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Fannie Lou Hamer, the youngest of twenty children, was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, on 6th October, 1936. A sharecropper, Hamer did not know that African Americans could vote until she attended a a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting at a church in Ruleville. When Hamer attempted to register to vote, she was arrested and jailed. The next day her landlord told her that if she did not withdraw her request to vote, she would be forced off her land. Hamer responded by becoming an active member of the SNCC.
After losing her work on the plantation, Hamer was employed as a field secretary of the SNCC and in 1963 she was instrumental in establishing the Delta Ministry, an extensive community development program. During the Freedom Summer campaign she helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Hamer became a national figure when at the Democratic Party national convention she made a passionate speech challenging the seating of the regular all-white Mississippi delegation.
In 1968 Hamer founded the Freedom Farms Corporation (FFC) a non-profit venture designed to help poor farming families. It also provided social services and grants for education. Fannie Lou Hamer died in Mound Bayou, Mississippi on 14th March 1977.
My life has been almost like my mother's was, because I married a man who sharecropped. We didn't have it easy and the only way we could ever make it through the winter was because Pap had a little juke joint and we made liquor. That was the only way we made it. I married in 1944 and stayed on the plantation until 1962 when I went down to the courthouse in Indianola to register to vote. That happened because I went to a mass meeting one night.
Until then I'd never heard of no mass meeting and I didn't know that a Negro could register and vote. Bob Moses, Reggie Robinson, Jim Bevel and James Forman were some of the SNCC workers who ran that meeting. When they asked for those to raise their hands who'd go down to the courthouse the next day, I raised mine. Had it up as high as I could get it. I guess if I'd had any sense I'd a-been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.
Well, there was eighteen of us who went down to the courthouse that day and all of us were arrested. Police said the bus was painted the wrong color - said it was too yellow. After I got bailed out I went back to the plantation where Pap and I had lived for eighteen years. My oldest girl met me and told me that Mr. Marlow, the plantation owner, was mad and raising sand. He had heard that I had tried to register. That night he called on us and said, "We're not going to have this in Mississippi and you will have to withdraw. I am looking for your answer, yea or nay?" I just looked. He said, "I will give you until tomorrow morning. And if you don't withdraw you will have to leave. If you do go withdraw, it's only how I feel, you might still have to leave." So I left that same night. Pap had to stay on till work on the plantation was through. Ten days later they fired into Mrs. Tucker's house where I was staying. They also shot two girls at Mr. Sissel's.
I've worked on voter registration here ever since I went to that first mass meeting. In 1964 we registered 63,000 black people from Mississippi into the Freedom Democratic Party. We formed our own party because the whites wouldn't even let us register. We decided to challenge the white Mississippi Democratic Party at the National Convention. We followed all the laws that the white people themselves made. We tried to attend the precinct meetings and they locked the doors on us or moved the meetings and that's against the laws they made for their ownselves. So we were the ones that held the real precinct meetings. At all these meetings across the state we elected our representatives to go to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. But we learned the hard way that even though we had all the law and all the righteousness on our side - that white man is not going to give up his power to us.
The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer was a force to be reckoned with. After working as a sharecropper for most of her life, once she learned of her constitutional right to vote, she never stopped working for equal voting rights for all.
Hamer's life was filled with hardships. When her parents earned enough money to purchase their own livestock, their animals were poisoned by white people in the community. A minor surgery turned into a forced sterilization. After an arrest for attempting to integrate lunch counters at bus stations on interstate routes, an act that was legal "given the ICC 1961 ban on segregated interstate travel facilities," Hamer was beaten within an inch of her life and suffered from lifelong health problems as a result of the beatings.
But despite everything she faced, Hamer kept fighting until her final days. And she did so with a passion. She'd always start singing "whenever times seemed most dire," whether it was as she was being arrested, in a jail cell, or at the DNC. A visit to Guinea inspired the notion of the anti-colonial struggle that she was engaged in, and Hamer described the trip as "one of the proudest moments of my life."
All her life, Hamer said she was "sick and tired of being sick and tired." One can only hope that she's found the rest she deserves. This is the tragic real-life story of Fannie Lou Hamer.
In honor of Black History Month (February) and International Women’s Day (March 8), we honor black disabled women who have had a powerful impact.
Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) is known for her work in helping blacks escape from slavery in the South to freedom in the North. As a teenager, she was hit in the head with a weight that was hurled at another slave and developed epilepsy, which caused seizures, headaches, and visions. Some say she also had narcolepsy. She was very short (5 feet tall) and considered disabled by slave owners, which may have made her seem an unlikely reason for slaves escaping.
Claudia Gordon currently serves as an adviser on disability issues to President Obama, in the White House Office of Public Engagement. She is the first Black Deaf lawyer in the U.S. and the first deaf student to graduate from American University’s law school. She has advocated for deaf and disabled people through work at the National Council on Disability, Homeland Security (where she worked on emergency preparedness for people with disabilities), and the National Coalition for Disability Rights.
Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) became the first African-American to serve in the Texas Senate in 1967, and in 1973 she became the first African-American woman from a Southern state to serve in Congress. She was also the first black woman to give the keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. She had multiple sclerosis (MS). She worked for voting rights and minimum wage laws, and was considered a leader in the civil rights movement.
Sylvia Walker (1937-2004) was Director of the Center for Disability and Socioeconomic Policy Studies and the Howard University Research and Training Center. She served as Vice-Chair of the President’s Committee’s on the Employment of People with Disabilities. She was a champion for disability rights and her research helped lead to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Betty Williams is a former president of Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), an organization of people with intellectual/developmental disabilities. She has served as president of People First of Indiana and has coordinated consumer education and training with the Arc of Indiana.
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was a civil rights activist who helped African-Americans register to vote and co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Like many poor blacks at that time, she was sterilized without her knowledge or consent. Hamer had polio as a child. She protested in the face of heavy opposition and was beaten in a Mississippi jailhouse, which caused kidney damage and a limp. She is known for saying, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!”
Jazzie Collins (1958-2013) was a powerful San Francisco black transgender activist who fought for the rights of seniors, people with disabilities, LGBT people, and people of color. She served on San Francisco’s first LGBT Aging Policy Task Force and was active with our very own Senior and Disability Action, and previously Senior Action Network.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) defined herself as a Black Lesbian Feminist Mother Warrior Poet. She wrote Sister Outsider, The Cancer Journals and several other works of poetry and prose. When she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer she refused to wear a prosthesis stating, “Either I love my body one-breasted now, or remain forever alien to myself.”
Lois Curtis is a black artist and activist with a mental health disability and intellectual/developmental disability. During her childhood and early adulthood, she lived in state-run institutions, and her requests to live in the community were repeatedly denied. She sued the state of Georgia, and her case went to the Supreme Court. In the now-famous L.C. v. Olmstead decision, the Court declared that Curtis and other people with disabilities have a right to live in the community and to be provided adequate supports. The Court said the unnecessary institutionalization is a form of segregation and is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Curtis now lives in the community.
Johnnie Lacy (1937-2010) was a leader in the independent living movement and fought for the rights of people with disabilities, especially people of color. She led Community Resources for Independent Living, a nonprofit in Hayward providing services and advocacy. Lacy spoke of being excluded from the Black community due to her disability and from the disability community due to being a person of color. As a Black woman in a wheelchair, she educated her communities about race and disability and served as a role model for many other Black disabled women.
Dr. Nathie Marbury (1944-2013) was the first Black deaf woman to enter the National Leadership Training Program for the Deaf at California State University, Northridge and the first Black deaf female teacher at the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School for the Deaf in Washington, DC. Through teaching and advocacy, she shared her passion for American Sign Language and Deaf culture.
Pat Parker (1944-1989) was a Black lesbian feminist poet with breast cancer. She wrote about identity and pride. She was involved with the Black Panther Party, the Women’s Press Collective, and gay and lesbian organizing.
If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, “No, you stay home tonight, you won’t be welcome,” because I’m going to an all-white party where I can be gay, but not Black. Or I’m going to a Black poetry reading, and half the poets are antihomosexual, or thousands of situations where something of what I am cannot come with me. The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution. – Movement in Black, by Pat Parker
America’s Forgotten History of Forced Sterilization
In early September, a nurse working at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Georgia came forward with shocking allegations of medical neglect and abuse, claiming that numerous involuntary hysterectomies (uterus removal surgeries) were performed on detained immigrant women. This allegation understandably evoked fury and outrage among the general public, with numerous people denouncing it as a human rights violation and yet another example of the current administration’s cruelty towards women and immigrants. Many people, including prominent liberal politicians and public figures, viewed it as something distinctly un-American and at odds with our country’s values — a common refrain that echoed in response to the allegation was “This isn’t the America I know.” There were countless comparisons to Nazi Germany and other totalitarian, human rights-abusing regimes, as well as a pervasive sense that the United States was engaging in a uniquely cruel and unprecedented act. Unfortunately, this is a misleading impression.
While the allegations against ICE are undoubtedly horrific and must be investigated, they are not at all unprecedented or un-American — in fact, they are very American. The United States has a long, egregious, and largely unknown history of eugenics and forced sterilization, primarily directed towards poor women, disabled women, and women of color.
The American eugenics movement originated in the late 1800s and has always been undeniably based in racism and nativism. The word “eugenics” originally referred to the biological improvement of human genes, but was used as a pseudoscience to justify discriminatory and destructive acts against supposedly undesirable people, such as extremely restrictive immigration laws, anti-miscegenation laws, and forced sterilization. The ultimate goal of the eugenics movement was to “breed out” undesirable traits in order to create a society with a “superior” genetic makeup, which essentially meant reducing the population of the non-white and the mentally ill. The eugenics movement was widely accepted in American society well into the 20th century, and was not at all relegated to the fringes of society like one might expect. In fact, most states had federally funded eugenics boards , and state-ordered sterilization was a common occurrence. Sterilization was seen as one of the most effective ways to stem the growth of an “undesirable” population, since ending a woman’s reproductive capabilities meant that she would no longer be able to contribute to the population.
The Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell (1927) decided that a Virginia law authorizing the mandatory sterilization of inmates in mental institutions was constitutional. Carrie Buck, a “feeble minded woman” whose mental illness had been in her family for the past three generations, was committed to a state mental institution and was set to undergo a sterilization procedure which required a hearing. The Supreme Court found that the Virginia law was valuable and did not violate the Constitution, and would prevent the United States from “being swamped with incompetence…Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” The Court has never explicitly overturned Buck v. Bell .
California’s “Asexualization Acts” in the 1910s and 1920s led to the sterilization of 20,000 disproportionately Black and Mexican people who were deemed to be mentally ill. Hitler and the Nazis were reportedly inspired by California’s laws when formulating their own genocidal eugenics policies in the 1930s. When discussing the Asexualization Acts of California, Hitler wrote , “There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of citizenship] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”
Throughout the 20th century, nearly 70,0000 people (overwhelmingly working-class women of color) were sterilized in over 30 states. Black women, Latina women, and Native American women were specifically targeted. From the 1930s to the 1970s, nearly one-third of the women in Puerto Rico , a U.S. territory, were coerced into sterilization when government officials claimed that Puerto Rico’s economy would benefit from a reduced population. Sterilization was so common that it became known as “ La Operación (The Operation)” among Puerto Ricans.
Black women were also disproportionately and forcibly sterilized and subjected to reproductive abuse. In North Carolina in the 1960s, Black women made up 65 percent of all sterilizations of women, although they were only 25 percent of the population. One Black woman who was subjected to a forced hysterectomy during this time was Fannie Lou Hamer, a renowned civil rights activist. Hamer described how nonconsensual sterilizations of working-class Black women in the South were so common that they were colloquially known as a “Mississippi appendectomy”.
Additionally, many Native American women were sterilized against their will. According to a report by historian Jane Lawrence, the Indian Health Service was accused of sterilizing nearly 25% of Indigenous women during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1973, the year that Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, supposedly ensuring reproductive rights for all American women, the reproductive rights of thousands of Indigenous women were entirely ignored as they were forcibly sterilized.
Forced sterilization, especially in exchange for a sentence reduction, occurs often in the criminal legal system today. Government-sanctioned efforts to prevent incarcerated people from reproducing were widespread in the 20th century, and still continue today. In 2017 , a judge in Tennessee offered to reduce the jail sentences of convicted people who appeared before him in court if they “volunteered” to undergo sterilization. In 2009 , a 21-year-old woman in West Virginia convicted of marijuana possession underwent sterilization as part of her probation. In 2018, an Oklahoma woman convicted of cashing a counterfeit check received a reduced sentence after undergoing sterilization at the suggestion of the judge. According to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, almost 150 women considered likely to return to prison were sterilized in California prisons between 2004 and 2003. Although they had to sign “consent” forms, the procedure, when posed as an incentive for a reduced sentence, generates an ongoing debate about whether or not consent actually exists in these situations. Proponents of the sterilization of incarcerated individuals often cite a lack of “personal responsibility,” when in reality, many of these individuals face a lack of support and resources. Even if incarceration was somehow the singular determinant of one’s morals and character, sterilization as part of a prison sentence is still a fundamental violation of the right to reproductive autonomy — something judges and prison officials choose to ignore.
As evidenced, forced sterilizations in the United States are unfortunately nothing new and nothing of the past, either. Yet, judging from the reactions to the recent allegations of involuntary hysterectomies performed at ICE detention facilities, many people are under the impression that these are unprecedented atrocities that are unique to the Trump administration. Of course, it is not any individual’s personal fault for being unaware of the United States’ history with eugenics and forced sterilization rather, it is a reflection of our education system and the history we prioritize. Personally, the only time I learned about eugenics and sterilization at my American public high school was when we learned about Nazi Germany, and these topics were never mentioned in my U.S. history classes. I felt so disturbed when I learned about them on my own for the first time and was also frustrated when I thought about the question: If I didn’t know about this, what other historical atrocities am I unaware of? Our historical education curriculum overemphasizes certain positive aspects of American history while completely glossing over others — we spend an entire semester learning about the American Revolution, only to be completely uninformed about the United States’ historical systemic and comprehensive policies designed to reduce the populations of certain groups. The absence of historical education about American eugenics and forced sterilization in our education curriculums is one of the reasons why President Trump’s proposed “ 1776 Commission “, which will supposedly promote “patriotic education,” is so concerning. Our education system already ignores many of the worst parts of American history, and if patriotism becomes a deciding factor in determining a curriculum, “history” class may very well become solely an account of America’s victories and address absolutely none of its faults.
It is completely understandable that many people are quick to describe the allegations against ICE as “un-American” and incompatible with the vision of America that they know. It certainly is uncomfortable to learn about the shameful things America has done, especially since it seems irreconcilable with the concept of “American exceptionalism” that many of us have been taught. However, it is crucial to reckon with history and understand the context in which current events take place. Unequivocally believing in American exceptionalism has frequently led to double standards when it comes to assessing the practices of other countries. If it was alleged that officials in another country were conducting involuntary hysterectomies on detained women, the United States would undoubtedly (rightly) call this out as a human rights violation. Even though it may sometimes seem this way, the United States is not above international law — forced sterilization is considered a form of torture by the United Nations — and it should be held accountable to the standards that it sets.
