By Gwen McKinney
(October 6, 1917 – March 14, 1977)
When Tennessee approved the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, it was the culmination of the long march to women’s suffrage. Full citizenship and voting rights would become exclusive for some American women and doggedly elusive for many others. The year that amendment was ratified, a Black girl toddler in rural Mississippi, destined to back-breaking toil, poverty, and second-class citizenship, had little to celebrate. Like uncounted women who would precede and follow, hers was the unfinished business of Black women’s suffrage and citizenship. She was Fannie Lou Hamer — both extraordinary and everywoman.
By the time she was six, Fannie Lou – the youngest of 20 children – would join her family in plantation work. Though stricken with polio, this youngster could bail up to 300 pounds of cotton a day.
Fannie Lou embodies what suffrage meant for Black women in the 20th century. Like every woman, she knew that making do with what she had was not enough. And as an activist extraordinaire exercising her right and encouraging others to register to vote in 1962, she would frontally take on the oppressive system, staring down peril, while being shot at, beaten, jailed, threatened and told by a White supremacist, “We’ll make you wish you were dead.”
Prolific as an organizer and visionary, Fannie Lou was a consummate collaborator across race and gender divides. The paths she forged were the stuff of civil rights activism and 20th century suffrage.
She launched Mississippi Freedom Summer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and joined a coalition of White women to form the National Women’s Political Caucus. With the National Council of Negro Women, she also launched the Pig Project, providing protein to impoverished sharecroppers, and to institutionalize rural self-sufficiency, she started the Freedom Farm Cooperative.
As the Democratic Party convenes the national convention this week and Kamala Harris accepts the nomination for Vice President, the imprint of Fannie Lou Hamer is indelible. In 1964 she led the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party delegation that demanded to be seated as delegates. They tested democracy at the same time as they exposed the hypocrisy of the party power brokers – both southern segregationists and northern patriarchs. That same year she launched a campaign for her state’s open U.S. senate seat, five years before Shirley Chisholm’s successful run in the House.
Her activism was unrelenting. And so were the maladies that sent her to an early grave at 59. During a surgery for removal of a uterine tumor in 1961, she was “treated” to an unauthorized hysterectomy. This widely practiced forced sterilization of Black and Native American women was labeled by Fannie Lou as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”
In 1963, she endured a brutal physical and sexual assault by Mississippi police, reportedly being beaten so badly that her eyes were swollen shut. Hamer suffered long-term illness and trauma including a blood clot in her left eye, kidney damage, and other injuries that never healed.
In the 1970s, faltering health and conditions described as “nervous exhaustion” slowed her activism. She died on March 14, 1977, reportedly suffering from breast cancer and hypertension. The trail she blazed for full citizenship — enacted through intersectional advocacy for health, housing, education and economic empowerment — would be followed by successive generations of Black women into this century.