Letter to the editor: Fannie Lou Hamer worthy of big accolades
“This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine.” You too can sing along with Fannie Lou Hamer and feel her vibrancy and power.
I choose to honor Fannie Lou Hamer in recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8 and Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Here is part of her story. Herstory is another form of history.
Fannie Lou Hamer lived from 1917 to 1977 in Mississippi. She was the youngest of 20 children. Her mother was paid money by the plantation owner for producing one more future field hand. Fannie Lou and her family worked as sharecroppers.
Fannie Lou married Perry “Pap” Hamer in 1944. Together they worked as sharecroppers in Ruleville, Miss. In 1962, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came to Ruleville to invite black people to act, using their constitutional right to register to vote and then to use their voting rights to better their lives.
Fannie Lou was moved by a sermon based on Matthew, chapter 16, verse 3. “Ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” Along with 17 other volunteers, Fannie Lou took a bus to Indianola, the county seat, to register. They had to first pass a literacy test. Fannie Lou did not pass the test, the first time. She returned to her home.
Her boss, the plantation owner, told her to either withdraw her name at the courthouse or leave the plantation. Fannie Lou chose the latter. She moved out and stayed with friends. That evening nightriders came by and shot into the house where she was staying. Luckily, no one was hurt. For months, Fannie Lou had to hide out with family and friends. Every 30 days, she returned to Indianola to re-take the literacy test. It took her 3 times. She then became a registered voter in the state of Mississippi. In 1963, she was rejected one more time from voting, since she did not have enough money to pay the state poll tax.
Fannie Lou understood to the depth of her being the importance of registering to vote and using that voting power. She became a SNCC field secretary in Mississippi. In June of 1963, Fannie Lou went to a citizenship school in South Carolina. On the bus trip home, she and several of her friends were arrested in Winona, Miss. Fannie Lou was severely beaten. Civil rights activist, Unita Blackwell, who later became the first female black mayor in Mississippi, along with Stokely Carmichael, visited Fannie Lou after she was released from prison by Andrew Young, of the SCLC.
Unita was very angry that her colleague, Fannie Lou, was tortured. Fannie Lou kept her heart open and responded to Unita’s emotional state of being. Fannie Lou said, “You can’t have that kind of hate in you. It will destroy you. So we are going to have to find a way to love them. We are going to register to vote. We’re going to love them enough to get them out of these offices. And we’re going to send them home … We’re just going to love them because they are sick. We need to get rid of them.”
In 1964, Fannie Lou and several other SNCC members founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Fannie Lou along with 67 other MFDP delegates traveled to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. The Democratic Party’s Credentials Committee would allow only one group of delegates from Mississippi.
The all-white regular delegates did not represent black citizens of Mississippi. Fannie Lou was selected by the MFDP as their spokesperson. She told her story to the Credentials Committee. She ended with this question. “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this the America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings?”
The committee offered this compromise. “You can seat two of your 68 delegates.” The MFDP rejected this compromise and took their bus back home to Mississippi. There, Fannie Lou decide to run for Congress as a Freedom Democrat. She said, “If I am elected as Congresswoman, things will be different. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. For so many years, the Negroes have suffered in the state of Mississippi. We are tired of people saying we are satisfied, because we are anything but satisfied.”
Fannie Lou realized that the election was not constitutional. The state of Mississippi blocked many blacks from voting. Fannie Lou was not placed on the Democratic ticket. Two friends, Annie Devine and Victoria Adams, and Fannie Lou Hamer, brought their fight to Congress. They declared that the election was fraught with illegal actions. These black women lost that fight. However, they continued to pursue it.
Fannie Lou helped thousands of black citizens register to vote. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Alabama and Mississippi. Fannie Lou understood how to touch the lives of families. She started a Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County. She also started a pig “bank”. (Pregnant pigs were given to families who agreed to care for them. They returned the mother pig to the “bank” after piglets were born.)
Here is Fannie Lou’s statement about healthy food. “Food allows the sick ones a chance for healing, the silent ones a chance to speak, the unlearned ones a chance to learn, and the dying ones a chance to live.” Fannie Lou also started a Head Start program. She also helped people acquire better housing through accessing government housing loans.
Fannie Lou Hamer lived her belief, “We serve God by serving our fellow man.”
By all means. exercise your freedom to vote, uncover injustice, and speak up. Allow your voice and/or your writing to shed light in our world. What are the signs of our times?
(I used the following books as resources: a children’s book, “Voice of Freedom, Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement,” by Carole Weatherford and a young adult book, “Let It Shine, Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters,” by Andrea Pinkney.)
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