Fannie Lou Hamer: From Sharecropper to Civil and Voting Rights Icon

By: Yves Jeffcoat  | 

Fanny Lou Hamer
All eyes are on Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate Fannie Lou Hamer as she speaks out for the meeting of her delegates prior to the formal meeting of the Democratic National Convention. Bettmann/Getty Images

The words of Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer have resounded across generations: "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." They've been co-opted in memes, written on protest signs and uttered by contemporary activists and organizers.

It makes sense that the pithy statement would resonate, since people still deal with frustration over social injustices. Hamer is rightfully celebrated for her oratory skills, and her legacy lives on in part through her speeches and testimonies. But Hamer had a storied life beyond her suffering, and her contributions aren't limited to the adages that have stuck with us over the years.

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Hamer and her parents were sharecroppers, or farmers who worked land that someone else owned in exchange for a share of the crop that they produced. She picked cotton and worked as a time and record keeper on a plantation in Mississippi. Sharecropping was a notoriously exploitative practice that was popular in the wake of the Civil War, and Hamer's family lived in poverty.

Hamer was conscious of the racial and economic inequality she faced every day, and she was drawn to do something about it herself. She claimed that she did not know Black people could register to vote, but Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, a historian and author of the forthcoming book "Walk With Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer," says that was a myth that Hamer herself spread.

"She knew full well that they could/should be able to if it were not for the voter restrictions imposed on Mississippians and the oppressive nature of the ways those restrictions were used specifically to deny Blacks the right to vote," Larson says, in an email interview. "She had participated in NAACP membership drives and met with Mississippi civil rights leaders during the 1950s."

But it wasn't until 1962 that she and 17 other people tried to register to vote in Indianola, Mississippi. In order to register, the volunteers had to pass literacy tests, which were often used to keep Black people from voting. Hamer was not only denied her right to vote, but she was also dismissed from the plantation where she worked because of her attempt to register. It was a pivotal moment. For the rest of her life, Hamer would be knee-deep in politics and activism.

Fanny Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer joined the protest outside Convention Hall over seating the Mississippi delegates to the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Left to right, Dr. Aaron Henry, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party head; Hamer; and the parents of slain civil rights worker Michael Schwerner.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Voter suppression tactics — like literacy tests and poll taxes — were rampant, and voting rights activists faced violence and terrorism. But Hamer was dedicated to the cause, and she worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights group that organized voter registration drives in the South as a field organizer. Mississippi had historically low levels of Black voter participation, but Hamer had "Mississippi in her bones," as civil rights activist Bob Moses said in the PBS documentary "Freedom Summer." She spoke with Black people in rural counties in Mississippi about registering to vote, and she gained support in places where enthusiasm for voting was low, policies preventing Black people from voting proliferated, and the threat of violence against Black people interested in politics loomed. Hamer was determined to make the state a better place for Black people.

Eventually she became the field secretary for SNCC, and while she was in that role, the organization's voter registration drives added thousands of Black voters to the rolls. In the summer of 1964, hundreds of volunteers converged in Mississippi to increase the number of Black registered voters in the state. Hamer was one of the key organizers of this project, known as Freedom Summer.

A small percentage of the total number of Black Mississippians who tried to register to vote were successful. But the project did lead to the creation of Freedom Schools (temporary, free schools for African Americans, meant to help them organize for civil rights) and it raised awareness about the disenfranchisement of Black people in Mississippi. It also marked a turning point in the civil rights movement. The effort got a lot of media attention, and it was a significant moment in the buildup to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In tandem with the Freedom Summer effort, Hamer also co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964. Mississippi's Democratic Party was all white, pro-segregation and had a history of blocking Black voter participation. The MFDP aimed to challenge the legitimacy of the Mississippi Democratic Party and to expand representation to Black people. When MFDP delegates went to the Democratic National Convention in August, they testified in front of the Credentials Committee to demand that they be seated in the convention. Hamer's testimony was powerful.

Fanny Lou Hamer
Some of the keynote speakers at the opening of the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971 (L-R): Betty Smith, former vice-chairman of the GOP in Wisconsin; Dorothy Haener, international representative, women's department, United Automobile Workers Union; Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights leader from Mississippi; and Gloria Steinem, member, the Democratic National Policy Council.
Bettmann/Getty Images

"If the freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America," Hamer said. "Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?"

Hamer's voice was one of her most prominent features — her speeches and songs were captivating. "She challenged audiences to open their minds and see the immediacy of the moment through her gifted interpretations of Bible passages," says Larson. "She spoke from her own experience, thus connecting her to everyday people."

Hamer died in 1977, after many more years of activism, political involvement and community building. Though voter registration and political representation are still issues that organizers are navigating today in the U.S., Hamer's words and actions continue to inspire contemporary movements for justice and human rights.

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