Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was the youngest of 20 children in her family. She began picking cotton at age 6 and left school at age 13 in order to help support her family full-time. In 1942, Ms. Hamer married, settled in Sunflower County, Mississippi as a sharecropper (her husband drove a tractor, and she worked first as a field worker and later as the plantation’s timekeeper), and later adopted 2 children.
Diagnosed with a small uterine tumor in 1961, Ms. Hamer checked into the Sunflower City Hospital to have it removed. Without her knowledge or consent, without any indication of medical necessity, the operating physician took the liberty of performing a complete hysterectomy.
Three years later, as a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Ms. Hamer spoke about her experience to an audience in Washington D.C. – telling them that she was one of many black women in her area that had been a victim of a “Mississippi appendectomy” (an unwanted, unrequested and unwarranted hysterectomy given to poor and unsuspecting Black women). According to her research, 60% of the black women in Sunflower County, Mississippi were subjected to postpartum sterilizations at Sunflower City Hospital without their permission. A number of physicians who examined these women after the procedure was performed confirm that the practice of sterilizing Southern Black women through trickery or deceit was widespread.
Civil Rights Movement Work
Ms. Hamer was also very active in other aspects of the Civil Rights movement. In 1962, she volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) registering black voters in the South. As a result of her involvement in the voter registration drive, she and her husband had been evicted from the plantation.
The SNCC then hired Ms. Hamer as a field secretary – she tutored other poor rural black people in her area to help them prepare to take the required literacy test, and helped to organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi (a campaign sponsored by the SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the NAACP). In 1963, Ms. Hamer participated in a protest of a local restaurant’s “Whites Only” policy during which she was arrested, jailed, assaulted in police custody, and refused medical treatment.
Despite the hardships and struggles she and her fellow organizers faced during this time, Ms. Hamer is frequently remembered for her beautiful singing voice which she raised often at meetings, protests, and rallies singing Christian hymns about freedom – in particular “This Little Light of Mine.”
Since African Americans were not permitted to join the Mississippi Democratic Party, she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). In 1964, the MFDP sent an alternate delegation to the Democratic National Convention comprised of 64 black and 4 white delegates. At the Convention Ms. Hamer gave a nationally-televised speech (mentioned above) that brought public attention to the issues of sterilization abuse against black women in Mississippi and violence and discrimination faced by black people who attempted to register to vote.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Fannie Lou Hamer brought a Head Start program to her local community, worked to form a local Pig Bank cooperative (1968) with the help of the National Council of Negro Women, and later to found the Freedom Farm Cooperative (1969). In 1970, Ms. Hamer filed a lawsuit (Hamer v. Sunflower County) demanding school desegregation. She also helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, speaking for inclusion of racial issues in the feminist agenda. During this time, Ms. Hamer lectured extensively, and became known as a powerful speaker and for a signature line she often used, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” In 1972 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her national and state activism, passing 116 to 0. Fannie Lou Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977, after long battles with breast cancer, diabetes, and heart problems.
Serena Sebring - Last updated December 6, 2007.
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