Fannie Lou Hamer’s fight to vote
Editor’s Note: To focus on the 19th Amendment as an unambiguous victory for women means we are leaving out an essential part of the story. The 19th Amendment was a victory for white women. African Americans continued to battle Jim Crow laws that restricted their right to vote up through the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And they continue those battles today. This is the story of one woman’s fight in the ongoing battle for the ballot.
On October 6, 1917, three years before the 19th Amendment was passed that granted women the right to vote, Fannie Lou Townsend was born, the youngest of 20 siblings, in Montgomery County, Mississippi. Although officially, by 1920, voting rights had been extended to all people in the United States, these rights were not granted to African Americans in practice. It would take 45 years before racial discrimination in voting was legally prohibited, thanks to the Voting Rights Act enacted by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. This victory was the result, in large part, of the courageous role Fannie Lou played in the Civil Rights Movement, working tirelessly for the rights of African Americans to become, as she put it, “first class citizens.”
Beginning at age 6, Fannie Lou picked cotton with her family on a plantation where they were hired as sharecroppers. Although under this system tenant farmers were allowed a share of the profits from their labor, the work was as labor-intensive, back breaking, and dehumanizing as it had been under slavery. By the time she was 13, Fannie Lou could pick between 200 and 300 pounds of cotton daily.
She loved reading and reciting poetry, and she won her school spelling bees. But after attending school over the winter, between planting seasons, for six years, Fannie Lou was forced to leave school at 13 to care for her now aging parents. She continued studying the Bible and listening closely to her pastors at church, who taught her the biblical lessons she was able to draw on as she developed her increasingly persuasive voice.
At 28, Fannie Lou married Pap Hamer, a tractor driver on the plantation. They were never able to have children of their own because, while undergoing a minor surgical procedure, Fannie Lou was given a hysterectomy without her consent — a procedure that came to be known as a “Mississippi appendectomy,” a euphemism for the forced sterilization imposed on poor black women as a means of “population control.” The Hamers later adopted two daughters, one of whom — refused admission to the local hospital because of her mother’s activism — died of an internal hemorrhage.
THE RIGHT TO VOTE
In 1962, after living and working on the plantation for years, Fannie Lou’s life changed. She had begun hearing that the right to vote was guaranteed to all citizens by the U.S. Constitution, and she decided to travel with other activists to Indianola, Mississippi, to vote. There she was met with a registration test devised by Jim Crow laws to prevent Blacks from exercising their voting rights. Asked to explain de facto law, of all things, Fannie Lou floundered. “I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day,” she said. On returning home, she discovered that word had spread about her efforts to vote. She was faced with an angry boss, who told her Mississippi was not ready for Blacks to vote, and he fired her.
Examining some of the laws enacted during our nation’s early days, it becomes clear that a system of advantages was put in place that allowed only those people labeled as white to possess land — and to vote. It was this system, based on long-standing racial hierarchy, that Fannie Lou was calling into question. As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, it became disturbingly obvious that, faced with the possible demise of this system, “any means necessary,” including violence, would be used to defend and protect it.
Forced to leave the plantation the night she was fired, Fannie Lou sought shelter with friends. But in retaliation for her attempt to vote, she was assaulted in a drive-by shooting by the Ku Klux Klan, whose members fired on her 16 times. Undeterred, she traveled to Indianola once again to take the literacy test. Once again, she failed. “You’ll see me every 30 days till I pass,” she told them.
True to her word, she appeared at the registration office again in January, 1963, to take the test — and this time she passed. However, when she showed up at the polls that fall to vote, she was told she would need two receipts proving she had paid a poll tax. She found the money and produced the receipts. These road blocks, along with more overt acts of coercion, were consistently erected in the face of Black enfranchisement after the universal right to vote was granted by the Constitution.
“They kicked me off the plantation, they set me free,” she said. “It’s the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people.”
