“History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
Since “winners” write the history, and they are usually male, very little is written about the women who played an important part in our struggle. Everyone knows about Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. In Baltimore, there was Juanita Mitchell and Lilly Mae Jackson.
Every January and February, the media fills us with the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. as if he was the lone star in the movement. But it was Black women who sacrificed the most in the bus boycott. The women who worked in the basements of the churches to move this movement along; the women who walked picket lines in the rain, mud, and snow; women who were secretaries and receptionists who dealt with foul-mouthed Whites on the phone, who did the dirty work that was not recalled; these women were written out of the history books.
“Women? Of course, there are thousands of us,” wrote Gloria Xifaras Clark. “That is what makes a movement. Most of us shall remain nameless. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ Women in the movement did everything, like we do in real life to this day. Some cooked, some organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, some cleaned, some went to jail, some marched, some were beaten, some died, some celebrated, some cried, some laughed, some danced, some sang, some prayed, some drove, some walked, some made love, some didn’t, some voted, some didn’t, some brought up children, some were children, some were strong, some were frail, some talked, some were silent, some were workers, some were not, some led, some followed, some taught, we all learned, we all stood up to injustice.”
Throughout our history there have been women, the backbone of our race. It is to the workers in the vineyard who give so much and get so little that we must pay homage. Today I’m going to write about one woman, Fannie Lou Hamer, my hero.
“She had a rock-hard integrity and commitment to the people she had come from and she just never left them. She was unbreakable,” said Bob Weil of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Born in Sunflower County along the Mississippi Delta on Oct. 6, 1917, before any woman in America could vote, Fannie Lou Hamer became the inspiration to millions in the poverty-stricken towns of Mississippi, the Civil Rights struggle and the women’s political movement, changing the face of the Democratic Party.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s (MFDP) challenge to the Democratic Party in Atlantic City had wide impact. It ultimately opened the party to Black participation and encouraged a different breed of White politician to seek office. The MFDP, of which Hamer was a co-chair, would not accept two seats in 1964, but instead opened the way for many more seats: seats, for not only African-Americans but for women, Latinos, Native-Americans, Asian-Americans and all marginalized people who wanted to participate in the Democratic Party’s convention. It opened the doors to full political participation.
Fannie Lou Hamer was the granddaughter of slaves and her family were sharecroppers – a position not that different from slavery. Hamer had 19 brothers and sisters; she was the youngest of the children. The family worked as sharecroppers on the plantation belonging to E.W. Brandon. By the time Hamer was 13, she was able to pick 200 to 300 pounds of cotton daily despite suffering from polio when she was six-years-old.
Fannie Lou became inspired after the Rev. James Bevel, a local organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), delivered a sermon on Aug. 23, 1962 to persuade listeners to register to vote. Although Hamer knew the consequences of fighting for her rights, she became the first volunteer.
According to biographer Sina Dubovoy, when Hamer heard the presentation, she asked herself, “What did she really have? Not even security.” A lynching in a nearby town in 1904 terrorized Blacks at the time, and the ever-present KKK still kept them quiet. As Dubovoy wrote, “The Mississippi Delta was the world’s most oppressive place to live if you were black.” The beauty of the area belied the underlying evil.
She was surprised to learn that African-Americans actually had a constitutional right to vote. When the SNCC members asked for volunteers to go to the courthouse to register to vote, Hamer was the first to raise her hand. This was a dangerous decision. She later reflected, “The only thing they could do to me was to kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”
Hamer decided on the spot to register to vote. On Aug. 31, 1962, she boarded a bus to Indianola with 17 others to try to register to vote. When Hamer and others went to the courthouse, they were jailed. “Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for eighteen years,” Hamer said. “I was met there by my children, who told me that the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down to try to register.”
After they told me, my husband came, and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. Before he quit talking the plantation owner came and said, “Fannie Lou, do you know – did Pap tell you what I said?”
And I said, “Yes, sir.”
“Well I mean that,” he said. “If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.”
“Then if you go down and withdraw,” he said, “you still might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi.”
And I addressed him and told him, “‘I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.’ I had to leave that same night.”
She received constant death threats and was even shot at. Still, Hamer would not be discouraged.
Hamer immediately went to work as a field organizer for the SNCC. Returning home from a training workshop in June 1963, Hamer’s bus was intercepted by policemen. She and two others were taken to jail in Winona, Miss., and mercilessly beaten by Black inmates on orders of the jailer. Hamer suffered permanent damage to her kidneys. After recovering from her injuries, she traveled across the U.S. telling her story. With her genuine, plainspoken style, Hamer raised more money for SNCC than any other member.
In spite of all that Fannie Lou Hamer had endured, like most of the women of the movement, she was not invited to the 1963 “March on Washington.”
In 1964, with the support of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer ran for Congress. The incumbent was a White man who had been elected to office 12 times. In an interview with The Nation, Hamer said, “I’m showing the people that a Negro can run for office.” The reporter observed: “Her deep, powerful voice shakes the air as she sits on the porch or inside, talking to friends, relatives, and neighbors who drop by on the one day each week when she is not campaigning. Whatever she is talking about soon becomes an impassioned plea for a change in the system that exploits the Delta Negroes. ‘All my life I’ve been sick and tired,’ she shakes her head. ‘Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”
During the summer of 1964, Hamer was elected as the vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Also known as the “Freedom Democrats,” the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was organized to counter the anti-civil rights and all-White political delegation at the Democratic National Convention.