Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer

(10-6-17 to 3-15-77)

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Hide it under a bushel, NO! I'm gonna let it shine,

Hide it under a bushel, NO! I'm gonna let it shine.

Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine!


I was truly touched this past week by this woman's life through a search in a quest for answers in the Sphinx game at Moms Online. Although as a child, I had heard her name and knew who she was, the power of her story didn't strike me until now, when the impact of it could have real meaning for me. There is much information about her in MANY places on the WWW, however, I would still like to give to her my small tribute.

The youngest of 20 children, born to Mississippi sharecropper parents, Fannie Hamer had only 6 years of schooling (a year of schooling being only 4 months for black students then) and was a polio victim, yet she became one of the most recognized women of the civil rights movement in the early '60's.

Hardships abounded for Fannie as a child. When her father was able to finally purchase two mules to help with the farming chores, they were poisoned by whites in order to "teach a lesson" in maintaining one's place. African-Americans were treated as if they were less than the family dog by whites, even though slavery had been abolished for nearly 100 years. Fannie knew that feeling, and she knew what it was to be treated as less than an animal.

Her goal for equality didn't begin in a big way until 1962, when, inspired by leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, she assisted in organizing a voter registration drive in Ruleville, Mississippi to challenge the unjust voting laws. Officials started requiring a written test, knowing that many blacks couldn't read or write well enough to pass it. Those who did pass then had to pay "poll taxes" retroactively to their twenty-first birthday, something the majority of them could not afford. Fannie failed the first two attempts to pass the test and gain voter registration. She also lost her job on the farm where she was living and told to leave and not return. She left that night, leaving behind her husband "Pap" of eighteen years because he had to finish the farm chores before he could go also. On January 10, 1963 - her third attempt to register to vote, Fannie passed the test and became a registered voter. When election day arrived that fall, Fannie was denied her right to vote because she couldn't afford to pay the Mississippi poll tax.

In June of 1963 Fannie and a few SNCC workers left Mississippi to attend a voter registration workshop in Charleston. The workshop lasted five days and the group climbed on a Continental Trailways bus for the return trip to Ruleville. The following morning between 10:30 and 11:00 AM the bus made a scheduled stop in Winona, Mississippi. Four of the workers left the bus to get something to eat in the bus terminal. Two others went to use the washroom. Hamer stayed on the bus until she saw all six of them running from the terminal. When she stepped off of the bus to inquire about what was happening, one of her companions, Annelle Ponder, told her that they had been ordered out of the terminal by the chief of police. Hamer then saw the police arrest Ponder, and although her friends shouted to her to get back on the bus, Fannie didn't have time, and she was also arrested. They were taken to Montgomery County jail. In Fannie's words they were taken to the county jail instead of the city jail so that "we could be far enough out. They didn't care how loud we hollered, wasn't nobody gon' hear us." Asked who she was, the State patrolman said he was going to check that out, and when he returned said "You're damn right. You nigger bitch, we gonna make you wish you was dead." The police took June Johnson first and then Annelle Ponder. Fannie had said that she could hear the beating and the screaming from her cell. Yet she could also hear Annelle praying to God out loud for forgiveness for the men who were beating her. When Annelle was returned Fannie said, "Her eyes looked like blood and her mouth was swollen. Her clothes were torn. It was horrifying." Then they took Fannie. In her own words:

One of the men told me, "Get up from there fatso,"
and he carried me outa that cell...They had me to lay
down on this bunk bed with my face down, and they
had two black prisoners. A lot of folks would say,
"well, I woulda died before I'd done that." But nobody
know the condition that those prisoners was in
before they were s'posed to beat me. And I heard
the highway patrolman tell that black man, said,
"If you don't beat her, you know what we'll do to you."
and he didn't have no other choice.

They were held in that jail cell in that condition for three days. Fannie had sustained permanent damage to her feet, her kidneys and one eye. When she was gotten out of the jail in Winona she was taken, half conscious, to a Doctor where her wounds were stitched and bandaged. Afterwards, she was taken to Atlanta for a month to recuperate at the home of some friends. For the rest of her life, because of those injuries, she walked with the assistance of crutches or a cane. She also found out that the same night that she had been beaten, her friend, Medgar Evers had been shot to death in his own driveway.

In the fall of 1963, the Winona policemen who had beaten Fannie were brought to trial in federal district court in Jackson, Mississippi. The verdict of the all-white jury? NOT GUILTY.

In 1964, Fannie helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, Fannie and other MFDP delegates attempted to challenge the regular Mississippi delegation as not showing a true representation of the people of Mississippi. Several other states supported them in their challenge. Fannie spoke before the credentials committee, saying, "If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook, because our lives be threatened daily?" She told them how the blacks in Mississippi had been prevented from voting, from attending precinct meetings and from the most basic forms of democracy, about how she had been beaten in Winona, and then she wept. Offered a compromise of only two seats at the Convention, she rejected it saying "We didn't come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired."

In 1968, The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party took on a new name - The Mississippi Loyalist Democratic Party, to reflect its broadened membership which now included sympathetic white members. When Fannie took her seat in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, she took it to a standing ovation.

In the years following that convention, Fannie worked to help the poor of Ruleville, while in fact, she was still poor herself. In the following nine years she raised money for low-income housing, started a day-care center, which still bears her name, and made plans for a garment factory to provide jobs, and she ran, unsuccessfully, for the Mississippi state senate in 1971. Her most cherished project was the Freedom Farm Cooperative. She liked to say "if you give a hungry man food, he will eat it. If you give him land, he will grow his own food." That's precisely what more than five thousand people did on the 680 acres of the Freedom Farm. When she started the Freedom Farm Cooperative, she had only 40 acres. On speaking engagements around the country, she would promote the project and ask for donations. Offers came from all over. In Chicago, 176,000 white high school students made a "March Against Hunger" to raise funds for the Freedom Farm.

She often said that she was "sick and tired of being sick and tired." She answered to noone except her God. Her rallying song of non-violence was "This little light of mine." A woman who had so little, yet stood steadfast and unyielding for so much, Fannie died in 1977 of cancer. Her Freedom Farm Cooperative died with her, as it was unable to support itself without her vigor and watchful eye to give it strength.

The world does greatly miss her.

PLEASE NOTE: This is a greatly reduced story of Fannie Lou Hamer. Several books have been written about her including her autobiography "To Praise Our Bridges". (usually obtainable at your local library) There is also much information available about Fannie on the Internet, which you can find by simply typing her name into nearly any search engine.

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Many thanks to Jack's Gospel Harmonica for "This Little Light of Mine"

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