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Fannie Lou Hamer

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Fannie Lou Hamer

When we discuss the Civil Rights Movement that took place between the 1940s and 1970s, specific activists like Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks are often the people who you hear about the most. While they were incredibly important, we tend to overlook other African Americans who fought for change. This article takes a closer look at Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer was a woman who was forcibly sterilized, fought for Black voting rights, and the economic advancement of African Americans.

Fannie Lou Hamer Biography

Fannie Lou Hamer, at the time Fannie Lou Townsend, was born in Montgomery County, Louisiana on October 16, 1917. Her family worked as sharecroppers during her childhood. Hamer began working on the farm when she was six. When she was eight, she witnessed mob violence against Joe Pullam, a fellow sharecropper. Pullam was violently murdered by a crowd of white people and parts of his body were left on display. Hamer never forgot this senseless act of white violence.

Sharecroppers:

A person who works on a farm owned by someone else. They pay half of their profit from the farm to the owner. Often, they ended up paying far more than half of the proceeds to the owner. This continued a cycle of poverty.

When Hamer was twelve, she dropped out of school to fully assist on the farm. No matter what her family did, they couldn't escape poverty. Her father, James, bought two mules for the farm. His white neighbors poisoned the mules and cows so that the Townsend family was kept impoverished.

Fannie Lou Hamer Fannie Lou Hammer StudySmarterFannie Lou Hamer, Source: Wikimedia.

In 1944, Hamer married Perry "Pap" Hamer. While she didn't graduate from school, she knew how to read and was the record keeper for the owner of the sharecrop farm where her husband worked. Hamer learned that the owner cheated the Black sharecroppers out of money by fixing the books. In response, she secretly began to fix the books in favor of the sharecroppers.

Fannie Lou Hamer Activism

If I am truly free, who can tell me how much of my freedom I can have today?"

-Fannie Lou Hamer

Hamer went to meetings held by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) where she learned about Black activism. Hamer began to lead voting campaigns and even went with seventeen African Americans to register to vote in 1962. When they arrived, only Hamer and one other person were allowed to register. Hamer failed the literacy test because they asked her confusing questions about the legislation.

Black Voter Suppression

African American men got the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment and Black women with the Nineteenth. They were often prohibited from registering and voting in the South with literacy tests, voter taxes, and grandfather laws. Literacy tests kept African Americans from voting because many of them were illiterate. The African Americans who could read were given confusing questions to keep them from passing the test. Voters had to pay a fee to vote, but if your ancestor could vote before the Fifteenth Amendment, then you could skip the literacy test and tax.

When Hamer failed the test, her group got on their bus to return home. They were stopped by a police officer and fined $100 for having a bus that was "too yellow." Hamer was fired from her sharecropping job because she wouldn't withdraw her voter application.

Hamer was living with a friend when people attempted to murder her. The house was shot fifteen times, luckily, Hamer was away at the time, and no one was hurt. In 1963, Hamer passed the literacy test, but was still unable to vote because she couldn't afford the poll tax.

Later that year, Hamer led a successful voter registration event. She and her group took the bus back to their homes that stopped at a segregated restaurant. Hamer and some of her companions went inside to eat. The bus driver called the police, who arrested Hamer and her companions, some of which didn't even go inside the restaurant.

Segregation:Separating people based on race

Hamer and her companions were kept in jail for three days, where they were viciously beaten. Hamer suffered a blood clot, which would forever damage her eye, kidneys, and legs. There was a trial for the cops who did this, but they were acquitted.

Fannie Lou Hamer Sterilization

Hamer needed to have a cyst in her stomach removed in 1961. When she awoke from her surgery, she found out that the doctors had sterilized her by removing her uterus. Hamer didn't give permission for this. This was so common that Hamer coined the term "Mississippi Appendectomy" to describe when a Black woman was sterilized without her permission. Six out of ten women would be forcibly sterilized when they had surgery in Mississippi.

Fannie Lou Hamer Speech

In 1964, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party with the goal of having African Americans in the political sphere. The group went to the Democratic National Convention and received many death threats. Hamer gave a testimony at the convention that President Lyndon B. Johnson felt was threatening. He thought it might break up the Southern Democratic coalition.

When Hamer gave her testimony, Johnson gave a press conference, hoping Hamer's testimony wouldn't be aired. People were curious why he was so afraid to let her speak, so the speech was replayed on different stations. This amplified Hamer's speech.

