In light of the continued and very intentional voter suppression taking place fifty-five years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it seems befitting to put the focus on the woman who played a pivotal role in this fight for justice.
Fannie Lou Hamer entered the world, Fannie Lou Townsend, on October 6, 1917. She was the last child of 20 children born to her parents, James Lee and Lou Ella Townsend. Her father was determined to provide for his family and they were doing well. Still poor, but working hard to get ahead. One day a white man poisoned their crop and animals to prevent them from becoming independent, self-sufficient, prosperous, free from the rule of the plantation owner. This was the norm in Mississippi where Fannie grew up. Sadly, the family never recovered. They continued to toil on the overseer’s land.
As a little girl, Fannie Lou enjoyed school whenever she was allowed to go. Families, including children, had to work the land so school was not the top priority. At the age of twelve, she dropped out and worked full-time to help her family out but Fannie was smart and could read. When the plantation owner learned she was literate, he “hired” her as the timekeeper.
In 1962, she joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee working hard to register to vote. Despite, voter registration practices such as literacy tests and scare tactics designed to keep Black people from voting, she finally passed the test after taking it three times but not without severe consequence.
On August 22, 1964, Mrs. Hamer testified before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, giving an account of how she and others were brutally beaten in jail for simply registering to vote. It was undoubtedly one of the most powerful speeches spoken that day and during that era affecting change for Black Americans. It was also a frightening and very personal glimpse into the opposition and danger people in the south and specifically Mississippi were facing.
During Mrs. Hamer’s speech, President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to undermine her testimony and prevent it from being broadcast live on the air. Instead, it was cut to a reporter then to the president for an announcement that was basically a whole lot of nothing. But his plan backfired. Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony was so powerful, people wept. It was all anyone in the room could talk about. It was shared in the newspapers, on television, and in conversation across the country.
You see, everyone knew Mississippi was racist. Everyone knew the Mississippi Democratic Party was racist but no one dared to challenge them. In fact, in 1962, after Mrs. Hamer returned from registering to vote in Indianola and was forced to leave her home and board with friends. Later that evening sixteen bullets were fired into that house. Luckily, Mrs. Hamer was not there.
The FBI showed up pretending to care for her safety questioning what she knew. Fannie Lou Hamer was no fool. She saw right through their lies. “I told them until they straightened out some of the things that had done happened, don’t come asking about the things that just happened. Do something about the problems that we’d already had.” It’s important to understand the FBI had been in this small town for months. Everyone knew everyone but somehow no arrests were made. Why was the FBI posted there? The real reason?
Fannie Lou Hamer was threatened, harassed, assaulted, shot at by white supremacists, and fired from her job on the plantation. In 1963 after being arrested, she was beaten so badly in jail it caused permanent kidney damage. They tried to instill fear, put her in her place, yet, she only grew more determined. If I was a betting woman, I’d bet President Lyndon B. Johnson was aware of every detail including the FBI’s presence in Mississippi and that’s why he was determined to silence her voice.
There’s a video circulating from years ago when Oprah Winfrey hosted The Oprah Winfrey Show (1986-2011). She’s retelling a story told to her about a man by the name of Otis Moss Sr. who never had the chance to vote and how when he finally got the opportunity to do so it was a big day. He woke up early, put on his Sundays best, and walked 6 miles to the polls, was told he was at the wrong place, walked another 5-6 miles to where they told him to go, and was told he was too late. By the time he made it home he had walked a total of 18 miles and told his family how he was not able to vote that day but was determined to vote in the next one. He died before the next election never being able to vote.
March 7, 1965, will forever be known as Bloody Sunday. This peaceful protest quickly turned deadly all while being televised. To put it in perspective, my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother lived during this time. I was born less than ten years after this horrific event took place. My grandmother is still living today. That also means the parents, their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren who religiously practiced racism fifty-five years ago in an effort to prevent Black people from voting, getting ahead, becoming independent, self-sufficient, prosperous, are likely alive in twenty-twenty.
Fannie Lou Hamer kept fighting for voting rights and more so, women’s right to vote, to be heard until the time of her death in 1977. In 1993 for her work, dedication, and sacrifice, she was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Mrs. Hamer’s testimony, the peaceful protesters of Bloody Sunday, which included the late and beloved, Representative John Lewis, and all the other series of unfortunate events broadcast to the world finally forced Congress into action and the President of the United States of America to put pen to paper on August 6, 1965 “outlawing discriminatory voting practices” enforced by southern states after the Civil War.
It’s the boldness for me. Fannie Lou Hamer lived in a place and during a time where you could die trying to vote. But not only that, it was the power in her voice, love for her people and all humanity, her unyielding, unwavering commitment to building a better America by doing what she could with what she had. From registering people to vote to creating communal gardens, clothes closets. I am in awe, inspired, constantly gleaning from this Full-Time Woman.
“And you can always hear this long sob story: “You know it takes time.” For three hundred years, we’ve given them time. And I’ve been tired so long, now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change. We want a change in this society in America because, you see, we can no longer ignore the facts and getting our children to sing, “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed.” What do we have to hail here? The truth is the only thing going to free us.” ~Fannie Lou Hamer
To learn more about Fannie Lou Hamer and other women follow me on Instagram @ftwrealtalk