Viewing the allegations against ICE as “un-American” and thinking of forced sterilizations as something invented by the Trump administration also fosters the misconception that voting Donald Trump out of office will somehow fix everything that is wrong with our country. To clarify, he should absolutely be voted out, and his administration is especially dangerous and cruel towards detained immigrants. We would probably not be hearing these allegations had Trump lost the 2016 election. It seems as though some people believe that everything will be fine and we will be able to return to “normalcy” as soon as Trump is no longer president. Yet, the current president is, in reality, a symptom of a much larger problem that will not be fixed just by voting him out of office. In reality, Donald Trump and his administration did not invent the concepts of eugenics and forced sterilization, nor were they the first to implement these concepts in the United States. Sterilizations and other human rights abuses in detention centers and prisons will not suddenly end right when Donald Trump leaves office — it will require sustained advocacy and activism.
While it is reasonable to compare ICE’s alleged actions to those of Nazi Germany or other totalitarian regimes, one does not have to look so far across the globe to find a relevant comparison, because of America’s long and shameful history of forced sterilization of poor and disabled women of color. If these allegations are true, ICE absolutely needs to be held accountable and face public outrage. However, in its outrage, the public should be cognizant of the fact that eugenics and forced sterilization are not at all “un-American.” If we really want to believe in the idea of “American exceptionalism” in a (hopefully) post-Trump world, we need to reimagine what it truly means to be exceptional. America is not exceptional because it has never done anything wrong or has better morals or values than other countries, but it can move towards becoming exceptional if it takes accountability, understands and acknowledges the most shameful parts of our history, and vows never to repeat them.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s Dauntless Fight for Black Americans’ Right to Vote
Like many African Americans living in the Jim Crow South, Fannie Lou Hamer was not aware she had voting rights. “I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote,” she once explained. The granddaughter of enslaved black people, Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, in 1917. As the youngest of 20 children in a family of sharecroppers, she was forced to leave school during the sixth grade to help on the plantation. In 1925, when Hamer was only 8, she witnessed the lynching of a local sharecropper named Joe Pullam who had dared to speak up for himself when local whites refused to pay him for his work. “I remember that until this day, and I won't forget it,” she admitted in a 1965 interview. By that point, Hamer had become a nationally recognized civil rights activist, boldly advocating for the right to political participation that black Americans had long been denied.
Pullam’s lynching revealed the stringent conditions of the Jim Crow South. Black Americans were expected to be subordinate to whites, hardly valued for their labor and certainly not their intellect. On a daily basis, white Southerners told black Americans where to live, where to work and how to act. Transgressions could result in devastating consequences.
White Southerners also completely shut black people out of the formal political process. In the wake of the Civil War, the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments confirmed that formerly enslaved people were citizens and enfranchised black men. During the Reconstruction era, black men made use of this right, voting and running for public office black women were not afforded that right. Upon the dissolution of Reconstruction, white Southerners used an array of legal and extralegal measures—including poll taxes, grandfather clauses and mob violence—to make it nearly impossible for African American men to vote.
When the 19th Amendment extended the vote to women in 1920, these voter suppression tactics meant that the rights black suffragists had fought for were inaccessible in practice. By the 1960s, only 5 percent of Mississippi’s 450,000 black residents were registered to vote.
In 1962, Hamer attended a meeting arranged by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an interracial civil rights group that played a central role in organizing and encouraging black residents in the South to register to vote. “They were talking about [how] we could vote out people that we didn’t want in office,” she recalled. “That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it.” What Hamer came to realize in that moment was her ability to transform American society. Despite humble beginnings and a limited formal education, access to the ballot meant that she would be empowered to shape local, state and national politics.
That year, at the age of 44, Hamer joined SNCC and vowed to try to register to vote.
In August, she traveled by a rented bus with 17 other civil rights activists from her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, to Indianola, approximately 26 miles away, to get her name on the voter rolls. Hamer and her colleagues anticipated encountering roadblocks on their trip they knew the dangers of defying white supremacy.
After making it through the courthouse door, they were informed that they had to pass literacy tests in order to register to vote. The test involved reading and interpreting a section of the state constitution. Hamer did the best she could and left, nervously watching the armed police officers who had surrounded their bus. While she managed to leave without incident, she and her colleagues were later stopped by the police and fined for driving a bus that was supposedly “too yellow.”
When Hamer arrived home later that evening, the white owner of the plantation on which she and her husband, Perry, worked as sharecroppers confronted her. He gave her an ultimatum, Hamer recalled: “If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.” Her boss added, “We are not ready for that in Mississippi.”
