speech; her words persisted.

Did you know Fannie Lou Hamer ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and the MS State Senate in 1971?

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With an echoing singing voice that resonated against walls of oppression, Hamer would continue to work to highlight the plight of Black women and others within her community that were underserved and overlooked systemically through her campaigning and voter registration initiatives.

Her legacy as an orator and political activist that could sway the masses of the nation is unparalleled. She would continue to tour the country garnering support while also fighting for the rights of Black Mississippians who were being systemically disenfranchised by the state. Hamer advocated not only for herself, but for her community and others like it.

Did you know Hamer co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, an org created to recruit, train, and support women who wanted to run for gov. office?

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She traveled knowing the risks her outspoken and unabashed stance on civil rights could have for her. Regardless, Hamer sang on and continued to help Black Americans gain more political visibility through not only voting, but socially organizing to demand their human rights. 

While she is frequently remembered for being a captivating orator and activist Hamer also never strayed far from her origins. Born into sharecropping Hamer would always have an intimate relationship with the land she worked on.

In 1969 Hamer would create the Freedom Farm Cooperative with a $10,000 donation from Measure for Measure, a charitable organization based in Wisconsin, where she would buy land for local farmers to work on using cash crops to generate funding for taxes and redistributing fresh produce to the families that worked the land.

Credit: From Fannie Lou Hamer's America website

The Freedom Farm Cooperative impacted over 1,500 families, at one point is was the largest employer in Sunflower County. The co-op membership cost was $1 a month, but even at that price only 30 families could officially afford dues, but she still provided resources to families that couldn't afford membership. Using what she learned during her organizing years, Mrs. Fannie Lou understood the only way to instill real change, it had to happen from the bottom up.

Hamer also built 200 low-income units on the land to ensure people had access to affordable housing. In 1970, the co-op purchased an additional 640 acres for cultivation.

"All the qualifications that you have to have to become part of the co-op is you have to be poor." - Fannie Lou Hamer

In conjunction with other efforts such as her Pig Bank, also in Ruleville, Sunflower County, Mississippi, Hamer would help give hundreds access to better ways to sustain themselves. She is quoted saying,

"The time has come now when we are going to have to get what we need ourselves. We may get a little help, here and there, but in the main we’re going to have to do it ourselves..."

Hamer knew that in order to have liberation that people needed to be able to care for themselves through their own self determination.

Her desire to educate those in her community on the importance of food justice is reflective of her experience as the child of sharecroppers who worked land that they could not sustain themselves on. Although the organization was disbanded due to divestment from government and local officials Hamer's efforts would leave a lasting impact upon those in her community wanting to break free from the sharecropping system to start their own farms or seek alternate employment through education.

We honor Fannie Lou Hamer and her legacy of fighting for civil and reproductive rights for all people, but especially for Black Mississippians. While her contemporaries would often disregard her sentiments or deny her ability to make her seem like another angry, disgruntled Black woman, we know that she was not only within her right to be upset at the treatment she experienced, but she was more than that.

She was someone that cared deeply for her family, her community, and would often be a source of comfort and strength for those who would endure alongside her. She was jailed, beaten, and tossed aside and still chose to stand in the face of overt state violence to demand that she be seen as the person that she was. Her work resounds today as we continue to demand we be fully seen as we are; people with dreams, aspirations, hopes, and possibilities yet to come. 

If you would like to explore more about the legacy of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, please engage with Fannie Lou Hamer's America, an original documentary film told through the public speeches, personal interviews, and powerful songs of the fearless Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. On the website you can learn about current initiatives like the Sunflower County Film Academy, see important landmarks in a curated driving tour, and photos all produced with Mrs. Hamer's great niece, Monica Land.

To learn more feel free to use our sources below:

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