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FANNIE LOU HAMER

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer is one of the strongest civil rights voices in America. One could interpret this in a literal sense too because she was also well known as a good singer and motivational speaker. She popularized the song This little light of mine, which she sang in almost all her speaking engagements. But unlike most other black civil rights activists who drew most of their support from their educated peers, Fannie Lou never had the luxury of a decent education. So she brought the common black person's viewpoint to the table, and needless to say drew tremendous grassroots support from them too. Her grassroots support was so strong that in 1963 she was courted by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee(SNCC or "snick") to assist in black community outreach. Eventhough the SNCC was made up of college students, Fannie Lou found herself more comfortable with them than other black civil rights organizations like the NAACP, which she felt exhibited some form of elitism, and was out of touch with "real" blacks. SNCC on the other hand embraced her whole-heartedly even with her less than perfect english grammar.

She was born Fannie Lou Townsend in Montgomery County, in the U.S. state of Mississippi on October 6th 1917 to Jim and Lou Ella Townsend. Her parents were sharecroppers which means they lived on the farm land and "shared" the produce with the land owner. Accounts of most black people who went through the sharecropping indicate however that this was anything but sharing. Most blacks were stiffed off their earnings by the white land-owners, with little or absolutely no room for recourse.

Fannie Lou was the last born of 20 children, 14 brothers and 5 sisters. Like most other black Mississsippi Delta residents, she grew up quite poor. She once described her childhood saying, "Life was worse than hard. It was horrible! We never did have enough to eat and I dont remember how old I was before I got my fisrt pair of shoes, but I was a big girl. Mama tried to keep our feet warm by wrapping them in rags and tying them with string." At the tender age of 6 she was already picking cotton, while her white agemates were enrolling in pre-school.

When her father began making some economic headway by saving enough money and buying 3 mules, 2 cows and some farm tools, some of their racist white neighbours poisoned his animals, sending them right back into poverty. This was characteristic of the deep racial hatred that blacks experienced at that time in Mississippi and other southern U.S. states. Sharecropper kids were allowed to attend school eventhough their school season was much shorter than for their white counterparts. School season for sharecropper kids only ran from December to March, leaving them working in cotton fields for the rest of the year. So Fannie Lou attended as much school as she could eventhough understandably she couldnt get much out of it. In 1929 then just 12, she was forced to quit school altogether after the great economic depression in the U.S. She could not attend school during the depression and instead stayed at home to help her family survive.

In 1944, then 27 years old, she married Perry Hammer or Pap as he was called. Pap was a tractor driver and a sharecropper at the same plantation Fannie Lou was working in Ruleville, Mississippi. At the time of their marriage, Fannie Lou had 3 jobs, picking cotton, time-keeping(recording each pickers work), and cleaning the plantation owner's house. She and Pap adopted two daughters, Dorothy Jean and Virgee Ree. The reason for this was Fannie Lou had been the victim of forced sterilization. This was a common practice carried out by whites on poor black women in the south in an effort to curtail an increase in the number of poor black kids---yes, another sickening reminder of the evils the institution of slavery represented.

Fannie Lou Hamer's political activities started in the 1960's, with the burgeoning of the civil rights movement in the U.S. On August 26th 1962, a group of Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC) and SNCC representatives came to a church meeting in Fannie Lou's hometown to urge black people in Mississippi to register to vote. They told the shocked congregation that as U.S. citizens, it was their birth right to vote in U.S. elections. Fannie Lou, alongside most of her fellow congregationers had never heard of such a thing before. She later said this about the church meeting, "I heard it was our right as human beings to register and vote. I didnt know black people could vote. Nobody ever told me." So when the SCLC and SCNC representatives asked for some volunteers to go to the courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi to register as voters, Fannie Lou jumped at the opportunity. Its also important to note here that just by making that move, she effectively put herself and her family in direct line of fire of hate groups like the KKK and even her white employer. There was also another element to this seemingly easy and straightfoward voter registration process; they had to pass the poll test before they could be registered as voters. The poll test was a literacy test that whites used to bar blacks from voting at that time. The white poll registrars were known to ask ridiculously hard questions that even they could not answer. One aspiring black voter for example was asked, "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" to which he later demanded an answer from the registrar. He never got an answer to the question and needless to say, was never registered as a voter too. But that was not everything. After the poll test hurdle, they had pay the poll tax before being allowed to vote. Most poor blacks could not afford the poll tax, making them ineligible to vote. So looking back at what these people had to go through just to cast a vote, one has no otherwise, but to appreciate the sacrifices that were made to enable the black vote today---sacrifices by Fannie Lou, her fellow congregationers and indeed all the the various civil rights organizations that fought it through.

On August 31st 1962, Fannie Lou and 17 other members of her church left for Indianola, Mississippi to register as voters. None of them passed the poll test and thus werent registered. On their way back home to Ruleville from Indianola, their bus was stopped by Mississippi state police on the frivolous charges that it was "too yellow" which made it look like a school bus. The bus driver was fined $100. None of them could come up with that amount but they raised some $30 which the officer took and let them go. Fannie Lou soon found trouble waiting for her at home because apparently, the voter registrar had called her employer and asked him to fire her if she did not withdraw her application to be registered to vote. Fannie Lou refused to withdraw her application and therefore lost her job. The loss of her job also meant she couldnt continue living on her employer's land and had to find some other place for accomodation. Her husband Pap was quite apprehensive about this at first but after seeing his wife's strong resolve, he threw his weight behind her. Needless to say, he too got booted out of the plantation after getting fired. Fannie Lou then moved in with Mr & Mrs Robert Tucker in Ruleville. Barely 10 days after she moved into the Tucker's house, 16 bullets were fired at it, forcing her to relocate again. She finally settled with her niece some 40 miles from Ruleville.