Hamer left that evening and never returned, leaving her family behind temporarily after the landowner threatened to keep their possessions if Perry did not finish helping with the harvest. Several days later, white supremacists sprayed 16 bullets into the home where Hamer was staying. Hamer knew the bullets, which had hurt no one, had been meant for her, yet she was undeterred. “The only thing they could do to me was to kill me,” she later said in an oral history, “and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”
A 1979 poster made of Hamer, whose voting rights activism transformed the nation. In the quote printed in the top right corner, civil rights lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton compares Hamer to Martin Luther King Jr. (TABS / National Museum of American History)
Nearly a year later, in June 1963, Hamer—now a SNCC field secretary, speaking about voting rights in dozens of cities across the country—was traveling back home with fellow activists to Mississippi after attending a voter’s workshop in South Carolina. They decided to stop in Winona, Mississippi, to grab a bite to eat. What was supposed to be a quick rest stop became one of the most harrowing experiences of Hamer’s life.
First, the owners of the restaurant refused to serve black patrons. Then, from the bus, Hamer noticed police officers shoving her friends into their patrol cars. Within minutes, an officer grabbed Hamer and violently kicked her.
The beating only intensified when Hamer and other members of the group arrived at the Winona jailhouse, where the police’s line of questioning focused on the workshop they had attended. They prodded for information about SNCC’s voter-registration project in Greenwood, Mississippi. The officers were incensed—offended even—at the very idea that Hamer and her colleagues would defy segregation laws at the restaurant and play an active role in bolstering the political rights of black people in Mississippi.
The beating Hamer endured over four days in Winona left her physically disabled and with permanent scars. As she later explained, “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.”
Hamer could not be thrown off her mission. She recounted her experience in Winona on numerous occasions—most notably at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. At the time, the Democratic Party dominated Southern politics. Hamer showed up at the convention as a representative of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), an organization she had helped establish to challenge the segregated, all-white Mississippi delegation at the DNC. As Hamer and her colleagues pointed out, a “whites-only” Democratic Party representing a state in which one out of five residents were black undermined the very notion of representative democracy. In their eyes, those who supported a “whites-only” party were no different than white mobs who employed extralegal methods to block African Americans from voting.
In her televised DNC speech, Hamer called out American hypocrisy. “Is this America,” she asked, as tears welled up in her eyes, “the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Hamer had pulled back the curtain. The United States could not claim to be a democracy while withholding voting rights from millions of its citizens. Although the MFDP delegation did not secure its intended seats at the convention, Hamer’s passionate speech set in motion a series of events that led to the 1965 passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act (VRA). Her address, combined with the nationwide protests led by black activists, compelled President Lyndon B. Johnson—who had interrupted Hamer’s speech with a press conference of his own—to introduce federal legislation that banned local laws, like literacy tests, that blocked African Americans from the ballot box. The act also put in place (recently curtailed) restrictions on how certain states could implement new election laws new election laws.
The VRA significantly bolstered black political participation in the South. In Mississippi alone, the number of African Americans registered to vote dramatically increased from 28,000 to approximately 280,000 following its passage. In the aftermath of the VRA, the number of black elected officials in the South more than doubled—from 72 to 159—following the 1966 elections.
Hamer not only helped to register voters but empowered others by entering the realm of electoral politics herself. In 1964, one year after she succeeded in registering herself to vote for the first time, Hamer ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to challenge white Mississippi Democrat Jamie Whitten, who was seeking a 13th term. Although her chances of winning were slim, she explained to a reporter, “I’m showing people that a Negro can run for office.” Despite a limited budget, Hamer ran a spirited campaign backed by a coalition of civil rights organizations, promising to tackle the issues of poverty and hunger. The Democratic Party refused to allow Hamer’s name on the official ballot, but the MFDP organized mock election events and brought black Mississippi voters out in record numbers. An estimated 60,000 African Americans participated and cast a symbolic vote for Hamer in what the MFDP termed a “Freedom Ballot.”
A ballot for the 1964 "Freedom Vote" mock election. (Zwerling (Matthew) Freedom Summer Collection, University of Southern Mississippi Libraries)
Unsuccessful in her first bid for Congress, Hamer went on to run for office twice more. In 1967, her second attempt was disqualified by election officials, and four years later, she yet again encountered defeat, this time vying for a state senate seat. Her motivation, she explained in a 1971 speech, was that “We plan to bring some changes in the South. And as we bring changes in the South, the northern white politician won’t have any excuse and nowhere to hide.”
In the latter years of her life, Hamer remained at the forefront of the fight for black political rights. She established Freedom Farms, a community-based rural and economic development project, in 1969. While the initiative was a direct response to the high rates of poverty and hunger in the Mississippi Delta, Freedom Farms was also a means of political empowerment. “Where a couple of years ago, white people were shooting at Negroes trying to register,” she explained in 1968, “now they say, ‘go ahead and register—then you’ll starve.’” In the late 1960s and 1970s, she called out white Southerners who threatened to evict sharecroppers who registered to vote. And as a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which still promotes women politicians today, Hamer worked to expand women’s political participation during the 1970s.
For Hamer, who died in 1977, all of these efforts were grounded in the recognition that the act of casting a ballot was a fundamental right of every American citizen. She had grasped its power and was determined never to let it go.
About Keisha N. Blain
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and President of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom and Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Vision of America, which will be published by Beacon Press in 2021.
