Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer

(1917-1977)

DJ Name: DJ Shake Ur Fannie

Have you been strollin’ to the polls yet so that you can flex your God-given/15th Amendment/19th Amendment/26th Amendment right to vote this week? We sure did, and you better have, too! It wasn’t so long ago that giant segments of the country’s population had no legal right to vote, and even now there remain many challenges and hurdles that make it hard for certain groups — particularly Blacks and Latinos — to flex their voting rights at the polls. However, we’ve come a long way from the days when only property-owning white dudes were allowed to cast a ballot. 

One of the people we have to thank for this progress is Fannie Lou Hamer, who worked her fanny off to get not only herself to the polls, but everyone else too. So the next time you dare to not vote, think about the sacrifices Fannie Lou made that allow you and others to flex your right to vote and get your derriere to the polls.

When Fannie Lou fought in the Civil Rights movement and trekked people across counties to cast their ballots, she shuffled up this playlist to encourage her compatriots to get patriotic and pump up the jams:

Fannie Lou — the 20th (woof!) and final (phew!) child in her family — was born on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery, Mississippi, to Lou Ella and James Townsend. Lou Ella and James were sharecroppers, and the whole family worked on a cotton plantation owned by W.D. Marlow. Fannie Lou joined her fam in the fields when she was 6, but she continued to go to school, too, during the winters between picking seasons. Fannie Lou buzzed her way to the top in spelling bees, wrote poetry and generally excelled as a student. However, she had to leave school permanently when she was 12 to help her aging parents in the fields full-time. But thanks to her jaunt in early education, Fannie Lou could read and write — the only member of her family who could do so — which earned her the role of plantation timekeeper. Once, some of the Townsend family’s livestock were poisoned, and Fannie Lou suspected local racists were the culprits. “White people never like to see Negroes get a little success,” Fannie Lou said, noting that this was common practice in Mississippi when Black families began to prosper. 

In 1944, Fannie Lou married Perry Hamer AKA “Pap,” who worked as a tractor driver on Marlow’s plantation. Fannie Lou and Pap wanted to have children, but those plans never panned out. Her two pregnancies sadly ended in stillbirths. In 1961, Fannie Lou underwent surgery to have a uterine tumor removed. However, her doctor, who was white, performed a hysterectomy on her without her consent, thus removing her uterus and eliminating her ability to have children. The forced sterilization of Black women during this era was disturbingly common, particularly in the South, and its intended effect was to curb the size of the Black population. However, Pap and Fannie Lou were not deterred and they instead opted to adopt two girls and build a family with them.

Fannie Lou’s forced sterilization was one of many life events that led her down a road of activism. The same year as her operation, Fannie Lou attended a meeting led by Civil Rights activists where they discussed the efforts that had been put in place to bar Blacks from voting in elections. Fannie Lou was ready to put up a civil fight for her civil rights, and she signed up as an organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). On August 31, 1962, Fannie Lou led 17 others on a bus ride to Indianola, the county seat of Sunflower County, Mississippi. The goal was to register the crew as “first class citizens,” but only Fannie Lou and a man named Ernest Davis were allowed into the clerk’s office to register. Both were then forced to take a literacy test, which tended to be unfairly confusing and one wrong answer meant no voting rights for you. Think you could pass one of those literacy tests? Think again. You can see some examples of them here

All right, back to Fannie Lou and Ernest, who also had to tell the clerk where they lived and for whom they worked. But this info wasn’t kept confidential. Nay, in the great state of Mississippi, this info was given out to the KKK whose members would then (unexpectedly!! What?!) show up at Black voters’ homes and intimidate them, or worse. However, Fannie Lou and Ernest both failed the literacy test after failing to answer a question about “de facto” laws. Do you know anything about de facto laws? Hmmm, didn’t think so, good thing you don’t have to take a literacy test to vote, huh! And to add insult to injury, Fannie Lou and her bus-riding companions were pulled over on their trek back home and fined $100 because their bus was “too yellow.” While aboard the bus as they awaited their fine and sat anxiously uncertain of what their futures held, Hamer began to sing soothing spiritual songs like “This Little Light of Mine.” Her leadership during this time of turmoil caught the attention of the SNCC leaders, and later that year she was invited to Nashville for a conference at Fisk University and returned home as an official community organizer for the group. 

But wait! Before she even went to Nashville, the insults and injuries kept comin’ because W.D. Marlow (the plantation owner, in case you’d forgotten) fired Fannie Lou for even trying to be a free, vote-wieldin’ woman. She told Marlow, “I didn’t go down there to register for you. I went down there to register for myself.” Marlow confiscated the Hamer family’s property, too, and they moved their now very small assortment of possessions to Ruleville in Sunflower County. Pap had to stay back on the plantation to finish his work through harvest season however Fannie Lou departed and went to stay with a variety of family and friends before settling into one home. Her attempt to register to vote of course did not go unnoticed by the white supremacist community so much so that a group visited her home and shot at it 16 times. Thankfully nobody was injured, but she wasn’t safe to stay in one place so continued to play her game of musical houses out of fear that the group would return to terrorize her again. 

