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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,136

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This is the grave of Fannie Lou Hamer.

Born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Hamer sums up the struggles and hope of the early and mid-twentieth Black population. She was the youngest of 20 children to Ella and James Townsend. She later claimed that she was the only one that did not result from rape from whites, though I’m not entirely sure this is true as her parents did live together for a long time. But given the rampant sexual and racial violence of the period, it’s entirely possible. The family were sharecroppers and Hamer picked cotton from the age of six. She got a little bit of schooling, going during the winters for six years, but not at all after 1930. She could read and was quite good at poetry, but had no ability to expand her schooling given her family’s poverty. She contracted polio during these years and while she recovered, no one really recovers fully and so she struggled physically with this while picking up to 300 lbs of cotton a day.

Hamer became a local church leader and expanded her reading and her world that way. She was a very smart woman and in 1944, when a planter realized she could actually read well, he hired her to do his books too. She married Pap Hamer in 1945 and they stayed working on the same plantation together for 18 years. During these years, they tried to start a family but were unable to do so. Moreover, in 1961, when undergoing a separate medical procedure, the doctor involuntarily sterilized Hamer, one of many thousands of Black and Native women sterilized by a eugenic America during these years. They did adopt a couple of girls, but one died of an internal hemorrhage after a hospital denied the girl treatment because they knew Hamer had become a civil rights activist. This is just flat out murder by whites who just didn’t care.

In the 1950s, Hamer became increasingly attracted to the civil rights movement. She knew what was happening around the country. But to act in Mississippi, I mean this was the belly of the American beast. Plus she was just a sharecropper, making her economically vulnerable as well. This was no shop owner or minister. The Regional Council of Negro Leadership was a Mississippi-based organization that began to build toward civil rights in the 1950s. It was a combination of urging a politics toward civil rights with a Black self-help mentality that pushed for Black business ownership and Black shopping at Black businesses. These were well-worn strategies. Medgar Evers was involved with this. Hamer began attending local meetings of RCNL and then the annual meetings in the town of Mount Bayou. These were a combination the church camp meeting and the political rally. It was pretty risky in the Mississippi of the 1950s but they happened every year between 1952 and 1955. Hamer attended and it changed her life.

In 1961, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee decided to start its Mississippi project. Run by idealistic young activists, SNCC wanted to go where Dr. King and the ministers movement would not–into the rural South to organize in the most difficult conditions. When SNCC activists got there, they made connections with local civil rights leaders, the type of people most willing to take risks, even if it might cost them their lives. That soon included the woman they would only refer to as Mrs. Hamer. She became one of SNCC’s biggest allies in the Delta, using her considerable education (for her place and time) and her bravery and her speaking skills to great effect.

As SNCC began to make progress against all odds, Hamer and others had to put their lives on the line. There was no way around it. She became a leader because she showed no fear, despite the fact that she had every reason to be afraid. She seems to have somehow transcended this, truly feeling she had nothing to lose. There were times of great terror and physical pain to come, but she continued to push ahead. In 1962, Hamer led a group of 17 Black Mississippians to register to vote. Of course, none of them were allowed to do so based on the literacy test, which always had been interpreted however the person in charge of the test wanted to interpret it, meaning no Black people no matter how much knowledge they had. But the aftermath of that changed Hamer’s life because her landlord was so infuriated that he kicked her and her husband off the land, while also forcing him to stay and finish the crop that was already in the ground.

Now, you might say that not being a sharecropper any longer was no great loss, but you didn’t grow up in that life and for the Hamers, they knew nothing else. They had not followed the jobs north like millions of other Black Southerners. But all this was continue her determination to fight for her rights. Even more scary was that she became the top target for the racists. Her family moved between homes over the next several days after the registration attempt but the KKK found her and fired 15 shots into the house where she was staying. Miraculously, no one was hurt. Her response was to go back to the courthouse in Indianola and try and register to vote again, where she said that they could keep failing her but she was going to be back every month.

Eventually, it became harder for Mississippi to resist this and the county finally allowed her to register to vote in early 1963. But she still couldn’t vote because she was told she needed poll tax receipts, which of course she didn’t have and which was mostly forgotten about in Mississippi except when “necessary.” She eventually did take care of this, but this just gives a simple but effective demonstration of how hard southern whites want to make it for Black people to vote, in 1963 and in 2022 as we are rapidly seeing as the nation repeals its civil rights gains.

