In our ongoing celebration of Black History Month, we look back at some of the leaders, icons and pop culture juggernauts that helped to bring diversity, equity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of the American landscape — like these men and women who left their indelible mark on the 1960s.
She may have come from the poor rural south, but with her passion, determination, and drive, Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer became one of the most powerful and admired voices for change in American Civil Rights history.
Born on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Hamer was the 20th and final child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend. Growing up in poverty, she learned to work hard from an early age. At six, she was in the fields picking cotton with her family. By the time she was 12, she had dropped out of school to work full time helping to support her immense family.
Hamer continued working on her family’s farm until 1944 when she married Perry Hamer. The couple then began working on another plantation until the early 1960s. Able to read and write when many around her couldn’t, Hamer also served as timekeeper on the plantation.
Hamer and her husband had hoped to start a family of their own, but after was forcefully sterilized during a surgery to remove a uterine tumor — the hysterectomy took place without her consent (a process that was all too common during this period as a means of “helping to control” the Black population) — the couple instead adopted two daughters.
It was during this period, with her new family beginning to take shape, that Hamer also first became interested in politics and civil rights. Angry that many in the community around her actively worked to deny Blacks the right to vote, Hamer began attending meetings led by civil rights activists James Forman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Encouraged by their words, she became a SNCC organizer herself and on August 31, 1962 she led a protest at the Indianola, Mississippi Courthouse in an effort to help 17 volunteers register to vote. The effort ended in disaster. The volunteers were denied the right to register because of an unfair literacy test. Members of the community violently harassed the group as they left the courthouse in defeat. Police even stopped the school bus the group was traveling on, fining them $100 because it was supposedly painted “too bright” a yellow.
When she got home, Hamer also found out that she had been fired from her job because of her efforts. Community officials confiscated much of the couple’s property and Hamer and her husband ultimately moved to nearby Ruleville, Mississippi with barely anything to their name.
But while Hamer’s efforts to promote voting rights had cost her and her family dearly, she wasn’t defeated. In fact, if anything, those challenges only fueled her fire for change, driving her to work even harder on similar efforts in the future.
In June 1963, Hamer helped to lead a successful voter registration program in Charleston, South Carolina — and again, paid dearly for her efforts. Arrested for staging a sit-in in a “whites-only” bus station restaurant in Winona, Mississippi, Hamer and other members of her civil rights group were severely beaten at the local Winona jailhouse. Hamer survived the ordeal but was left with lifelong injuries including damage to one of her eyes, her kidneys, and one of her legs.
And still, Hamer was undeterred in her efforts. Her national reputation as an advocate for change in the South soared and in 1964, Hamer helped to co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Her speeches were eventually carried on TV, bringing even further attention to her efforts, and in 1968 she became an official member of the Democratic party delegation — the first ever integrated delegation in the state’s history..
During the mid 60s Hamer also helped to organize a program called Freedom Summer which encouraged college students of all races to promote and assist with Black voter registration efforts in the South. She also attempted her own run for the Mississippi House of Representatives, although she was ultimately barred from the ballot because of her race. As with other challenges in her past, that setback led Hamer to push back even harder for change and in 1971 she helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus, a group dedicated to increasing women’s representation and voice in government.
Outside of her ongoing quest to improve voting rights for Blacks, Hamer was also a staunch supporter of economic efforts to promote greater racial equality. In 1968, she created a program that gave free pigs to Black farmers in an effort to improve their livelihood. She also helped to launch the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), a group dedicated to buying swaths of land that black farmers could own and operate collectively. With the assistance of a series of wealthy donors (including popular singer Harry Belafonte), the group bought more than 600 acres. The Freedom Farm Cooperative also launched its own grocery store, boutique, and sewing business, providing local outlets where products produced on its farms could be sold.
Hamer worked tirelessly for her community, right up until her death from breast cancer in 1977 at the age of 59. One of her final efforts was helping to create more than 200 units of low-income housing across Ruleville — all in an effort to try to ensure that future generations never had to endure the levels of hardship that she herself did in her own youth.
“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Hamer once remarked. “Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”