Today in Civil Rights History: Birth Anniversary of Civil Rights Icon Fannie Lou Hamer

Media 10.6,09

Ninety-two years ago today, civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Ruleville, Mississippi.

Hamer joined the civil rights movement late in life and quickly became a major national figure.  In 1962, she was among the first to volunteer to register to vote in Indianola, Mississippi, having traveled to the town to register after hearing a sermon by Rev. James Bevel of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). That decision ultimately cost her the sharecropping job she had held for nearly 20 years.

On the bus ride there, she sang hymns to help group morale.  It worked – she was asked by SNCC to join more registration bus rides because of the encouraging effect she had on those around her. She went on to help organize a number of voter registration drives in Mississippi, including the “Freedom Ballot Campaign” mock election and the “Freedom Summer” initiative, both in 1963.

In the summer of 1964, the Mississippi’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) was all-white.  Hamer was part of the “Mississippi Freedom Democrats Party” that traveled to the convention to be seated either in place of or in addition to the all-white delegation. 

On August 22, Hamer testified before the convention’s Credentials Committee, sharing her heartfelt story of the discrimination she faced and her activism to overcome it.  The testimony, which was televised that evening on all the major networks, made her a national civil rights figure.

Although she was not seated in 1964, her presence and testimony led the DNC to change its rules in 1968 to require equal representation of state delegations at national party conventions. Hamer was an official member of Mississippi’s delegation to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

Hamer later spoke out against the Vietnam War.  She continued to engage in activism and helped with the early stages of the Head Start programs.  She died of breast cancer in 1977 after dedicating her life to the message that, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”