Black History Month should be a time of celebration of achievement and honest reflection on the impediments to freedom for all. Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer is one of many who broke through the generational shackles of poverty to live a life devoted to helping free others from the same bondage.
Hamer was born into poverty in 1917 (the youngest of 20 children), which according to Planned Parenthood’s philosophy, was a circumstance worthy of eliminating her. Since the age of 6, she worked in the cotton fields with her sharecropping family and was forced to leave school at the age of 12.
But Fannie Lou Hamer, like many other remarkable figures in American history, defied the disproven narrative that poverty cannot birth greatness. She and her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer, tirelessly toiled on a Mississippi plantation. He worked in the fields (basically as a slave, just in a different legal form) while she, armed with the ability to read and write, worked in the big House. In 1962, her life took an even more drastic turn.
She was diagnosed with a small uterine tumor, but instead of simply removing it, the doctor performed a hysterectomy without her consent. Pro-abortion activists often refer to Hamer’s ordeal as “Mississippi Appendectomies”, a term which Hamer coined. These unjust acts were done to thousands of women across the country, like North Carolinian Elaine Riddick. Abortion activists won’t mention those sterilizations were heavily promoted by Planned Parenthood or that Fannie Lou Hamer was, actually, passionately pro-life. This traumatic experience was the catalyst for her social activism, to fight the incredible injustice that black Americans faced, daily, in America.
She fought for the right of black Americans to vote, risking her very life as she survived violent attacks for her public crusade for rights guaranteed by the Constitution. She never gave up. Hamer wanted to provide a better world for black children who were constantly the target of racist efforts that forced birth control and other eugenic social policies masquerading as anti-poverty measures. In fact, Hamer was quoted as saying, during a White House Conference on Hunger (renamed the Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health): “I didn’t come to talk about birth control. I came here to get some food to feed poor, hungry people. Why are they carrying on that kind of talk?”
Hamer is famous (among many things) for her quote: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Ethyl Payne, a journalist for the Afro American, described Hamer as a “passionate believer in the right to life” in a March 1980 column. Payne reported that the freedom fighter “spoke out strongly against abortion as a means of genocide of blacks.”
Yes. Genocide. Did you catch that “safe-space” seeking, #BlackLivesMatter activists? Across the country, this hashtag movement decries the estimated 100 tragic “unarmed” black deaths each year from police “brutality” (in quotes because “unarmed” doesn’t always mean unable to inflict harm), but celebrate an industry’s slaughter of over 360,000 unarmed black lives in the womb as “reproductive justice.” A flier campaign by Purdue University Students For Life has generated surreal hostility and vitriolic social media posts because they dared to, as The Radiance Foundation has done many times, call out the contradiction.
Hamer would hammer away at uninformed student activists who blindly support the most institutionalized form of racism—population control.
According to black journalist, Samuel F. Yette (who was fired by Newsweek for penning his book, “The Choice” which detailed Nixon’s eugenics and population control tactics): “Mrs. Hamer is a symbol of what was good about the 1960s. She symbolized the will of many not merely to illuminate the society’s worst contradictions, but also to erase them.”
Fannie Lou Hamer was a prolife feminist who spoke with passion born of a life of hardships. She connected with people, black and white. As a victim of eugenic sterilization, racial discrimination, and a Democrat party that refused to racially integrate (hence her speech at the 1964 DNC Credentials Committee to demand black representation at the Convention), she spoke out against injustice leaving an indelible mark on the conscience of a nation. She was truly fearless.
She used to sing “This Little Light of Mine” often. It was her anthem. She let her light shine outside and inside her home. Fannie Lou and “Pap” Hamer were adoptive parents who, due to the tragic loss of their adopted daughter Dorothy Jean and injuries sustained in war by their son-in-law, adopted their own grandchildren. After her passing, Yette wrote that “Fannie Lou Hamer tried to feed and educate the children, to guard life and enhance its nobility.”
1980 article from the Afro American newspaper praising the pro-life, anti-poverty, pro-family work of Fannie Lou Hamer.
Pro-life activism is a continuum. Forget the favorite pro-abortion baseless mantra that we “don’t care about children once they’re born.” We care about life, no matter the stage, from conception until (what should be) natural death. We may not agree with everyone on how that help is given, but all the evidence shows the extensive nature of how pro-life, pro-family, pro-restoration organizations and the Church care for the poor, the broken and those in need. History reminds us that when we fail to care for the least of these and deem them as “unwanted” or a “burden” (whether born or unborn), only violence and destruction follow.
Forty-three years of Roe have eliminated over 58 million possibilities. They’re gone. These are millions who could’ve helped breathe Life into the hopelessness and despair that still shackles urban communities. More than 16 million black lives, possible freedom fighters like Hamer, have been erased by abortion from the annals of history. But we will not forget them.
As Hamer once proclaimed: “Nobody’s free until everyone’s free.” Here’s to a pro-life generation that is rising up, realizing that the best way to celebrate Black History American History is to fight to protect our very future—our Posterity.
