Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

By Kathryn S. Gardiner

“If this is a Great Society, I’d hate to see a bad one.”

Fannie Lou Hamer

In 1962 – August 31 to be precise – Fannie Lou Hamer, at the age of 45, traveled with other activists to Indianola, Miss., determined to register to vote. Upon arriving, Hamer and the other black women and men were quizzed on the facts of de facto law. “I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day,” Hamer said. When they couldn’t answer the questions, the would-be voters were turned away.

“I didn’t try to register for you,” Hamer told the man. “I tried to register for myself.” 

Hamer returned to her plantation home in Mound Bayou. There, she found her “boss man raisin’ Cain,” she recalled, and he demanded she withdraw her registration because “we’re not ready for that in Mississippi.”

It had been true of Fannie Lou Hamer all her life and would be true until the end of it: She wouldn’t back down when she knew she was right.

“I didn’t try to register for you,” Hamer told the man. “I tried to register for myself.” For this, Hamer was fired and kicked off the plantation. Her husband, Perry, could not go with her as he was required to stay until the harvest’s end.

The words of Hamer’s former boss proved true as, for the next several months, Hamer was repeatedly harassed and threatened by white Mississippians. She moved from home to home, rarely staying in one place long for safety. In the worst incident, in September, white supremacists shot at the home where she was staying with a friend. The next day, Hamer and her family—Perry and their two adopted daughters—moved to Tallahatchie County in the hopes that the Ku Klux Klan threats would not follow them.

The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”

On December 4, Hamer returned to Indianaola to register to vote. She once again failed the arbitrary test given her by the white staff and was turned away. “You’ll see me every 30 days until I pass,” she told the registrar.  

“I guess if I had any sense, I’d have been a little scared,” she said later, “but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”

Fannie Lou had been born Oct. 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Miss., to Ella and James Lee Townsend. She was the youngest of 20 children and the Townsends enjoyed some comfort before their livestock was poisoned, most likely by a local white supremacist. “We knowed this white man had done it,” Hamer recalled. “That white man did it just because we were gettin’ somewhere. White people never like to see Negroes get a little success. All of this stuff is no secret in the state of Mississippi.”

After this setback, the Townsends relocated to Sunflower County and got work as sharecroppers on a plantation. By age six, Hamer was out in the fields picking cotton with her family. Despite a disfigured leg from a bout of polio, she had to pick as much as 300 pounds of cotton daily by age 13. During the winters, Hamer and the other plantation children attended a one-room school where she found a love of reading and demonstrated a keen mind for spelling bees and poetry. Unfortunately, she had to leave school at age 12 to help care for her aging parents, but she continued what studies she could through Bible school. Her knowledge and ability to interpret scripture would be a powerful aspect of her activism in her adulthood.

Hamer became involved in civil rights in the 1950s after hearing speakers from both the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was from this latter group that Hamer first learned of the constitutional right to vote.

On January 10, 1963, Hamer returned to Indianaola. This time she passed the “literacy test” and was officially a registered voter in the state of Mississippi. However, when she went to vote that fall, she was stymied yet again. She was now informed that the county required voters to have two poll tax receipts to be eligible to vote. This law emerged in the United States in 1870 after the 15th Amendment granted all men the right to vote, regardless of race. It was used almost exclusively to prohibit black and Native American voters from exercising that right.

“If I am truly free, who can tell me how much freedom I can have today?” Hamer asked once.

“Sometimes it seem like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed,” she said. “But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”

After her own experiences, Hamer began working more closely with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She focused her energies on informing and enfranchising black voters, especially those in impoverished areas. Though she eventually acquired her two poll tax receipts and was able to cast her vote, she ran into those familiar roadblocks again and again in trying to help others. Occasionally she and her fellow activists experienced much worse.

During 1963, Hamer and members of the SNCC traveled from one conference to another by bus. They stopped at a local café in Winona, Miss., for food and a bathroom. First, the waitress refused to serve them. Then, a highway patrolman threatened them with his billy club. When one of the travelers exited the cafe to write down the patrolman’s license plate number, a police chief arrived and arrested them. Hamer had been on the bus during these events. She stepped off the bus to inquire after her fellows and a bystander cried for her to be arrested as well. While in police custody, Hamer and the others were subjected to intense violence and sexual assault. More than one individual was brutally beaten for not addressing an officer as “sir.”

When she was finally released, it took a full month for Hamer to recover, though some injuries would plague her for the rest of her life. Beyond the psychological damage and emotional strain, she also suffered permanent damage to her kidneys and a blood clot over one eye. But as soon as her health allowed, she returned to her county seat in Mississippi to organize voter registration drives. “Sometimes it seem like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed,” she said. “But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”

It is difficult to imagine that these experiences, including the violence she received at the hands of police in Winona, did not rob years from her life—and thereby rob the world, and her loved ones, of her.

She didn’t. The timeline of her life reveals a truly impressive list of activist causes, all with equality at their core, from advocating for black sharecroppers and voter rights, to land and home ownership. She co-founded (with Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, and others) the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, believing in the power that women could have as a voting majority. “A white mother is no different from a black mother,” she said. “The only thing is they haven’t had as many problems. But we cry the same tears.”

Hamer died on March 14, 1977 at age 59. Over 15 years earlier, at age 44, before her battle for her voting rights began, Hamer had surgery to remove a tumor. During this procedure, the white doctor also gave her a hysterectomy without her consent. This was relatively common at the time due to Mississippi’s compulsory sterilization plan to reduce the number of black children born in the state. (It’s believed Hamer coined the euphemism “Mississippi appendectomy” for this practice.) Hamer’s daughters were both adopted and well-loved. One died, however, of internal hemorrhaging. The local hospital refused to help the girl because of her mother’s activism. The early years of the 1970s saw her hospitalized with nervous exhaustion and she was in very poor health from 1974 until her death three years later.

“…it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to [kill me] a little bit at a time since I could remember,” Hamer had said. It is difficult to imagine that these experiences, including the violence she received at the hands of police in Winona, did not rob years from her life—and thereby rob the world, and her loved ones, of her.

Her memorial service was standing room only, so an additional overflow service was held at a local high school. Over 1,500 people attended. Andrew Young, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, spoke at the service. “None of us would be where we are now had she not been there then,” he said.

Her gravestone bears what is likely her most famous quote: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

This article will end with another
of her most famous quotes:

“It is time for America to get right.”

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”