Fannie Lou Hamer: A Pioneer for Voting Rights

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As we celebrate Women’s History Month, women’s rights are under attack around the county. From limiting access to health care to restricting our constitutional right to vote, there is a coordinated movement to strip women of the rights that were hard fought to achieve.  Now more than ever, we should take the time to recognize those who have come before us and fought to expand our civil rights. 

Fannie Lou Hamer was an advocate for voting rights during the Civil Rights Movement.  Born in 1917 in rural Montgomery County, Mississippi, to sharecroppers, Hamer began picking cotton at the age of six to help provide for her family. 

In 1962, Hamer attended a protest meeting that would change her life.  She learned that African Americans had the right to vote, and she volunteered to take the journey down to Indianola, Mississippi, to register. Her initial attempts to register were blocked, but she continued to fight to gain access to the ballot.  Even though she was threatened, fired from her job, and brutally beaten, Hamer found a way to register to vote in 1963, and went on to help register other voters in her community. Her efforts cost the rest of her family their jobs, and cost Hamer her health: Later that year, she was beaten so badly that she was permanently disabled after refusing to go along with a restaurant's "whites only" policy.

Hamer soon took her fight for civil rights to the national stage.  Because the Mississippi Democratic Party at the time would not accept African American members, she went on to help found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).  In 1964, she was among the delegates present from MFDP to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention. Her testimony to the Credentials Committee on the violence and discrimination she faced registering voters in Mississippi was nationally televised. “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she notably proclaimed. Her role at the convention led to a change in the DNC rules in 1968, and required the equal representation of state delegations at national conventions.

Hamer continued to work on expanding the rights of women and people of color until her death in 1977.  She has been recognized as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and praised for her work through the passage of a resolution in her honor in her home state of Mississippi.

Fannie Lou Hamer stands as a powerhouse in the fight to expand the right to vote to every American.  She famously noted: “Nobody's free until everybody's free.” Her words still ring true as we continue the fight to keep access to the ballot open for all American citizens.