Mississippi statue to honor civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer

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Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer was known world-wide for her 
civil rights and voting rights activities.

THERE ARE SOME essential stories one must know to understand or at least have a feel for the modern civil rights movement in the US. Besides knowing the story of Emmett Till, it is critical to know of Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fifty years ago this summer, Fannie Lou Hamer was evicted from her job and home on a Mississippi Delta plantation because she challenged segregation by registering to vote. Now, her friends and admirers are preparing to honor the black civil rights icon with a life-sized statue in her hometown of Ruleville.

Today, the Associated Press reports a monument to Mrs. Hamer is to be unveiled Oct. 5, the day before what would’ve been Hamer’s 95th birthday. Hamer was born to sharecroppers in 1917 and later worked as one and as a timekeeper on a plantation in Sunflower County, near the Mississippi River. She died in 1977.
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WHILE RESEARCHING the late Mrs. Hamer for Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil RightsRevisted, I spent much time in Ruleville, where she lived for much of her lifetime. There were still older people living in this small Delta town who easily recalled their old friend who ended up with a world reputation …

Mrs. Hamer Stood For Voting Rights

Many may recall the “Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006,” the bi-partisan voting rights bill named for three heroines of the civil rights era. 

WHILE MOST CIVIL RIGHTS observers would quickly recognize the names of King and Parks, others may not be familiar with the Mississippi Delta’s Fannie Lou Hamer.

A wise civil rights leader, singer and storyteller, born in 1917, Hamer grew up North of Greenville in Sunflower County, in the middle of the Delta, and often told how her family stayed alive during the hardest years.

No doubt, the family lived a difficult life. In winter months Hamer and her siblings followed their mother from plantation to plantation asking landowners for leftover cotton, the “scrappin’ cotton.

When the family gathered enough cotton for a bale, these bits of scrap were sold to buy food. On those treks “[Mother] always tied our feet up with rags because the ground would be froze real hard,” Hamer wrote in her short autobiography.

Music was tied to survival during these treks and years later Hamer became well known for comforting others with soul-filled gospel singing – especially during some of the most difficult times in the Movement when protesters were beaten and jailed.

SNCC Loved Mrs. Hamer From the Start

As young civil rights workers moved into Sunflower County many quickly discovered that Hamer had a “unique ability to define the problems that affected African Americans in the Delta in their own vernacular.”

Hamer was “a leader waiting for a movement [who] believed deeply in the promise of the Bible and in the promise of the United States of America,” wrote J. Moye in Let the People Decide.

IN THE EARLY 1960s, as the modern civil rights movement progressed, there were predictions of wholesale starvation in the Delta as government commodities were being witheld from sharecroppers during winter or non-working months. Mothers about to give birth were particularly concerned about the consequences.

It was Fannie Lou Hamer who pointed out the labor and sweat of blacks that had “made them white folks creamy rich,” concluding, “There’s so much hate. Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

On June 11, 1963, a message came into the Greenwood Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) office that a group of eight freedom workers –Hamer, along with June Johnson, Annelle Ponder, Euvester Simpson, Rosemary Freeman, Lawrence Guyot, James Wes, and Ruth Day – had been arrested and beaten by Winona jailers in Montgomery County for integrating the white waiting room of the bus station in Winona upon returning from a training session in South Carolina on June 9, 1963.

A Night Not Forgotten in Civil Rights History

SNCC leader Bob Moses led a group of volunteers that night to Winona. Though she could hardly talk, Annelle Ponder whispered, “Freedom,” when she saw her friends, wrote Cat Holland who observed that June Johnson’s face was “so smashed and bloody I didn’t recognize her.”

Then Holland recognized Hamer, who … “took her hand and ran it over her lumpy, bruised flesh,” while telling her what happened. Holland recalled her conversation with a police officer:

“Why y’all beat ‘em like this?” I asked the policeman, who stood by leering.
“We kin give you some of the same thing,” he said.
“Don’t say nothing, Ida,” Miss Hamer said. “You go back an’ tell the others.”
When Mississippi’s conservative “blue dog Democrats” in 1964 threatened to support Republican Barry Goldwater, the state party’s leaders predictably kept out all black participation in primaries or conventions.

So the black-led Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) decided to become active in the state’s official Democratic Party and to steer the party to support Johnson for President.
While the regular Democrats were sending a “hand-picked delegation to Chicago with only two token Negro delegates, although Negroes constituted 40 percent of 240,000 of the registered voters in Mississippi,” MFDP members decided they, alone, should represent the state at the upcoming party convention, and Hamer was part of this group.

To arrange for Susan Klopfer to speak to your organization on civil rights or diversity topics, contact her at

Aaron Henry, a Delta leader from Clarksdale and friend of Hamer’s, appealed for $30,000 to support the Loyal Democrats of Mississippi, a bi-racial coalition made up of the MFDP, NAACP of Mississippi, the state Teacher’s Association, the Mississippi AFL-CIO and the Young Democrats.

The coalition’s purpose would be to appear before the Credential Committee of the Democratic National convention on August 26 to prove discrimination by the regular Democratic Party of Mississippi.

The secretary of state, however, refused permission to register MFDP because “there was already a Democratic political party in the state,” even though Mississippi Democrats failed to support the national party’s presidential candidate in the previous 1960 elections.

THE MFDP WAS NOT taken very seriously by whites and it was sometimes the target of editorial “humor.” Mississippi’s own spy agency, the Sovereignty Commission, meanwhile, had collected nearly 1000 files on the political organization including newsletters, membership lists, meeting announcements and notes, as well as commentaries from the Commission’s investigators.

Mrs. Hamer Takes On Democratic Convention

Then on August 12, an injunction was issued ordering all MFDP officials not to leave the state and go to Atlantic City for the convention. Also prohibited was engagement by the leader in any further MFDP activity. MFDP filed suit in federal court asking that more than a dozen of Mississippi’s segregation laws be invalidated, taking advantage of the new Civil Rights Act legislation and causing a cloud of last-minute confusion as the group made haste for New Jersey.

ONCE THEY ARRIVED, national Democratic Party leaders fell through in support of this unique group from Mississippi and were not prepared to greet MFDP’s 64 delegates with open arms.

President Lyndon Johnson didn’t want bitter debates initiated, even if the regular Mississippi Democrats were supporting Goldwater instead of him.

Johnson and party liberals had campaigned on the basis of their civil rights “successes” and even though the Southern state party structures completely excluded African Americans, Democrats did not want this practice disrupted, fearing they would lose the support of Southern states.

But Fannie Lou Hamer added heat to the convention when she spoke before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention, telling the horrifying story of her attempts to register to vote in Sunflower County, including the beating she received in Winona.

Lyndon Johnson, concerned over the attention paid to MFDP and the fight for credentials, gave notice that he wanted to deliver a special televised speech on an unrelated topic, as Hamer was speaking.

But news networks recognized the public’s interest in Hamer and played her entire speech on the evening news, giving even more air time than she would have received:

 August 22, 1964  Hamer testimony goes down in civil rights history

“In June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop, was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailways bus. When we got to Winona 
… four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and …

(Read the entire speech here — )

Susan Klopfer writes on civil rights history and current issues, including retirement and diversity. She is the author of several civil rights books and ebooks that related to the Mississippi Delta, including her newest book, “Who Killed Emmett Till,” available in e-book, audio book and print.

To arrange for Susan Klopfer to speak to your organization on civil rights or diversity topics, contact her at