Nevertheless she persisted and by the next year, Fannie Lou levelled up to field secretary for the SNCC and traveled around the US of A speaking to crowds, registering people to vote and encouraging those who are registered to get off their fannies and #vote. “I’m Fannie and I say get off your ole’ fanny and twerk it, werk it to your nearest polling place.” That was what she was known to say to hype crowds up to fill out their ballots, in case you didn’t know. It’s like a really popular historical quote (OK, maybe not). While on the road, Fannie Lou also collected and handed out resources such as food and clothes to impoverished families who lived mainly across the Deep South. Unfortunately, though, Fannie’s good work to encourage fellow citizens to exercise their civic duties to the max was not appreciated by all. She was met with many a hater and threats, and even violence sometimes from none other than those trouble-making segregating white supremacists who ~sucked~. And in June 1963, Fannie Lou came face to face with her opposers when she and several other activists were arrested. 

The group attended a citizenship training program in Charleston, S.C., so they had a long trip back to Mississippi. Naturally, as one does when on a road trip, the bus pulled over for a pit stop so people can, ya know, grab a snack, use the bathroom. Regular things. However in the Jim Crow South, what should’ve been a break turned out to be a confrontation. Some members of the group sat at the bus station’s whites-only lunch counter and were refused service. The waitress called the police. They were arrested. Hamer, who was on the bus, stepped off to ask if they could continue their journey back home as no trouble was had and in response, Fannie Lou herself was arrested. The officers couldn’t believe that this group would defy segregation laws and took them to the Winona Jailhouse. 

While there, Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten so badly that she lived the rest of her life with permanent kidney damage, a leg injury and a blood clot in her left eye. She said, “They beat me till my body was hard, till I couldn’t bend my fingers or get up when they told me to. That’s how I got this blood clot in my left eye—the sight’s nearly gone now. And my kidney was injured from the blows they gave me in the back.” She was released from prison a few days later on June 12, 1963 and resumed her work. Nothing could stop her from increasing voter turnout from the African-American community and rallying people to know their rights which, in her case, was that they could vote and have an impact on American democracy — a democracy that actively worked to exclude their community from the narrative with separate facilities, loophole rules and even violence. 

The next year, in 1964, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). This group challenged the local Democratic Party’s effort to block voter registration and participation from the African-American community. As a reminder, tactics to bar minority voter registration included not-so-lit literacy tests and poll (not “pole” if you know you know) taxes. In 1963, only 5% of Mississippi’s 450,000 African American residents were registered. Fannie Lou Hamer was committed to raising that percentage, hence the creation of the MFDP to ensure greater Black representation in the Democratic Party. Fannie herself decided to run for Congress later that year on the MFDP ticket against Democratic incumbent Jamie L. Whitten. It took the woman three times to pass the literacy test in order to become a registered voter a year prior in Mississippi, and now there she was, reaching higher despite the odds being against her. The Democratic Party even refused to have her name on the official ballot; however, the MFDP planned and hosted mock election events with her name on “Freedom Ballots.”

At the Democratic National Convention, Fannie Lou had neither notes nor a script. She spoke off the cuff and nailed it for 13 minutes straight. She called for integrated political parties, voting equality and — then! — half way through her televised speech, President Lyndon B(utt in) Johnson, interrupted the DNC program with his own press conference. Joke’s on him, though, because news stations just aired her segment in the evening. Throughout her speech, she showed the receipts of violence and injustice faced by herself and other Civil Rights activists, and even highlighted her own experience in jail. In summary, she basically said that the United States can’t stake a claim in democracy if it’s withholding voting rights from millions of citizens as well as segregating thousands of places. Hamer’s speech caught the ears of citizens and politicians across the nation. So much so that Senator Hubert Humphrey proposed a compromise on LBJ’s behalf that would give the MFDP two at-large seats as long as Hamer didn’t get one (uh?). Humphrey explained, “The president has said he will not let that illiterate woman speak on the floor of the Democratic convention.” In response, the MFDP rejected this “compromise,” and Hamer said, “We didn’t come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here. We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired.” 

However, Fannie Lou Hamer’s appearance at the DNC did kick-start events that led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices like those literacy tests which blocked African-Americans from the polls. You go, Fannie Lou! Following its passage, the number of African-Americans registered to vote in Mississippi increased from 28,000 to 280,000 and (!) the number of African-American elected officials in the South more than doubled from 72 to 159 after the 1966 elections. Throughout her time working with the MFDP, Fannie Lou Hamer engaged with people of all ages. One summer came to be called the “Freedom Summer” during which hundreds of college students of all races were brought to Mississippi to lend a hand in helping get more Black citizens registered to vote. And in response to any opposition against her integrated movement, she said, “If we’re trying to break down this barrier of segregation, we can’t segregate ourselves.” 

Fannie Lou returned to the political ring a few times more over the years, and lost both races. She never stopped her work, though, and continued to be an active AF activist on the front lines getting people to register, to go to the polls and to nix segregation. She established Freedom Farms in 1969, which was a community-based rural and economic development project for Black residents in Mississippi in response to high poverty rates. The goal was to buy up land that would be owned and operated collectively. She also created a pig bank, which provided free pigs for Black farmers to breed, raise and slaughter. And, she became a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which still to this day promotes women politicians. Let’s just say that the woman was nonstop. 

That was, up until the late 1970s when her breast cancer set in. Sadly, Fannie Lou Hamer passed away on March 14, 1977 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. She dedicated her whole life fighting for people to show up, to vote and to realize that we all are given protected constitutional rights that we can exercise daily, monthly, yearly and so on — you get the pattern, and so did Fannie Lou as she belted out the power of the ballot cast by American citizens until her end. 

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