Celebrate Women's History Month by getting to know Civil Rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fannie Lou Hamer was born on October 6, 1917, in Mississippi, to a family of sharecroppers. She was the youngest of twenty children, and she started picking cotton at age 6. Fannie Lou loved reading and learning, but she had to leave school at age 12 to help support the family. Because of her academic skills, as an adult she worked as time and record keeper on the plantation where she sharecropped. In this position, she saw that the owner was using unfair scales to cheat her fellow workers. Whenever possible, she substituted her own fair scale to weigh the cotton brought in. She met and married her husband on this same plantation.

Fannie Lou's life of advocacy began in 1962 when she learned about her right to vote. "Well, I didn't know anything about voting; I didn't know anything about registering to vote. One night I went to the church. They had a mass meeting. And I went to the church, and they talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote. They were talking about we could vote out people that we didn't want in office, we thought that wasn't right, that we could vote them out. That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it. I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote." (Hamer p.149)

After her first attempt to register to vote, her employer, the plantation owner, told her that she'd have to withdraw her registration or leave the plantation. She refused and left her home on the plantation to stay with some friends in town that same night. Her husband remained to finish harvesting the crop because the plantation owner refused to give them their belongings if he left sooner. Fannie Lou had been working on that plantation for 18 years.

After she successfully passed the literacy test and registered to vote with the help of workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she began to work as an advocate to secure voting rights for other African Americans. On June 9, 1963, she was returning from a voter-education workshop in South Carolina, when she was arrested in Mississippi along with several of her fellow travelers. In the jailhouse, she was brutally beaten on the orders of the chief of police. She lived with pain and permanent injury from this beating for the remainder of her life.

Fannie Lou was undaunted in her efforts to secure full voting rights for herself and others. She eventually testified before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention in August 1964 where she recounted the story of her arrest and beating. She ran for a seat in the US Senate in 1964. Although she lost the race, she had the privilege of casting her first-ever vote for herself. Fannie Lou continued her advocacy, making speeches for voting rights and sharing her story around the country. Her speeches were peppered with Bible references, a testimony to her love of studying the Scriptures. A favorite passage quoted by Fannie Lou in many of her speeches was Ephesians 6:10-17 as she implored her listeners to put on the whole armor of God. She was also known to encourage her fellow workers and audiences with her singing, including favorite gospel songs like This Little Light of Mine and Go Tell It on the Mountain/Let My People Go.

In addition to her voting advocacy, Fannie Lou also spearheaded tangible projects to help people in her community. She understood the importance of land ownership and founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969, using donated funds to purchase 40 acres of land in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. The cooperative grew cash crops and vegetables, improving nutrition for the families who participated. She also built affordable housing on the land and opened a Head Start Preschool. More donations enabled the purchase of another 640 acres and the establishment of additional programs.

Fannie Lou was slowed by a number of health concerns in her final years, including breast cancer. She died at the age of 59 on March 14, 1977. Fannie Lou Hamer didn't even know she was allowed to vote until she was nearly 45 years old, but she spent the remainder of her life helping others access that right and tangibly improving lives in her community.

Fannie Lou Hamer: Stand Up (27 minutes)
"Civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer is remembered by those who worked side by side with her in the struggle for voting rights. An African-American sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, Hamer's difficulty registering to voite in 1962 led to her career as an outspoken activist, congressional candidate, and fierce fighter for the rights of all." – From Mississippi Public Broadcasting

Precious Lord (6 minutes)
Fannie Lou Hamer was known for encouraging and raising the spirits of audiences and fellow civil rights workers with her singing. Hear her sing "Precious Lord" in this recording courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is by Fannie Lou Hamer
Get to know Fannie Lou Hamer in her own words. Her life story and references to Scripture are sprinkled throughout her speeches. This is available as an ebook through the King County Library System.