Our Voices

Fannie Lou Hamer: An Activist for Civil Rights and Women’s Rights

Fannie Lou Hamer, born in 1917, was the 20th child of two Mississippi sharecroppers.

Hamer was just 6 when she began working in the plantation fields with her family; she dropped out of school at 12 to work full-time.

After marrying Perry “Pap” Hammer in the early 1940s, she went for what she believed was surgery for a uterine tumor. But the white doctor assisting with her surgery also performed a hysterectomy without her consent.

Forced sterilization of Black women was not uncommon – it was known as the “Mississippi appendectomy” – and it made Hamer unable to have biological children, although the Hamers would later go on to adopt two children.

Emboldened by this event and other experiences of racism, Hamer became one of the most prominent faces of women fighting for civil rights and voting rights.

Before Hamer’s work encouraging voter turnout, the U.S.’s social acceptance of Black voters was slim. Black men were granted the right to vote when the 15th Amendment was ratified in February 1870.

The 19th Amendment – passed by Congress June 4, 1919 and ratified Aug. 18, 1920 – women were given the right to vote. In Hamer’s home state of Mississippi, the 19th Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1984. But it wasn’t necessarily a celebration for Black women, many of whom still lacked that basic right. More than 42% of Black women lived in the South, where Jim Crow Laws suppressed the Black population’s ability to vote. Through poll taxes, all-white primaries, and literacy tests, southern states created a “separate but equal” condition for Black voters. Because of that, Black women’s numbers at the ballot box were significantly lower than white women’s in southern states, emphasizing the intersectional discrimination Black women faced through racism and misogyny.

In 1962, Hamer first became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which aimed to encourage Black voter turnout. The same year, Hamer joined the SNCC, and she vowed to register to vote. Along with other SNCC members, she traveled 26 miles to Indianola, Mississippi, to register. They would likely face obstacles, she and the other members knew – the courthouse required literacy tests.

When Hamer returned to the plantation where she lived, the white owner confronted her about registering and gave her an ultimatum: She could either drop her registration or leave the plantation. She decided to leave and stay temporarily in a new home, which white supremacists shot with more than a dozen bullets.

Nearly a year later, while traveling home speaking engagements and a voting workshop in South Carolina, Hamer and fellow activists stopped to eat in Winona, Mississippi. However, the establishment refused to serve Black customers; police arrived shortly and shoved Hamer’s colleagues into squad cars. One officer grabbed Hamer and kicked her. The police took the activists to the jail, where they were interrogated about the SNCC’s voter registration projects. Hamer and her friends were held for several days in Winona, where they were violently beaten by police. Hamer was left physically disabled.

But Hamer refused to give up on her mission. She continued giving speeches to myriad audiences, and those speeches served as a catalyst for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which aimed to break down the barriers to Black people voting.

Thanks to the act, Mississippi voter turnout significantly increased, and the number of Black elected officials nearly doubled.

Hamer continued fighting for desegregation and voting rights. Despite a number of setbacks and hardships, Hamer would continue to be a maverick, fighting for change and pushing boundaries, including running for Congress and founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

She also kept fighting for voting rights. Among her notable accomplishments were organizing students to help register voters and leading lawsuits that allowed a large number of Black residents to register and be eligible to vote.

Hamer’s legacy is a long one, full of grit, determination, and resilience. As a woman, in particular a Black woman fighting for rights in the 1960s, Hamer overcame innumerable challenges, and she fought for all people to have the right to vote.

Women’s History Month recognizes the pioneers, the changemakers, and the boundary pushers who all worked to expand opportunities for future generations of women.

Fannie Lou Hamer proves that, with courage, strength, and conviction, the path toward progress is possible. Her work for voting and civil rights transcended the status quo for women at that time, and it made her an example of why it’s important to commemorate battles for human rights – even if the fight is a controversial one.