Fannie Lou Hamer

Honored by:The Iowa State University History Department
Brick location:PAVER:22  map

FANNIE LOU HAMER became the voice of the nation's conscience when she spoke before the nationally-televised hearing of the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democrat National Convention. Born in 1918, the twentieth child of Mississippi sharecroppers and a sharecropper herself, she was transformed by her work in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. When the young civil rights workers came to register voters in her area, she recalled "Just listen' at 'em I could see myself votin' people out of office I know was wrong and didn't do nothin' to help the poor. I said you know that's sumin' I wanna be involved in." Soon she was on a bus to Indianola, the county seat, to register to vote. The year was 1963--one of the most violent during the movement. Because of her attempt to register, she and her husband were thrown off the plantation where they had worked for decades, the friend's house where they spent that first night was shot into sixteen times and she was forced to leave the county for several months. "Just sick and -tired of being sick and tired," Hamer returned to Ruleville, becoming an instructor in SNCC's voter education program. She testified about this work before the Credentials Committee, describing how she became permanently debilitated from the vicious beating she received in the Winona jail. A state highway patrolman forced another African American prisoner to beat her with a blackjack. When he was exhausted, a second was ordered to take his place. She described how "one white man--my dress had worked up high--he walked over and pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back back up." Then she made the telling point: "All of this is on account we want to register to become first-class citizens..." Hamer's testimony was so powerful that President Lyndon Johnson called a hasty press conference to draw the television cameras from her riveting presence, but the networks presented her entire testimony that night during prime time. Hamer was a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's delegation to the convention, which was hoping to unseat the regular Democrat delegation from Mississippi because it excluded African Americans. Johnson, fearing the loss of southern white votes, offered a compromise in which the regulars would be seated and two members of the MDFP would also be seated as delegates-at large, with future delegations being required not to discriminate on the basis of race. The refusal of the MDFP to accept this compromise marked a turning point in the movement. Their loss of idealism would soon be transformed into a call for Black Power. Hamer had been an important member of SNCC's leadership. During planning for the Mississippi Summer Project of 1963, she had argued in favor of bringing in white students, insisting that "if we're trying to break down this barrier of segregation we can't segregate ourselves." Many meetings were inspired by her singing. In 1964, she was a member of a delegation from SNCC which toured Africa. However, she would not outlive the movement, dying of cancer. She recalled that "it's been times that I've been called Mississippi's angriest woman and I have a right to be angry." But she harnessed that anger to bring about social change. Although unlettered and unsophisticated, she forged ahead. "We just got to stand up as Negroes for ourselves and our freedom and if it don't do me any good I do know the young people it will do good." And it did.


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