Thanks for a great and truthful article. As a black male I have personally witnessed the victimization tactics of various groups, and not surprisingly many from ‘polished’ blacks against other blacks for profiteering purposes, quiet as it’s kept. Often unseen are those groups such as PP who are underhanded and sinister and continue with the sick efforts of their founder and hero, the Sanger woman—quiet as that’s also kept. None of those involved in these heinous operations believe that any life is valuable, unless of course there is a something-something in it for them and their grasping hands.
[…] Martin Luther King Jr. debasing himself by dressing up as a penis to prove I AM A MAN. Imagine Fannie Lou Hamer reciting lines from “The Vagina Monologues”, a pro-statutory rape play, as she demanded […]
February 11th, 2014 03:08 PM
[…] freedom fighter, Fannie Lou Hamer (“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!”), is known for her courageous efforts to fight […]
February 9th, 2015 02:11 AM
[…] parody belongs to none other than famed, pro-life, civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer. She apparently was sick and tired of being sick and tired of the NAACP’s elitist focus. […]
[…] parody belongs to none other than famed, pro-life, civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer. She apparently was sick and tired of being sick and tired of the NAACP’s elitist focus. […]
[…] anti-poverty and voting rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer was unashamedly prolife and “spoke out strongly against abortion as a means of genocide of […]
November 10th, 2015 09:39 AM
[…] anti-poverty and voting rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer was unashamedly prolife and &ldquospoke out strongly against abortion as a means of genocide of […]
November 11th, 2015 07:13 PM
[…] black babies are aborted than born alive. Planned Parenthood calls this “reproductive justice”. Fannie Lou Hamer called abortion a “genocide” among blacks. For the nation’s largest abortion and […]
December 7th, 2015 11:36 AM
[…] black babies are aborted than born alive. Planned Parenthood calls this “reproductive justice”.Fannie Lou Hamer, famed anti-poverty and voting rights activist, called abortion a “genocide” among blacks. We […]
December 8th, 2015 07:13 PM
[…] anti-poverty and voting rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer was unashamedly prolife and “spoke out strongly against abortion as a means of genocide of […]
January 12th, 2016 03:33 PM
[…] honorary PhD’s and surviving being shot at by the Ku Klux Klan which you can learn about here and […]
February 3rd, 2016 06:07 PM
Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America
Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America
Discover how the advent of the car brought African Americans new freedom but also dangers.
Victor Hugo Green wrote "The Green Book," a guide for Black motorists, because to this day getting behind the wheel presents a different set of possibilities for Black drivers than it does for others. Driving While Black is a documentary that explores the dynamics that led Victor Hugo Green to write his now-famous guide book.
The teacher will ask the students to name Mississippi women who have made contributions to not only state history, but to national history. The teacher will record student responses on the board. The teacher will ask the students which Mississippi women have been inducted into the National Women’s History Hall of Fame (Order of induction - Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Oprah Winfrey, and Eudora Welty). Students may or may not be able to suggest these names during the opener. If not, the teacher will guide the students to generate this list in the class discussion. The teacher will tell the students that they are going to have an opportunity to study Mississippian Fannie Lou Hamer in class over the next several days. Also, in honor of Women’s History Month they will create a program to honor Mrs. Hamer.
Instruct students to read the Mississippi History Now article about Fannie Lou Hamer. As students read the article, have them list what they feel are Hamer’s six strongest leadership characteristics. The characteristics should be listed on a chart similar to the one found at the end of this lesson plan. Students can also be creative in the type of format they use to chart Fannie Lou Hamer’s leadership qualities. Students should list one example from Hamer’s life where she displayed each characteristic. Students can work individually or with a partner for this portion of the lesson.
Once the students complete the leadership chart, ask for student volunteers to share examples from their charts with the class. The teacher can place a chart on an overhead transparency or the chalkboard in order to record student responses. A class discussion can be led as the responses are shared with the class.
After the class discussion, the teacher will inform students that they will be in charge of planning a Women’s History Month celebration for their class (this program can be planned for the entire grade-level or school as well). The celebration can focus on native Mississippian Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer.
The teacher will place the students into groups of four for the Women’s History Month program. Each group can complete the following tasks or each group can be assigned one of the following tasks. If each group completes the following tasks, a contest can be conducted to determine which item from each category will be used for the celebration. The students can use the Mississippi History Now article as well as other resources to create the assignments listed below.
An invitation to the Women’s History Month celebration honoring Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer
A poster commemorating Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s contributions to history
A speech about Mrs. Hamer contributions to history that will be read at the program
Song selections that will be performed at the event that honor Mrs. Hamer’s musical talent and love of music
Decorations for the event
A poem to be read in honor of Mrs. Hamer
Allow the students to carry out this Women’s History Month program.
Fannie Lou Hamer - History
Fannie Lou Townsend was born October 6, 1917 in the Mississippi Delta on
a plantation where sharecropping was the norm. She was tricked into picking cotton
at the age of six in exchange for a few items from the "Boss Man's" Store. By the
time she reached age ten, Fannie was picking as much cotton as some adults. She
earned the position of Timekeeper. To help calm her people down after a lynching,
shooting or KKK riot, Mrs. Hamer would sing like “ain't no tomorrow”. Fannie Lou
married Perry “Pap” Hamer in 1942.