As time went on, Hamer began working more directly with SNCC and other civil rights groups. In 1963, she and others took a bus to a Southern Christian Leadership Conference event in South Carolina. Along the way, the bus stopped for a break. The activists decided to desegregate the bus stop cafe. Of course this wasn’t allowed. The cops came and then the activists dared to take down his name. Hamer was well-known by this time to the Mississippi white establishment and so while she was not initially there as this was going on, she walked over and intervened and then was arrested. This led to the most of the most notorious events in the entire civil rights era, though one that was far from uncommon through the long history of Jim Crow. The cops took Hamer, stripped her, and had a Black prisoner beat her absolutely mercilessly and brutally. This nearly killed her. Moreover, the details, which she publicized in great detail, are very difficult to read. Basically, as the white cops sexually assaulted her, this prisoner kept hitting her with a blackjack all over her body. She wasn’t the only one of her group who faced this–several of the women did. The next day, a SNCC volunteer came to intervene and try to make contact with her and he was beaten in a similar fashion. In fact, she never really recovered from this. She suffered permanent kidney damage and had a blood clot over her left eye. Naturally, it had serious psychological effects too. She would never be the same. Who would?

But did this hell dissuade Hamer from continuing the fight? No! In fact, she seems to have figured that she survived this, so what else did she have to lose? By 1964, she was, along with Bob Moses, the quasi-spiritual leader of the Mississippi freedom movement. SNCC was hardly an organization without internal disagreements. As the fall of 1963 hit and nearly three years had passed with no meaningful change in the rights of Mississippi Blacks, many in SNCC came to a depressing conclusion. The only way anyone nationally would care about their movement would be to get northern white kids involved and possibly killed. The debate over whether to do this, in what became known as Freedom Summer in the summer of 1964, was quite intense. Many thought it would ruin the movement. Many believed that northern white liberal college students, who knew nothing, would come down and start telling local people what to do. Hamer came down on the side of inviting them down and played an important role in that decision. She believed that movements should be interracial and that help should be acquired where it could be acquired.

It was in Freedom Summer when Hamer became a nationally known figure. She was such an inspiration to the people who came from the North, which included Black as well as white students. She personally took on individual young people who she believed had potential for extra mentoring. One of them was Sammy Younge, Jr., who became one of them movement’s many martyrs in 1966 after he used a whites-only restroom in a small town Alabama gas station. Another devastating murder of a great activist. But Hamer would just keep going. When Freedom Summer concluded with the decision to go after the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Hamer became the face of the effort.

Now, Hamer had a lot of crap to deal with in the civil rights movement itself. This was a southern woman. She was reasonably well-educated for the Delta. But the Delta wasn’t Harlem. The civil rights establishment was as classist as you could possibly imagine and quite often very colorist as well. For someone like Roy Wilkins, heading the NAACP from New York, someone like Hamer wasn’t a useful ally. She was an embarrassment. She had a drawl! She didn’t speak proper English! And do not underestimate the vitriol of Wilkins and his like. Wilkins himself called her “ignorant.” By this time, Lyndon Johnson was starting to know who she was. LBJ was, uh, complex. He could force the Senate to pass incredibly progressive legislation to overturn Jim Crow and then go tell racist jokes in the Oval Office. He knew poverty and he knew poor southerners of all races. But he had gotten use to dealing with the Roy Wilkins’ of the world. So for LBJ, Hamer was also ignorant and not deserving of respect.

There’s an excellent set of primary source documents in the Bedford-St. Martin’s series on Freedom Summer. It’s worth reading even if you aren’t teaching a relevant class. Toward the end of it, there’s transcripts some of the Johnson tapes about the rise of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its challenge to white Mississippi. Johnson tells Walter Reuther that he can’t understand the anger because what more did they want him to do? Did they want Barry Goldwater to win! Did they want to destroy Johnson’s coalition! He was furious.

But Johnson also just missed the point, as he so often did when people on the left didn’t kiss his ring. It was not about him. It was about what was right. Mississippi’s Democratic Party was as white and racist in 1964 as it was in 1884 or 1924. When was anything going to change? How many more activists had to die? For Hamer and Moses and other SNCC leaders, this was simply unacceptable. So the challenge of the MFDP was one about morality. Hamer’s testimony about the beatings she received was powerful–for many northern whites, the real audience here–it was compelling. It’s one thing to read about something like this in the New York Times, but it’s another to hear it in the live words of a Black woman with a thick southern accent who experienced herself. Hamer asked the nation, “All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”

It was a great question. Lyndon Johnson absolutely freaked out. He preempted her talk by getting the networks to interrupt so he could give a “major speech.” Of course it was a big nothingburger, he just wanted to get Hamer off the networks. But this didn’t work. The networks played her whole speech later that night. This was one of the most important moments in the history of civil rights, and really of America. Johnson tried to work out a deal with the MFDP, sending Hubert Humphrey to meet with them and offering to seat two token delegates and then get all this worked out in 1968. Hamer flat out rejected this, telling Humphrey, “We didn’t come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here. We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired.”