THE YEARS 1963 — 1964
Convinced that voting rights should be extended to all U.S. citizens, regardless of skin color, Fannie Lou became part of a larger campaign working to enfranchise Blacks in the south. In 1963, on her way to a conference, she and fellow activists stopped for a break in Winona, Mississippi. They were refused service at a local cafe. When the police were called and it became clear that their tactics of intimidation were not going to work, the group was arrested and taken to the county jail. There the activists were severely beaten. Fannie Lou was taken to a cell where two inmates were ordered to hold her down and beat her with a blackjack. When she screamed, they beat her harder. At one point, after being repeatedly groped, her dress was pulled up over her shoulders, “leaving my body exposed to five men,” she said. The attack was nearly fatal. It took over a month for her to recover, and she experienced permanent damage to one of her kidneys.
She said of this time: “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”
Beginning in 1964, her sphere of influence expanded even further. At that time, though many counties in Mississippi were majority Black, less than 7% of African Americans were registered to vote in the state. Working with Bob Moses, the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Fannie Lou became a passionate, articulate presence during that year’s Freedom Summer. For ten weeks, students from the north, many of them white, traveled south to join local activists in a massive effort to draw the country’s attention to the injustices facing Blacks in Mississippi and the rest of the south. Tragedies occurred. Three activists – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – were abducted and murdered that June in retaliation for their civil rights work. Immediate efforts to investigate the crime were blocked by local authorities, and it was not until 2005, forty one years after the murders took place, that Edgar Ray Killen, a Ku Klux Klan organizer, was finally convicted and sent to prison.
The state’s Democratic Party at the time was all white and had a record of exploiting minorities. As a culmination of the Freedom Summer work, Fannie Lou co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party [MFDP] in an effort to ensure a broader representation that included African Americans. In August the activists traveled to the Democratic National Convention and asked to be seated as an official delegation. Fannie Lou delivered an impassioned televised appeal which, some say, was purposely preempted by a trumped-up speech that President Johnson scheduled at the same time in an effort to prevent the country from hearing her remarks. Later that night, however, her speech was broadcast by most of the major networks, giving the MFDP and Fannie Lou herself broad national exposure.
The Democratic Party refused to seat the delegation on their terms, but as a result of their tireless work, the delegation was seated at the 1968 convention, and Fannie Lou became a national party delegate in 1972.
The Civil Rights Movement celebrated two landmark victories as a result of the country’s new-found awareness of the blatant inequalities still present in the nation. In June of 1964, President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Despite the fact that the Act outlawed unequal application of voter registration requirements, it did not prohibit most forms of voter discrimination. To secure those rights, President Johnson – acting on pressure from Civil Rights activists — signed into law the Voting Rights Act the following year. This Act enforced the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, protecting the right to vote for racial minorities, especially those in the south. According to the Justice Department, the Voting Rights Act is thought to be “the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.”
Fannie Lou believed that equality rests on economic independence. To that end, she established the Freedom Farm Cooperative to give African Americans access to the economic opportunity that comes from owning land and raising one’s own food. The Cooperative secured housing loans, served as a business incubator, and helped offset the nutritional deficits of the poor.
Toward the end of her life, suffering from hypertension and breast cancer, Fannie Lou began receiving awards honoring her life’s work, including a Doctor of Law degree from Shaw University, and honorary degrees from Columbia College Chicago and Howard University.
She died at the age of 59, in 1977. Andrew Young, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., gave the eulogy at her funeral, saying, “None of us would be where we are now had she not been there then.”
As I write this, people of all colors are flooding the streets of America to remind us that the long history of injustice against African Americans, the history against which Fammie Lou Hamer fought so hard, is not over. Violence continues on our streets and (less visibly) at our polling places. In 2013, the Supreme Court (in a case called Shelby County v. Holder) voted to roll back two provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, effectively making it more difficult for people of color to vote. Since that time, over 1600 polling places have been closed, a large percentage of which are in predominantly African American communities. In addition, voter rolls have been purged, early voting has been discouraged, and new and often confusing forms of Voter ID have been mandated. A recent study found that in those jurisdictions that were essentially deregulated by the Shelby decision, voter registration purges have massively increased.
Fannie Lou might leave us with this, an exerpt from her televised speech: “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?”
Because we want to live as decent human beings in America. . . .