On December 3rd 1962 Fannie Lou and her family got tired of running and decided to come back to Ruleville, settling in a run-down 3-room house. The next day, December 4th, she went back to the courthouse in Indianola to complete her voter registration process. This time around there was little the registrar could threaten her with because she had already lost her job and her house. She managed to register a month later after passing the poll test. Threats to her personal and family safety however continued at her new residence in Ruleville after she registered to vote. At one time she even contemplated fleeing Mississippi altogether and moving up north, but as Booker T. Washington would have it, she decided to "cast her bucket where she was." In 1963 one SNCC leader Bob Moses invited her to attend the Annual SNCC Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Bob Moses was greatly impressed by Fannie Lou's grassroots organizational skills and not long after that, she was made SNCC's Field Secretary in Mississippi.

On June 9th 1963 Fannie Lou got in trouble with the law again. Coming back from a voter-education workshop in Tennessee, their bus took a stop at a bus station in Winona, Mississippi. 5 of her comrades got off the bus and went to use the restroom and get something to eat. The problem was this was a whites-only establishment. Before long all the bus riders including Fannie Lou were hauled to Winona jail cells by white police officers and beaten mercilessly. When other civil rights activists around the nation got word of Fannie Lou and her comrades' plight, they immediately demanded for their release. They were all finally released but the shocking thing was when they filed charges against the police officers, all the charges were dismissed by an all-white jury.

By 1964 she was already an established civil rights activist in the U.S. That year she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party(MFDP). The initial goal of MFDP was to try to change the political platform in Mississippi by getting more blacks involved in the political process. The summer of 1964 as you will remember, was also the most turbulent time in modern American politics. Race riots in America had become almost a routine event. This heated political atmosphere made its way into the 1964 Democratic National Convention held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At this convention, the mostly white delegates from Mississippi tried to block Fannie Lou's MFDP officials(mostly blacks) from being delegates. A fierce battle broke out between MFDP representatives and the other Mississippi delegates leading to a walkout by the MFDP. But that was not before Fannie Lou stole the Convention limelight with a powerful speech highlighting the plight of black people in America. The nationally televised speech touched a lot of people, including the Democratic Party's frontrunner Lyndon B. Johnson, who was cornered into coming up with some kind of compromise for the MFDP. The proposed compromise was that MFDP be given two "at large" delegates at the convention, "at large" meaning with no voting power. Fannie Lou rejected this compromise outrightly, comparing it to the deal they had back in Mississippi, where they had to seat at the back of the bus. She and her MFDP therefore walked out of the convention, but left a lasting impression on the Democratic Party big wigs. That same year she decided to run for congress but lost to a very powerful incumbent. She knew going into the campaign that she did not have a realistic chance of winning but she ran anyway, using the spotlight instead to highlight the black struggle.

In 1968 she was back again at the Democratic National Convention, this time in Chicago, Illinois. This time she came in as a delegate from the Mississippi Loyalist Democratic Party(MLDP), an offshoot of the MFDP. In 1968 the MLDP delegates were seated as full delegates unlike in 1964. In total Mississippi had 22 delegates at the convention, Fannie Lou being one of them. She again delivered a powerful speech at the '68 Convention drawing a standing ovation. From 1968 to 1971 she became a member of the Democratic National Committee, a bona fide party insider. But Fannie Lou was not your regular politician. She was someone full of compassion, which is strange given the harsh experiences she went through in life, from abject poverty, police brutality, forced sterilization, hate groups, just to mention but a few. You will be surprised that while she might have been the perfect candidate to lash out at white America, she was actually the voice of restraint to angry young black males (at the SNCC) tempted by violent retaliation.

In 1969 she bought some 40 acres of farm land in Mississippi and started the Freedom Farm Cooperative(FFC). The idea behind FFC was to help poor people, both white and black grow crops and build decent houses for themselves---something she never experienced as a kid. Her favourite line was "Hunger has no colour line." In 1969 she received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Morehouse College along with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and then U.S. President Hubert Humphrey. By 1971 she had raised enough funds to buy 640 acres of farmland for her FFC. In 1971 she was elected to the Central Committee of the National Women's Political Caucus, confirming her status as one of the most respected women in America. Even then, she never forgot her roots and to that end, continued working hard to provide low cost day care centers and cheap housing for poor people. In 1976, blacks and whites in Ruleville, Mississippi joined hands to honour Fannie Lou by celebrating Fannie Lou Hamer Day. This had huge symbolism--a black life celebrated in rural Mississippi, with white people in the mix too!!! Fannie Lou must have been someone special!!!

Fannie Lou died of cancer on March 14th 1977. She was 59 at the time of her death. 2 separate funeral services were held for her in Ruleville, a closed one for family and friends and the other open to the public. Her funeral drew dignitaries from all over the world; not bad at all for a poor black girl straight out of the Mississippi Delta.

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