RULEVILLE – Initial efforts to register African-Americans to vote in Mississippi in the early ’60s brought organizers to this small town in the Delta and it was out of those meetings at a local church a legend in the civil rights movement stepped forward.
Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights icon and Ruleville native, will be honored here Friday in a ceremony to celebrate her birthday. She would have been 100 years old.
Hamer was born on Oct. 6, 1917, the youngest of 20 children. She had minimal education and worked as a sharecropper, alongside her husband Perry “Pap” Hamer, whom she married in the 1940s. But a 1962 meeting with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Commitee (SNCC) organizers ignited a passion that burned until her death in 1977.
“We worked out of Williams Chapel Church and held mass meetings to urge blacks to vote. Mary Tucker – held citizenship classes – invited Fannie Lou Hamer to a mass meeting. I did not know (Hamer) at that time, but the night at that meeting, according to Ms. Tucker, she asked who would be willing to go down to register to vote and Fannie Lou Hamer was the first to raise her hand,” said Charles McLaurin, organizer for SNCC, longtime friend and campaign manager for Hamer.
On Aug. 31, 1962, SNCC organizers took Hamer and 16 others to Indianola, said McLaurin. He was a native of Jackson, but came to Ruleville that year in an effort to register African-Americans to vote.
After that trip to Indianola, when Hamer got home, the plantation owner asked her to withdraw her application to register to vote and she refused, so she was evicted from the plantation.
“She left her family at the plantation. After the man told her she had to withdraw her application, or she would have to leave the plantation, so Fannie Lou and her family talked it over and they decided she would leave and leave her family on the plantation to bring in the crop,” McLaurin said.
This was the beginning of Hamer’s fight to help African Americans obtain first-class citizenship and equality. She became a civil rights activist who served as voice for her people and one of the most prominent civil rights leaders residing in the Mississippi Delta during that time.
Hamer was known for her inspirational songs and her strength to speak out on injustices for the African American community.
Those who remembered her shared stories of the type of person she was.
“She was a good-hearted person. She loved people and she would help you anyway that she could,” said Jamey Lee Lacey, Hamer’s nephew.
“And that’s one of the reasons I say her name is going on like it is now because she didn’t just stand for Fannie Lou Hamer. She stood for everybody … It didn’t matter what color you was, how old you was or young you was. If you were right, she’d tell you you was right and if you were wrong, she would tell you was wrong and that’s just the type of person she was.”
Since her death on March 14, 1977, her birthday continues to be celebrated here and in the surrounding area.
In previous years, commemorative events, wreath layings on her grave and scholarship pageants for youth, to name a few, have all been held to keep her legacy alive, said Hattie Jordan, president of the Fannie Lou Hamer Garden & Museum Foundation.
The goal of the foundation is to interpret the life and legacy of Hamer through education, tourism, organizing and community involvement, according to its Facebook page.
This year, the foundation in conjunction with the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) is hosting a free centennial celebration.
This celebration is different than others – it is special because Hamer would’ve turn 100 years old, said Jordan.
“This is to be reminded of the contributions that Mrs. Hamer made not only to Ruleville but to the whole United States of America,” she said.
From 10 a.m. to noon Friday, there will be a ceremony at the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden at 729 Byron Street where there will be speakers, music and the laying of a wreath on her grave.
Immediately following will be a commemorative program at the museum at 710 Byron St. that will include documentaries, youth performers, an update on Hamer projects and the cutting of a birthday cake.
Jordan said she hopes this event will remind people of the battles won, and the battles that still need to be fought such as education, teen violence and police brutality.
“We are where we are now because of those pioneers that cleared the way for life to be made easier … not just Mrs. Hamer, some of those grassroots people that names aren’t mentioned, but instrumental in helping that process,” Jordan said.
She went on to say that now is the time to get the young people involved to carry the torch because, “When the older people die out, if the history is not told to young people, then the history is lost.”
Curtis Wilkie, longtime journalist and professor at the University of Mississippi, said its troubling to see younger people not familiar with Hamer and other leaders in the movement.
“As a result, many heroes are being gradually forgotten,” he said, but its great that this celebration will remember Hamer’s legacy.
The theme of this celebration is “Fannie Lou Hamer Reflections: Why Her Light Still Shines,” and many shared their knowledge of Hamer’s efforts and their thoughts on how she has helped to impact future generations.
One thing that they all agreed separates Hamer from others was the honesty in her speeches. One of the most memorable for most was her speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
At the convention, the members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which Hamer led, planned to unseat the all-white Mississippi delegation. In this instance, