(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town. Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)
Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Montgomery County Mississippi in 1917, the last of Jim and Ella Townsend’s twenty children. At the age of two, her parents moved to a plantation outside of Ruleville in Sunflower County. The price of cotton was rising rapidly after the First World War and the thickly wooded land across Sunflower County was being cleared for new farms. From the age of six, Fannie Lou, like her parents and grandparents before her, worked as a sharecropper. Her father once came close to buying a few acres of his own, but a white neighbor poisoned his mule, an economic blow from which the family would never recover.
Plantation life was hard even during the best of years; in hard times families waged a relentless war with starvation. Hamer remembered her mother wrapping her feet in old rags so she and her sisters could salvage the cotton the pickers had missed.
Mississippi sharecroppers owed their souls to the company store. Wages were kept low, prices at the plantation store were artificially high and the money loaned to sharecroppers at planting time sometimes exceeded the profits accrued at harvest. Entire families labored in the fields from “can-to-can’t”: from first light until it was too dark to work. Cotton season covered nine or ten months of the year and field workers used the layoff between seasons to recover physically and emotionally. Schools for African-American children were poorly equipped and understaffed. Classes were suspended when students were needed in the fields. Fannie Lou Hamer ended her school days barely able to read and write, but that was more than could be said for most of her peers. Although Fannie Lou could pick almost as much cotton as a man, childhood polio made the work increasingly difficult. At the age of 16, impressed with her intelligence, plantation owner W.D. Marlow gave Fannie Lou a job as timekeeper.
In 1945, she married Perry “Pap” Hamer. The couple had no children because Fannie Lou had been sterilized (without her knowledge or permission) in accordance with a Mississippi policy designed to reduce the number of indigent children in the state.
Hamer was introduced to the fledgling civil rights movement in the early 1950s when she attended annual conferences of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) sponsored by T.R.M. Howard, a wealthy African-American physician. The RCNL had a top-down organizing strategy designed to empower educated African-American leaders, but the annual meetings in the all-black town of Mound Bayou frequently drew 10,000 people from across Mississippi. In the early 50’s the focus was on making the “equal” in “separate but equal” mean something; full integration wasn’t considered a realistic (or safe) goal at that point. But the RCNL conferences drew speakers like Thurgood Marshall and performers like Mahalia Jackson and nurtured young leaders like Aaron Henry and Medgar Evers who would lead the fight for civil rights in Mississippi when Dr. Howard, intimidated by death threats, packed his bags and headed for Chicago.
Fannie Lou Hamer was still working as W.D. Marlow’s timekeeper on August 23, 1962 when she attended a civil rights meeting in Ruleville featuring the Rev. James Bevel. An associate of Martin Luther King Jr., Bevel was working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When Bevel called for volunteer’s to register to vote at the county courthouse in Indianola, Hamer’s hand shot into the air.
A week later, Hamer and a small group of volunteers drove from Ruleville to Indianola in a rented bus. Black people who attempted to register in the Mississippi Delta could expect to lose their jobs and possibly their lives. “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared,” she said years later, “but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it seemed they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.” Hamer encouraged the group by breaking into well-known church songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell it On the Mountain.” As Fannie Lou’s powerful voice filled the bus, her companions joined in.
Hamer’s experience at the Indianola courthouse was life-changing. Only a handful of the people were allowed to enter the courthouse, the rest were turned away. Once inside, the fortunate few were shown a portion of the state constitution and asked to interpret it for the registrar. Until that moment, Hamer didn’t know that Mississippi had a constitution. Informed that she had failed the test, Hamer announced her intention to return to Indianola every month until she passed. On the way back to Ruleville, the group was intimidated by state troopers who claimed their bus was “too yellow”.
Back on the plantation, Hamer learned that Mr. Marlow was looking for her. The cotton planter informed his timekeeper that Mississippi wasn’t ready for voting Negroes. Therefore, if she didn’t go back to Indianola and withdraw her application she and her family would have to leave his farm. Marlow’s threats were understandable. No cotton man who allowed his Negroes to vote could maintain a place in white Delta society.
To Marlow’s amazement, Hamer quit her job on the spot. She and Pap stayed with friends for a few days, but when their location was discovered the home was strafed with bullets. Still Hamer refused to back down. It wasn’t long before civil rights leader Bob Moses was looking for “the lady who sings the hymns.” Hamer started attending classes led by Annelle Ponder, a twenty-six year-old school teacher from Atlanta who had recently joined the freedom struggle in Sunflower County. Under Ponder’s tutelage, Hamer learned the Mississippi Constitution well enough to pass the registration test. Soon, Hamer was being invited to sing at rallies and fundraising events across the country.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s hymn singing and natural eloquence were a boon to the civil rights movement, especially in Mississippi. Bookish leaders like Moses and Bevel were more comfortable debating the fine points of Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology or the tenets of Gandhian pacifism than they were connecting with semi-illiterate Mississippi sharecroppers. Fannie Lou Hamer’s melodious voice bridged the cultural gap between movement leaders and their intended audience.
But Hamer had far more to offer the movement than a powerful singing voice and a folksy manner; she was a prophet in the full biblical sense of the word. Hamer’s religion was personal, emotional and supernatural. She took her Bible straight, unmediated by the “chicken-eating” black preachers she endured on Sunday mornings or the learned theologians who informed movement intellectuals. Hamer was convinced that God was working through the civil rights movement to usher in the Kingdom of God Jesus talked about. Her favorite Bible passage was from the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
Fannie Lou Hamer made this mission her own and was never comfortable with more realistic goals. “If Christ were here today,” she said, “he would be branded a radical, a militant, and would probably be branded as ‘red’. They have even painted me as Communist, although I wouldn’t know a Communist if I saw one.”
Hamer cooperated with every phase of the civil rights movement, from the conservative NAACP to the Black Panthers. But when the SNCC began evicting white members from leadership positions, Hamer mounted a powerful protest. “Jesus wasn’t talking about black people, or about white people,” she said, “he was talking about people. There’s no difference in people, for in the 17th chapter of the Book of Acts, the 26th verse, Paul says, ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.’ That means that whether we’re white, black, red, yellow, or polka dot, we’re made from the same blood.”
Hamer transcended petty politics by interpreting the freedom struggle in supernatural and cosmological terms. When the going was tough and emotions within the movement ran high, Hamer would quote Ephesians 6:11-12: “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
The language of spiritual warfare allowed Hamer to interpret the cruelty of her opponents as an unavoidable aspect of a God-driven transformational drama that she saw sweeping over the nation. This blending of biblical piety and revolutionary spirit helped Hamer and her companions stand firm in the face of bestial cruelty. In June of 1963, less than a year after she won the right to vote, Fannie Lou Hamer found herself in the Montgomery County Jail in Winona, Mississippi. What happened in that dark place would stretch her soul to the breaking point and change America forever.