The MFDP’s defeat in Atlantic City helped lead to the radicalization of the civil rights movement. Although from today’s perspective we can look at 1964 and see major victories for the movement, the patience of the activists putting their lives on the line and sometimes losing it had run out. Black Power was in the ascendant and SNCC would soon fall apart after embracing it and other radical ideologies after 1965. Such an organization was inherently unstable, as all student movements are. Nothing wrong with this. It was a natural progression.

But there were lots more rights to fight for than in just one organization. Hamer hardly stopped her organizing after 1964. Hamer stayed centrally involved in both political party organizing and street-level organizing. The MFDP continued as a local organization. By 1968, the Democratic Party had forced through a clause requiring desegregated state delegations and so the MFDP had won that. By 1972, Hamer herself was an elected national party delegate.

But Hamer knew that electoral politics was just one piece of organizing. She worked on national civil rights campaigns and was centrally involved in the creation of the Poor Person’s Campaign, King’s last major effort and the attempt to unite the poor of all races with a new March on Washington in the summer of 1968. She also attempted to engage in women’s organizing in a cross-racial manner, co-founding the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.

But Hamer was also involved in implementing Great Society programs in her local community. After all, the War on Poverty was something she understood well. She also believed strongly in the Black ownership of land. This was a long-standing battle in the South, as Black land ownership was a critical goal of freed slaves in 1865 and whites, north and south, determined not to give it to them and force them back on the plantations. That hadn’t changed much a century later. Southern segregationist politicians still represented the interests of white landowners. So Hamer started the Freedom Farm Collective in 1969 to promote rural land ownership and food sustainability in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Of course, she needed land too–she and her husband did come from that sharecropping world and while they now had some level of money because Hamer published her autobiography after Freedom Summer, these were far from wealthy people. Land ownership was personal for them. Thanks to Harry Belafonte’s loan, Hamer bought a 40 acre plot of land for a cooperative farm. Families got to trade work for produce. They grew food, not cotton. This was about Black self-sufficiency, not the capitalist marketplace. The farm also had a Head Start funded preschool and other social agencies.

The next year, in 1970, Hamer worked with the National Council of Negro Women to expand the project. The NCNW gave Hamer a loan to buy another 640 acres and to allow Black families to own a pig. The pig thing was important here. Hamer knew hunger and she demanded that rural Black people be allowed to sustain themselves. That was the pig. Self-sufficiency. They could kill it for meat, they could sell it, heck they could keep it is as a pet if they wanted, but the point was that the pig was there for an emergency. With white politicians in Mississippi doing everything they can, with some success, to strip food aid to the poor in the Delta as revenge for organizing, the pig also provided a bulwark against the government enforcing a disempowered population through the threat of starvation. This was real, grassroots organizing right here.

Now, the FFC failed in 1976, due to a confluence of factors. First, there was a drought in 1972 and 1973 that hurt the ability to grow crops. But it was also an anti-capitalist operation operating within a capitalist economy. What this meant is that it really couldn’t compete on efficiency terms and relied on outside funding. We all know how fickle outside funders can be. So despite these key loans, the FFC really relied on Hamer herself, who could raise money by speaking engagements.

Alas, by the early 70s, Hamer’s health began to fail. She developed breast cancer. After 1974, she could no longer travel to give her talks. Some of this was physical and some of it was also growing mental illness, probably caused in part by the PTSD from her beating. She had a couple of nervous breakdowns that required hospitalization. The FFC couldn’t survive. Unfortunately, neither could Hamer. She died in 1977, at the age of 59. Andrew Young, then ambassador to the United Nations, gave the keynote obituary at her funeral.

Let’s watch Hamer speak:

Fannie Lou Hamer is buried in Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden, Ruleville, Mississippi.

I visited this grave on my recent trip to the South. Thanks to the funders of this series who made this grave visit finally happen. It was one that I am really glad I was able to see. If you would like this series to visit other civil rights leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ralph Abernathy is in Atlanta and Cesar Chavez is in Keene, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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