Throughout the course of this year my monthly posts are going to spotlight extraordinary women; a FAR Herstory Journey. Our first Herstory profile will be Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977): a staunch Civil Rights, Voter Rights Singing Activist, Preacher.
Fannie Lou was the last of 20 children of sharecroppers in Mississippi. At the age of 6, Fannie Lou had to work in the cotton fields while also attending school. She would be forced to leave school completely at the age of 12. She married at the age of 27 to Perry Hamer and they would eventually adopt two daughters (and much later would also help to raise their granddaughters). Fannie Lou struggled with infertility and suffered a few miscarriages. While seeking medical help for her infertility struggles, Fannie Lou become one of thousands of Black women in the 50s and 60s that were were unknowingly and forcibly sterilized. Doctors performed a complete hysterectomy without her consent while she was undergoing surgery to remove a uterine tumor. This forced sterilization was a common procedure known as “The Mississippi Appendectomy.” It has been reported that 6 out of 10 women who visited Mississippi hospitals in Fannie Lou’s area, would be forcibly and without consent sterilized.
During the summer of 1961, Fannie Lou attended a meeting lead by activists James Forman and James Bevel. After this meeting, Fannie Lou would work tirelessly to register Black folks for the vote. She led 17 volunteers to the Indianola Courthouse to vote where they were harassed, denied the vote, and later fined by the police. The fine was written that the bus that they were riding on was ‘too yellow’. While they were being detained on the bus, Fannie Lou started to rise her voice in song. Her deeply religious roots came out while she led her fellow activists in spirituals. This would become a main feature in all of Fannie Lou’s speeches and activism.
She would successfully register Black folks in South Carolina. While she was in South Carolina, her and a couple of other black women participated in a ‘sit-in’ at a whites only bus station. They were arrested and while in the city jailhouse, the women were brutally beaten. Fannie Lou received lifelong injuries from this beating including becoming partially blind.
Despite the violent attempts to stop Fannie Lou, she went on to establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. She would travel nationally and attend countless Black Churches where she would minister for Jesus, Civil Rights, and the Vote. One Preacher in Ohio stated that Fannie Lou spoke with majestic and divine thunder. She had multiple complete Bible verses memorized. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr mentioned Fannie Lou in his “A Mighty Army of Love” Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech.
Her and the MFDP went to the National Democratic Convention. President Lyndon Johnson attempted to ensure Fannie Lou would not receive any public airtime but Fannie Lou proved to be a force to be reckoned with. Her speech which highlighted racial prejudices in the South would air nationally as would her call for integrated voter delegations. You can watch a clip here:
1964 was a big year for Fannie Lou as she was also successful in organizing “Freedom Summer” which connected college students of all races to help get the Black communities registered to vote. She would announce her bid to run for the Mississippi House of Representative but was denied and banned from the ballot. Alongside two other women, Fannie Lou would protest the Mississippi House of Representative election at the highest level, the U.S. Congress. They would become the first black women to step foot in the U.S. Congress halls.
She would travel across the United States at Civil and Voter Rights rallies. She states, “I’m gonna be standing up, I’m gonna be moving forward, and if they shoot me, I’m not going to fall back, I’m going to fall 5 feet 4 inches forward in fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”
In 1971, she became a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus. While still heavily active in voter rights, Fannie Lou also started to see the importance of rising the economic status of her communities. She established a ‘pig bank’ which provided Black farmers pigs to start their farming businesses. With the success of the pig bank, Fannie Lou would establish the Freedom Farm Cooperative where she, with the help of donors, were able to purchase 640 acres where Black folks could purchase and farm their own plots of land. During the seventies, the FFC was one of the largest employers of the county.
Unfortunately, due to the multiple beatings and inadequate health care, Fannie Lou’s health was always poor. She would die at the age of 59 due to Breast Cancer and most likely untreated heart disease. Her tombstone reads “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Many credit the strength, courage, and determination of Fannie Lou as well as her inspiring singing and preaching voice to which fueled the progression of the Civil and Voter Rights movements. She is a foundational figure in our history.
*You can listen to an Oral History Interview with Fannie Lou here
**Additional Reading Sources
Maegan Parker Brooks, A Voice That Could Stir an Army: Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rhetoric of the Black Freedom Movement (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2014).
Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck, eds., The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2011).
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (New York: A Dutton Book, 1993).
Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
***Additional Digital Websites
Anjeanette LeBoeuf is currently the World Religions Professor at Saint Louis University. She continues to be the Queer Advocate for the Western Region of the American Academy of Religion. She has also recently helped to set up and is the current Chair of the Disabilities Studies Unit for the Western Region. Her focuses are divided between South Asian religions and religion and popular culture. One of the main themes in Anjeanette’s work is seeking out representations of women and queer people in all forms of popular culture and how religion plays into them. She is devoted to amplifying the lost voices of extraordinary people that have come before her, are currently around her to pave the way for future generations.
2 thoughts on “Herstory Profiles: Activist Preacher Fannie Lou Hamer by Anjeanette LeBoeuf”
Oh, I am ashamed to say that i had not heard of this woman – i remember King’s speech but not the reference to this remarkable woman – thank you so much for educating me! I am now eagerly awaiting my next lesson!
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Thank you so much for this wonderful tribute.