Fannie Lou Hamer delivers her historic speech before the Credentials Committee during the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (AFRO Archive Photo)
By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
My name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and I live at 6-2-6, East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland, and Senator Stennis,” Hamer boldly said at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), specifically addressing the DNC’s Credentials Committee in Atlantic City in August 1964.
Thus began one of the most courageous speeches in the history of American politics. Fannie Lou Hamer told the world where she was from and that place, Mississippi, was one of the most dangerous places on the face of the earth if you were a Black woman determined to be free. After all, the threat of death was seemingly a part of life for any Black American fighting to live free in Mississippi and the rest of the Deep South, the boiling cauldron of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The summer prior to Hamer’s heroic appearance at the DNC, in August 1963, during Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark “I Have A Dream” speech he described Mississippi as “a state sweltering with the heat of oppression.”
It had been a remarkable odyssey for Hamer, born Fannie Lou Townsend October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the 20th and last child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend.
An AFRO reporter interviews Fannie Lou Hamer, right, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field worker who was beaten and shot after her successful attempt to register. (AFRO Archive Photo)
In 1944, she married Perry Hamer and like her mother and father, she and her husband were also sharecroppers. They worked the land of a Mississippi plantation owned by B.D. Marlowe until 1962. She had been picking cotton with her family since age six, had to quit school at age 12, to work the fields. However, on the Marlowe plantation she was the only worker who could read and write, so she served as the plantation’s timekeeper, a vital role.
At the DNC in Atlantic City in 1964, when Hamer name checked Eastland and Stennis, Mississippi’s two segregationist Senators, she also told the harrowing story of why she ultimately lost her job on that plantation, simply for wanting to vote.
“It was the 31st of August in 1962, that 18 of us traveled 26 miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens,” Hamer said cogently to the crowd gathered at the Boardwalk Hall. “We was met in Indianola by policemen, highway patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the city police and the state highway patrolmen and carried back to Indianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color,” Hamer reported. Eventually, she and her group of freedom fighters made it back to Ruleville after they paid the fine for riding in a bus that was “the wrong color.” But, when she got back home she was met with the news that the owner of the plantation where she and her husband worked was not happy with Hamer.
“The plantation owner was angry because I had gone down and tried to register…my husband came and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. And before he quit talking, the plantation owner came and said, “Fannie Lou…did Pap (her husband) tell you what I said? I mean that. If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave,”” added Hamer who also said on that summer day in New Jersey that the plantation owner informed her she may have to leave even if she did withdraw her registration because in his words, “because we’re not ready for that in Mississippi.” Indeed, Mississippi was not ready for Hamer. That plantation owner fired her that night she and the group she organized attempted to register to vote. And she promptly informed him, “I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.”
Yet, the reality was in 1964, the DNC probably wasn’t quite ready for Hamer either. “If the (Mississippi) Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America,” said Hamer, who was co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which argued the group should be officially recognized as the Mississippi state delegation to the DNC. The summer before her landmark address at the DNC in Atlantic City, in June 1963, after successfully registering to vote, Hamer and several other Black women were arrested for sitting in a “White’s only” bus station in a Charleston, South Carolina restaurant. And at the jailhouse where they ended up several of those women were brutally beaten, leaving Hamer with lifelong injuries including damage to her leg and kidney.
Yet, she went on to fight for freedom in her native Mississippi and beyond. She helped organize “Freedom Summer,” which brought hundreds of college students, Black and White to help with Black voter registration in the South.
Fannie Lou Hamer confers with colleagues outside the National Theater in Washington, D.C. (AFRO Archive Photo)
In 1968, Hamer’s vision was manifested when she became a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation. In 1969, she founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), and purchased more than 600 acres of farmland (with the assistance of donors including legendary singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte), that Blacks could own and farm collectively. The FCC endured until the mid-1970’s (some of the low-income housing erected by the organization still stands in Ruleville, Mississippi to this day). However, the civil rights firebrand succumbed to breast cancer in 1977, at age 59.
It’s been more than 40 years since her death. But, it’s been more than 55 years since December 1964, (during a speech she delivered at a rally in Harlem, along with Malcolm X) when Hamer famously said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” What would she think of an American president attempting to overthrow election results after losing by a wide margin and in the process disenfranchising millions of Black Americans? Her stunning speech at the DNC in 1964, seems to resonate perfectly today.
“Is this America the land of the free and the home of the brave, where…our lives be threatened daily,” asked Hamer. “Because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”“