Fannie Lou Hamer Campaign Flyer StudySmarterSenate Campaign Flyer, Source: Wikimedia.

The convention offered a compromise, the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party could provide two delegates. They couldn't vote or sit with the white people, but they could attend the convention. Neither of the delegates could be Hamer. Their reason was that she was illiterate, which was blatantly false because Hamer could read.

The Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party rejected this arrangement and left. The convention was forced to diversify in 1968. Hamer was a member of the first integrated Democratic National Convention. Fannie Lou Hamer ran for Senate three times but was never elected. The first time, she wasn't included on the ballot. The second time, she was disqualified. The last time, she was allowed to run, but didn't win.

Fannie Lou Hamer Achievements

Just because people are fat, it doesn’t mean they are well fed. The cheapest foods are the fattening ones, not the most nourishing.”

-Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou was very proud of her Freedom Farm and pig programs. The Freedom Farm was funded by donations. It was 680 acres where African Americans could work together to farm and feed each other. There was a dollar a month due, but only thirty families could afford this payment. If a family couldn't pay, they weren't turned away.

There was a pig bank created for impoverished families. Pigs were purchased and bred, then when the piglets were big enough, they were sent to low-income families to eat. These programs were not federally backed and ended in the 1970s. She also led a program that built two hundred housing units for low-income families.

In 1965, Hamer had a court case about voter suppression in Mississippi. She won the case which was supposed to achieve equal voting rights in Mississippi. It also overturned the election results. Her testimony was considered when the Voting Rights Act was passed that same year.

Fannie Lou Hamer Fannie Lou Hammer StudySmarterFannie Lou Hamer, Source: Wikimedia.

Fannie Lou Hamer Cause of Death

Fannie Lou Hamer died in 1977 when she was 59 years old. She died after struggling for years with breast cancer. Hamer continued to be an activist until she wasn't capable of carrying on. She left a legacy of activism and Black empowerment. Many of the housing units that Hamer had built still stand today. She assisted many low-income families, encouraged voting, and challenged injustices that she saw in America.

Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five-feet four-inches forward in the fight for freedom."

-Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer - Key Takeaways

  • Fannie Lou Hamer was a Black rights activist who focused on voting rights and the economic success of African Americans.
  • Hamer was forcibly sterilized in 1961 and coined the term "Mississippi Appendectomy" to describe this process that happened to six out of ten Black women in Mississippi.
  • Hamer's speech at the Democratic National Convention was so important that the president tried to suppress the airing of the speech.
  • The Freedom Farms and pigs fed many low-income, African American families.

Frequently Asked Questions about Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer was partially responsible for the Voting Rights Act and economic advancement for African Americans within her community. 

Fannie Lou Hamer died in 1977 from breast cancer. She was 59. 

Fannie Lou Hammer was a civil rights activist during the Civil Rights Movement. She advocated for black economic advancement, voter rights, and the end of forced sterilization on African American women. 

Fannie Lou Hammer was an activist who was partially responsible for the Voting Rights Act. She led many voting campaigns, created the freedom farm, distributed pigs to impoverished families, and was responsible for 200 housing units being created for low-income families. 

Fannie Lou Hamer was forcibly sterilized in 1961. She had no biological children, but she and her husband, Perry, adopted two daughters. 

Final Fannie Lou Hamer Quiz

Question

What kind of work did Fannie Lou Hamer's family do?

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Answer

Sharecroppers 

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Question

Why wasn't Hamer allowed to vote?

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Answer

She couldn't pass the literacy test

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Question

Why was Hamer's bus fined?

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Answer

It was "to yellow"

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Question

Why was Hamer arrested and beaten?

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Answer

She ate in a white only restaurant 

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Question

What happened when Hamer had surgery in 1961?

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Answer

She was forcibly sterilized 

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Question

6/10 women of color were forcibly sterilized when they had surgery in Mississippi. 

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Answer

True

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Question

Which president tried to keep people from hearing Hamer's speech by calling an unnecessary press conference?

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Answer

Lyndon B. Johnson

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Question

What was the name of the farm that Hamer started to feed low income African American families?

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Answer

Freedom Farm

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Question

What was the name of the party that Hamer co-founded?

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Answer

Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party

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Question

What was a Mississippi Appendectomy?

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Answer

When a woman of color went to have a surgery and was forcibly sterilized 

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