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Women Who Changed History – Part 2

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement is another major turning point in history, as Black Americans fought for equal rights and an end to segregation. 

So many women played a significant role in this movement, as well. In addition to Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Dorothy I. Height, and the iconic Rosa Parks, there was Fannie Lou Hamer. 

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer

““I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote.” 

Born October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was an American suffrage and women’s rights activist, community organizer, and leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She was vice president of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Fannie was the 20th and last child of shareholders Lou Ella and James Townsend. She grew up in poverty, and at the age of 6, Hamer joined her family to pick cotton on Delta plantations. At the age of 12, she left school to work. In 1944 she married Perry Hamer and the couple worked on a Mississippi plantation owned by B. D. Marlowe until 1962. As Hamer was the only worker who could read and write, she also worked as the plantation’s timekeeper. 

Forced Sterilization

In 1961, a white doctor removed Hamer’s uterus without her consent – he was only supposed to remove a uterine tumor. She was 44. This kind of forced sterilization of black women as a means of reducing the Black population was so widespread that it was called the “Mississippi Appendectomy.”  Since the Hamers could not have children of their own, they adopted two daughters, and, later, adopted two more.

Death of a Daughter

Dorothy Jean, one of Fannie Lou and Perry Hamer’s daughters, died at the age of 22 of internal hemorrhaging. Because of her mother’s activism, she was not allowed to be admitted to a local hospital to receive treatment. 

The Price of Voter Registration

In August, 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer and 17 others from Sunflower County, Mississippi, climbed on an old school bus that was mainly used to transport cotton pickers to the field. They were on their way to the Courthouse to attempt to vote. They were denied that right because they failed a literacy test. 

Just shortly after returning to her hometown, on December 4, Fannie went to the Courthouse in Indianola to take the literacy test again, but failed and was turned away. “You’ll see me every 30 days till I pass,” Hamer told the registrar. 

That was the end of her life on B.D. Marlowe’s plantation. When he found out about her attempt to vote, he kicked her off his property. Perry Hamer was forced to stay until harvest, but Marlowe took possession of all their belongings. 

After that, and over the next several days, Fannie moved to a number of locations, for safety. On the 10th of September, while she was staying with her friend Mary Tucker, Fannie was shot at 15 times by racists in a drive-by attack. Neither she nor Mary were injured, but because they feared attacks from the Ku Klux Klan, Fannie and her family moved to Tallahatchie County for three months.

On June 9, 1963, Hamer and several fellow activists were returning from a citizenship training program in Charleston, South Carolina, when their bus stopped in Winona, Mississippi. In protest, several members of the group sat down at the whites-only lunch counter at the bus station. Soon the police took them out of the cafe and arrested six people. Several activists were beaten by police, and police forced other African-American inmates in the jail to use blackjack weapons. Damage to Hamer’s eyes, legs and kidneys would affect her for the rest of her life. 

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was co-founded by Hamer. The white Mississippi Democratic Party forbade Black participation and threatened to stop supporting the national Democratic ticket if the MFDP continued. 

Hamer and other MFDP leaders went to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to make their case to be the designated delegation to represent the state of Mississippi. She would testify about the oppressive conditions Black Mississippians faced on a daily basis. In an effort to stop Hamer’s testimony from being broadcast live across the nation – on the three major networks at the time – President Lyndon B. Johnson called an “emergency” press conference.

Still Televised

The ploy of Johnson and the white Democrats to keep Hamer off television failed. Her testimony was so compelling, evening news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC – the three national networks – broadcast it. In doing so, Hamer and the MFDP were able to come before a much larger audience. 

Ms. Hamer commanded the committee’s – and the country’s – attention as she spoke of her experiences. She told them about her eviction from the Marlowe plantation, about the brutal beating in the Winona, Mississippi jail. She remembered how white racists attempted to kill her, firing a barrage of bullets at her. Who could forget that some of those men were also police? 

Ten minutes after her testimony began, she brought it to an end, with these words: “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 hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

What a Life

Hamer persisted in her efforts to secure voting rights in Mississippi. She unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965, and she participated in the Mississippi delegation to the 1968 DNC, where she spoke out against the War in Viet Nam.

For nearly a decade, she was forced to live in constant fear, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted by racists, who were also members of the police, for simply trying to register and exercise her right to vote. 

On March 14, 1977, Fannie Lou Hamer died in Mound Bayou, MS, of breast cancer at age 59. She gave her life to the fight for Civil Rights. 



Brennan Center for Justice, Article:  The Equal Rights Amendment Explained, by Alex Cohen and Wilfred U. Codrington, III, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/equal-rights-amendment-explained

Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), Article:  Short History of the 504 Sit-in, by Kitty Cone,https://dredf.org/504-sit-in-20th-anniversary/short-history-of-the-504-sit-in/

Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Article: Alice Paul, Schlesinger Library/Collection,https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/collections/alice-paul

Huffpost, Article:  Judith Heumann, ‘Mother of the Disability Rights Movement,’ Has Died, by Shruti Rajkumar, Mar 4, 2023, 7:51 PM EST, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/judith-heumann-obit-disability-rights-movement_n_6403ca28e4b029d870168df0

Ms. Magazine, Article: Fifty Years Later, the Equal Rights Amendment Is Ratified. Now What?, by Carrie N. Baker, 2/10/2022, https://msmagazine.com/2022/02/10/equal-rights-amendment-ratified/

PBSAmerican Experience, Article:  Fannie Lou Hamer, From the Collection: Women in American History,https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedomsummer-hamer/

The New York Times, Article:  Judy Heumann, Who Led the Fight for Disability Rights, Dies at 75, by Alex Traub, March 5, 2023, 6:26 PM EST, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/05/obituaries/judy-heumann-dead.html

USA TODAY, Article:  ’It’s time to clear the path to equality’: Senate revisits Equal Rights Amendment after 40 years, by Rachel Looker, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2023/03/05/senate-ratify-equal-rights-amendment-era/11389985002/

Wikipedia, Article:  Fannie Lou Hamerhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fannie_Lou_Hamer

Wikipedia, Article:  Judy Heumannhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Heumann

Women’s History.org, Article:  Alice Paul (1885-1977), edited by Debra Michals, PhD, 2015,https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/alice-paul

Image: A Suffragette on Hunger Strike in the UK Being Force Fed with a Nasal Tube 

Date: Circa 1911, Source: Sylvia Pankhurst (1911).  The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement, 1905 – 1910. New York: Sturgis & Walton Company, facing p. 433. Author: Unknown (Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70354309) 

Image: Miss [Lucy] Burns in Occoquan Workhouse, Washington 

Date: 1917 November, Author: Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. (Photographer), Informal portrait, Lucy Burns, ¾ length, seated, facing forward, holding a newspaper in her lap, in front of a prison cell, likely at Occoquan Workhouse, in Virginia 

Image: [Alice] Paul Toasting (with grape juice) the Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920 

By Harris & Ewing, Inc. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a21383.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2556292

Image: Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer, American civil rights leader, at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964. Leffler, Warren K., photographer. Photograph shows half-length portrait of Hamer seated at a table.  No known restrictions on publication. https://lccn.loc.gov/2003688126

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