In 1962, Mrs. Hamer decided she wanted to try to register to vote
after attending a SNCC voter registration meeting at William Chapel Church in
Ruleville, MS pastored by the late Rev. J. D. Story. It would turn out to be just
another way of asking to die.
After returning home, Mrs. Hamer was ordered to go and take her name off the
registrar’s book. If she refused to do so, she would have to move. Refuse she did
and move she did.
I didn't go register for you sir, I did it for myself”, replied Fannie Lou to her boss. Mr.
W. D. Marlowe. She was kicked off the plantation where she had lived for the past
Sixteen shots were fired into The Tuckers home over the bed Mrs.
Hamer slept where she had fled for safety. “God had already told me
to move on, so I wasn’t there that night,” Fannie said.
Fannie Lou Hamer, June E. Johnson, James West, Euvester Simpson, Annelle
Ponder and others were jailed in Winona, Mississippi. Two black prisoners were
ordered to beat Mrs. Hamer. She was beaten so badly she no longer had feelings in
Mrs. Hamer’s passion for her people and her interest and understanding of how
powerful the political process was in America led her and others to create the
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the Credential Committee in
Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1964 to be seated rather than the regular Democrats
who they exclaimed were "illegally elected" based on discriminatory practices against
blacks statewide. “We Will Not Accept The Compromise” , stated Mrs. Hamer.
She had consulted with Bob Moses and Mrs. Unita Blackwell and others prior. Mr.
Lawrence Guyot (Chairman MFDP) was in jail and couldn't make the trip.
President Johnson interrupted the nationally televised convention in
order to keep Fannie Lou and her views from spreading like wildfire.
All of the major networks later ran her speech in its entirety and the
whole country was spellbound to hear such convictions coming from a
Southerner who felt she had nothing left to fear but fear itself.
"If the Freedom Democratic Party isn't seated today, I Question America ", Fannie
told the Credentials Committee. "Is this America where we have to sleep with our
phones off the hooks because we be threatened daily just cause we want to register
to vote to become first class citizens".
Mrs. Hamer’s efforts did not stop there. She challenged Black
Educators to “teach our children more about our history since school
books left it out”. She started a daycare center with the assistance of
the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) under the leadership of Dr.
Dorothy Irene Height (President). Mrs. Hamer also, organized
approximately, 640 acres of Freedom Farm land.
June E. Johnson gets very emotional when speaking about Mrs.
Hamer. "I gave BLOOD with this lady, do you understand me?" I love
Mrs. Hamer and she discussed with me her "Unfinished Business"
while she lay on her death bed, continues Johnson. June was beaten
in jail with Fannie Lou for voter registration activities as a teenager.
Fannie Lou Hamer's labor ceased at 5:15 p.m. on March 14, 1977 in Mound Bayou,
Mississippi due to Breast Cancer and complications from her jail house beating.
Fannie Lou Hamer worked with and sought assistance from Student Non Violent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Southern Christian Leadership Conference
(SCLC), National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), National Association of Colored
People (NAACP), The Delta Ministry and numerous others. She was co- founder of
the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). It was the Delta Ministry under
the leadership of Mr. Owen H. Brooks along with Mr. Charles McLaurin and June E.
Johnson that assured Mrs. Hamer a proper burial.
Mrs. Hamer was the recipient of many awards and honors. She received an
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humanities from Tougaloo College and Shaw
University. She, also, received honorary degrees from Columbia College and
Howard University. Fannie was honored with the National Sojourner Truth
Meritorious Service Award, The Paul Robeson Award from Alpha Kappa Alpha
Sorority and The Mary Terrell Award from Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. Delta Sigma
Theta made Mrs. Hamer an Honorary member of their sorority.
Fannie Lou was inducted into the National Women Hall of Fame. On February
18,1995, The United States Post Office in Ruleville, Mississipp i was named in Fannie
Lou Hamer's honor thanks to Congressman Bennie Thompson.
There is a Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center in Ruleville, Mississippi that Mrs.
Hamer started, a Fannie Lou Hamer Library located in Jackson, MS, a Fannie Lou
Hamer Freedom High School in Bronx, New York, The Fannie Lou Hamer Political
Institute founded by Dr. Leslie McLemore at Jackson State University in Jackson,
Mississippi and The Fannie Lou Hamer "Women of Faith" Learning & Cultural
Center. Mrs. Hamer's speech from the 1964 Democratic Convention is inscribed on
column 10 in the Civil Rights Garden in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Several people
do dramatic shows re-enacting "The Life & Times of Fannie Lou Hamer" and many
books and documentaries are written and produced on her.
There are several biographies of Hamer, including Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine:the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1993), and a children's book, Fannie Lou Hamer:From Sharecropping to Politics, by David Rubel with an introduction by Andrew Young (1990). Many histories of the civil rights movement in the South include information about Hamer. These include Vicki Crawford, Jacqueline Rouse, and Barbara Woods, Women in the Civil Rights Movement:Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 (1990) Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize:America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (1987) and various histories of SNCC and its leaders. A collection of Fannie Lou Hamer papers is available on microfilm from the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana. □