October 6, 1917:
On this day one of this country’s greatest civil rights leaders, community organizers, and women’s rights activists were born.
Fannie Lou Hamer was a voting and women’s rights activist, community organizer, and a leader in the civil rights movement. She was the co-founder and vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hamer also organized Mississippi‘s Freedom Summer along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was also a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization created to recruit, train, and support women of all races who wish to seek election to government office.
Hamer began civil rights activism in 1962, continuing until her health declined nine years later. She was known for her use of spiritual hymnals and quotes and her resilience in leading the civil rights movement for black women in Mississippi. She was extorted, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted by white supremacists and police while trying to register for and exercise her right to vote. She later helped and encouraged thousands of African-Americans in Mississippi to become registered voters, and helped hundreds of disenfranchised people in her area through her work in programs like the Freedom Farm Cooperative. She unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and the Mississippi State Senate in 1971. In 1970 she led legal action against the government of Sunflower County, Mississippi, for continued illegal segregation.
In 1964, Hamer unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate. She continued to work on other projects, including grassroots-level Head Start programs and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. With the help of Julius Lester and Mary Varela, she published her autobiography in 1967. She said she was “tired of all this beating” and “there’s so much hate. Only God has kept the Negro sane”.
Hamer sought equality across all aspects of society. In Hamer’s view, African-Americans were not technically free if they were not afforded the same opportunities as whites, including those in the agricultural industry. Sharecropping was the most common form of post-slavery activity and income in the South. The New Deal era expanded so that many blacks were physically and economically displaced due to the various projects appearing around the country. Hamer did not wish to have blacks be dependent on any group for any longer; so, she wanted to give them a voice through an agricultural movement.
James Eastland, a white senator, was among the groups of people who sought to keep African-Americans disenfranchised and segregated from society. His influence on the overarching agricultural industry often suppressed minority groups to keep whites as the only power force in America. Hamer objected to this, and consequently pioneered the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) in 1969, an attempt to redistribute economic power across groups and to solidify an economic standing amongst African-Americans. In the same vein as the Freedom Farm Collective, Hamer partnered with the NCNW to establish an interracial and interregional support program called The Pig Project to provide protein for people who previously could not afford meat.
Hamer made it her mission to make land more accessible to African-Americans. To do this, she started a small “pig bank” with a starting donation from the National Council of Negro Women of five boars and fifty gilts. Through the pig bank, a family could care for a pregnant female pig until it bore its offspring; subsequently, they would raise the piglets and use them for food and financial gain. Within five years, thousands of pigs were available for breeding. Hamer used the success of the bank to begin fundraising for the main farming corporation. She was able to convince the then-editor of the Harvard Crimson, James Fallows, to write an article that advocated for donations to the FFC. Eventually, the FFC had raised around $8,000 which allowed Hamer to purchase 40 acres of land previously owned by a black farmer who could no longer afford to occupy the land. This land became the Freedom Farm. The farm had three main objectives. These were to establish an agricultural organization that could supplement the nutritional needs of America’s most disenfranchised people; to provide acceptable housing development; and to create an entrepreneurial business incubator that would provide resources for new companies and re-training for those with limited education but manual labor experience.
Over time, the FFC offered various other services such as financial counseling, a scholarship fund and a housing agency. The FFC aided in securing 35 Federal Housing Administration (FHA) subsidized houses for struggling black families. Through her success, Hamer managed to acquire a new home, which served as inspiration for others to begin building themselves up. The FFC ultimately disbanded in 1975 due to lack of funding.
In 1971 Hamer co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. She emphasized the power women could hold by acting as a voting majority in the country regardless of race or ethnicity, saying “A white mother is no different from a black mother. The only thing is they haven’t had as many problems. But we cry the same tears.”
Hamer died on March 14, 1977, aged 59, in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Her memorial service was widely attended and her eulogy was delivered by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young. She was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Hamer received many awards both in her lifetime and posthumously. She received a Doctor of Law from Shaw University, and honorary degrees from Columbia College Chicago in 1970 and Howard University in 1972. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Hamer also received the Paul Robeson Award from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the Mary Church Terrell Award and Honorary lifetime member from Delta Sigma Theta, the National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Award. A remembrance for her life was given in the US House of Representatives on the 100th anniversary of her birth, October 6, 2017, by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.