Oxford AASC: Hamer, Fannie Lou

Hamer, Fannie Lou

By: Linda Reed
 Black Women in America, Second Edition What is This?

Hamer, Fannie Lou

(b. 6 October 1917; d. 14 March 1977),
civil rights activist.

“I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.” The famous and radical words of Fannie Lou Hamer expressed how many black Americans had come to feel by the 1960s. Her speeches and songs influenced everyone who heard and saw her. For many Americans, Fannie Lou Hamer symbolized the best of what the civil rights movement could be.

Fannie Lou Townsend was born to Jim and Ella Townsend in rural Montgomery County, Mississippi. Ella and Jim Townsend moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi, when Fannie Lou was two years old, and the child received her early education there. At the age of six, Fannie Lou began working in the cotton fields and worked many long years chopping and picking cotton until the plantation owner, W. D. Marlow, learned that she could read and write. In 1944 she became the time and record keeper for Marlow, and in 1945 she married Perry Hamer, a tractor driver on the Marlow plantation. For the next eighteen years, Hamer worked as sharecropper and time keeper on the plantation, four miles east of Ruleville, Mississippi, where she and Perry made their home. All this changed in 1962 when Hamer suffered economic reprisals after an unsuccessful attempt to vote in the county seat of Indianola. Familiar with the physical violence that would often follow economic reprisals, and having received threats, Hamer left her family to stay with friends. The move did not end the threat of violence, however, and Hamer and her friends miraculously escaped rounds of gunshots fired into the friends' home when a person or persons unknown discovered her presence there.

Despite this intimidation, Hamer became an active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Ruleville. She took the literacy test several times in order to repeatedly demonstrate her right to vote. In 1963, she became a field secretary for SNCC and a registered voter; both put her life in jeopardy. From this point onward, Hamer worked with voter registration drives and with programs designed to assist economically deprived black families in Mississippi.

The youngest of twenty children whose parents seldom were able to provide adequate food and clothing, Hamer saw a link between the lack of access to the political process and the poor economic status of black Americans. She was instrumental in starting Delta Ministry, an extensive community development program, in 1963. In 1964 she took part in the founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), becoming vice chairperson and a member of its delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in order to challenge the seating of the regular all-white Mississippi delegation. The challenge failed despite a compromise offered by Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale that would have seated two nonvoting MFDP members selected by Humphrey. Instead, the MFDP's actions resulted in an unprecedented pledge from the national Democratic Party not to seat delegations that excluded black delegates at the convention in 1968.

Hamer, Fannie Lou

Fannie Lou Hamer.  The great civil rights activist and leader Fannie Lou Hamer emerged from childhood poverty to become one of America's most daring and indefatigable champions of equal protection under the law for all citizens. This photograph from 1964 shows Hamer at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

(Library of Congress.)

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Also in 1964 Hamer unsuccessfully ran for Congress. Because the regular Democratic Party refused to place her name on the ballot, the MFDP distributed a “Freedom Ballot” that included all of the candidates' names, black and white. Hamer defeated her white opponent, Congressman Jamie Whitten on the alternative ballot, but the state refused to acknowledge the MFDP vote as valid. In 1965 Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine appealed to the Congress, arguing that it was wrong to seat Mississippi's representatives, who were all white, when the state's population was 50 percent black. The three women watched as the House voted against the challenge, 228 to 143.

Hamer remained active in civic affairs in Mississippi for the remainder of her life and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in Chicago. Her founding in 1969 of the Freedom Farms Corporation (FFC), a nonprofit venture designed to help needy families raise food and livestock, was a response to the economic plight of black Americans in Mississippi. The FFC also provided social services, minority business opportunity, scholarships, and grants for education. When the National Council of Negro Women started the Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center in 1970, Hamer became its board's chairperson. In 1976, even as she struggled with cancer, Hamer served as a member of the state executive committee of the United Democratic Party of Mississippi.

Fannie Lou Hamer in an interview in 1965 said “I was determined to see that things were changed.” Paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, she continued, “I am determined to give my part not for what the movement can do for me, but what I can do for the movement to bring about a change.” On being tired, Hamer put it best:

"I do remember, one time, a man came to me after the students began to work in Mississippi, and he said the white people were getting tired and they were getting tense and anything might happen. Well, I asked him, “how long he thinks we had been getting tired?” I have been tired for forty-six years, and my parents was tired before me, and their parents were tired; and I have always wanted to do something that would help some of the things I would see going on among Negroes that I didn't like and I don't like now."

Hamer consistently stated that she had always wanted to work to transform the South because she saw her parents work so hard to raise twenty children. Once, her father bought two mules after much sacrifice, and simply because this meant he might experience semi-independence from the landowner, his mules were poisoned. Hamer said she never understood this kind of hatred, but fighting it gave her courage.

Fannie Lou Hamer's frankness, determination, courage, and leadership abilities made her a memorable figure in the 1960s civil rights struggle, particularly in the MFDP challenge to the Democratic Party in August 1964, and especially in its challenge to white southern members of the party.

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Hamer Address, 1964 Convention. Fannie Lou Hamer speaks at the 1964 National Democratic Convention.

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Fannie Lou Hamer received wide recognition for her part in bringing about a major political transformation in the Democratic Party and for raising significant questions that addressed basic human needs. In 1963 the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, presented her with one of the first awards that she received, for “voter registration and Hamer's fight for freedom for mankind.” Among her numerous awards, she received the National Association of Business and Professional Women's Clubs National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Award, a tribute to Hamer's strong defense of human dignity and fearless promotion of civil rights. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority awarded her a life membership. Many colleges and universities honored her with honorary degrees, including Tougaloo College in 1969.

Fannie Lou Hamer gave numerous speeches across the country into the 1970s. She suffered with cancer, but she continued to accept invitations to speak about the issue most dear to her, basic human rights for all Americans. Indeed, she remained tired of being sick and tired until her life ended. She died of cancer at Mound Bayou Community Hospital in Mississippi.

See also Civil Rights Movement.


  • Autobiography of Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie Lou Hamer papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA.
  • Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • DeMuth, Jerry. Tired of Being Sick and Tired. Nation, 1 June 1964.
  • De Veaux Garland, Phyl. Builders of a New South. Ebony, August 1966.
  • Golden, Marita. The Sixties Live On: The Era of Black Consciousness Is Preserved as a State of Mind. Essence, May 1985.
  • Hamer, Fannie Lou. Personal interviews, 1964, 1965.
  • Ladner, Joyce A. Fannie Lou Hamer: In Memoriam. Black Enterprise, May 1977.
  • Life in Mississippi: An Interview with Fannie Lou Hamer. In Afro-American History: Primary Sources (1965), edited by Thomas R. Frazier. Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1988.
  • Locke, Mamie E. Is This America? Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941–1965 (1990), edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
  • Norton, Eleanor Holmes. Woman Who Changed the South: Memory of Fannie Lou Hamer. Ms.>, July 1977.
  • Reagon, Bernice Johnson. Women as Culture Carriers in the Civil Rights Movement: Fannie Lou Hamer. In Women in the Civil Rights Movement (1990), edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

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