Fannie Lou Hamer woke up from undergoing an operation for a uterine tumor with her life completely changed. It was 1961, and she was 44 years old, a Black woman from a poor family in Mississippi.
Without her consent, the white doctor who performed the operation had also given her a hysterectomy. It was not an uncommon practice in Mississippi in those days, part of the state’s forced sterilization efforts to limit the number of children born to poor families.
Hamer had become interested in the civil rights activity occurring at the time in Mississippi, and she decided to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at her church in 1962 after learning that she had the right to vote. She began organizing groups of citizens to register to vote, and that got her into a lot of trouble with the authorities. She was arrested, beaten, and sexually assaulted, but those experiences only gave her a more powerful voice.
She organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and headed a delegation that traveled to Atlantic City, where the 1964 Democratic National Convention was being held. The delegation applied to be seated as the official delegation representing Mississippi, replacing the all-white delegation sent by the old-line Democratic establishment. The application was not successful, but Hamer’s forceful voice put her in front of television cameras, and she reached a national audience for her compelling arguments.
As Jill Watts writes in her NYT review of two recently published biographies of Hamer, Walk With Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer by Kate Clifford Larson and Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America by Keisha N. Blain:
After the convention, she returned to Mississippi to continue her fight to register Black Americans as well as to battle against all forms of discrimination. Plain-spoken, with only a sixth-grade education, Hamer was charismatic and a brilliant grass-roots organizer. Over time, she successfully pushed Mississippi to open up voting to Black people, transforming local, state and national politics, a process made a little easier after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Nonetheless, Hamer remains largely unacknowledged in popular narratives of the civil rights movement, which still train most of the spotlight on its male leaders. Source: The Enduring Influence of Fannie Lou Hamer, Civil Rights Advocate – The New York Times
Hamer continued her organizing efforts in Mississippi for the next decade, using the power of her physical voice, her experience as a front-line civil rights warrior, and her deep religious convictions to move her state solidly into the vortex of voting rights. Her efforts were cut tragically short in 1977 when she died of complications from breast cancer and hypertension.
Hamer was born into a family of 20 children. As a child, she picked cotton and battled polio. She loved reading, reciting poetry, and participating in spelling bees. Her favorite book was the Bible, and her speeches in later life reflected a strong scriptural influence. Despite the hysterectomy, she and her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer, adopted two children. One of them died because white hospital officials would not admit her because of her mother’s civil rights work.
In 1967, she published To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography, co-written with Julius Lester and Mary Varela.
Her gravestone carries one of her most famous quotes: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
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