You know the saying, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”? That was Fannie Lou Hamer. Her life gave the words depth and resonance—born Fannie Lou Townsend in 1917 to Mississippi sharecroppers, she worked hard to survive her entire life. She also became a central figure in the fight for freedom. After attending a civil rights meeting in 1962, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an activist group that fought racial injustices and segregation in the South, and she dedicated herself to helping other black people to register to vote. She knew how to organize, orate, and motivate people—her biographer, Kay Mills, said, “If Fannie Lou Hamer had had the same opportunities that Martin Luther King had, then we would have had a female Martin Luther King.”
She knew how to stand up to those in power, how to use truth to confront injustice. And injustice was something with which she was intimately, violently familiar—she was childless because she was sterilized without her permission during an unrelated procedure, and she was arrested, jailed, and severely beaten for her activism within the SNCC. The things this woman had to put up with just to survive, much less to keep up her faith and her fight, are astonishing. But they weren’t rare—they were, in fact, commonplace for a black woman in the South at that time, particularly one involved in activism. Which means that Hamer was extraordinary—to be able to stand and speak and fight and inspire as she did, not to give in to the internal and external pressures of pain and shame and degradation.
In 1964, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—in that same year, she went as a delegate of the party to the presidential convention. She spoke of her jailing and beating on national television and challenged Senator Hubert Humphrey when he was pressuring her to take a political deal that would have given token power to a few black people without real change: “Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand black people’s lives?”
The impact of a black woman challenging a powerful white man on TV was enormous—it showed people what was possible. That is what Ms. Hamer did with her extraordinary talents, strength, will, and faith—she showed people what was possible as well as right. And in doing so, she brought us all closer to justice, that place we are still trying to get to, where equality isn’t just a word, and no one is prevented by violence or manipulation from exercising his or her right to vote, and to a voice in our political process. She knew the truth, and she spoke it powerfully: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Note: In addition to the linked sources, I learned about Ms. Hamer’s life from Gail Collins’ book When Everything Changed.