– L. Arthalia Cravin
Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Alabama in 1917. She died of breast cancer in 1977 at the age of 59. Her head stone contains her now famous remark: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
For more than half of her life, Fannie Lou Hamer worked as a rural agricultural worker. When she was two years old her family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi, where she resided for the rest of her life. At the age six she joined other family members working as a sharecropper picking cotton. By the time she was 13 she could pick between two and three hundred pounds of cotton a day. The condition of African Americans in the South caused Fannie Lou to wonder why they had to suffer such hardship while working so hard. In spite of her circumstances Fannie was able to attend school for a few months each year until she reached the sixth grade. After her formal schooling ended, she continued to study and read the Bible under the direction of teachers at the Stranger’s Home Baptist Church. Fannie’s religious beliefs and training were dominant influences during her entire life. She regularly prayed that someday she would have the opportunity to do something to improve the condition of African Americans in Mississippi.
What Fannie Lou came to know from experience was that there no end to the cycle of poverty and humiliation that was the plight of most southern African Americans. Instead of resigning herself to a lifetime of the near-slavery existence of her parents, Fannie Lou took action. In 1962, when Fannie Lou was in her mid-forties, her life changed drastically. She was invited to attend a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting at a church near her home. SNCC was founded in 1960 by a group of young African Americans who used direct action such as sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience as a means of ending segregation in the South. When Fannie Lou heard the SNCC presentation she was convinced that the powerlessness of African Americans was based to a degree on their complacency and fear of white reprisals. She decided that no matter what the cost, she should try to register to vote. Though her first attempts to pass the voter registration test were unsuccessful they nevertheless resulted in the loss of her job and threats of violence against her and those who attempted to register with her for trying to alter the status quo. Fannie Lou suffered dearly for her decisions to stand up and fight back.
Fannie Lou became the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The Freedom Democratic Party sought to be seated at the convention but was rebuffed. Fannie Lou’s famous words were these: “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America,” she said. “Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook, because our lives be threatened daily.” She then recounted the abuse that she had suffered in retaliation for attending a civil rights meeting. “They beat me and they beat me with the long, flat black-jack. I screamed to God in pain….” The convention offered the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party 2 seats, to which Fannie Lou rebuked, “We didn’t come here for no two seats.”
In 1965 Fannie Lou and two other women ran for Congress and challenged the seating of the regular Mississippi representatives before the U.S. House of Representatives. Though they were unsuccessful in their challenge, the 1965 elections were later overturned. Fannie Lou continued to be politically active and from 1968 to 1971 was a member of the Democratic National Committee from Mississippi. Fannie Lou was also a catalyst in the development of various programs to aid the poor in her community, including the Delta Ministry, an extensive community development program, and the Freedom Farms Corporation in 1969, a non-profit operation designed to help needy families raise food and livestock, provide social services, encourage minority business opportunities, and offer educational assistance. In 1970 Fannie Lou became chair of the board of Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center, an organization established by the National Council of Negro Women. She also served as a member of the boards of the Sunflower County Day Care and Family Services Center and Garment Manufacturing Plant. She became a member of the policy council of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, and from 1974 to 1977 was a member of the board of trustees of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Fannie Lou Hamer lived her life as an “underdog.” Her story is one of overcoming not only racial and gender barriers, but also physical abuse of the worst kind. Yet Fannie Lou fought on. I have yet to see find anywhere in the history books that America pulled for “this underdog.” Maybe America would have pulled for her and the causes she fought for if she had sat on a bench and waited for a coach to send her in to play basketball.
Copyright 2012 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.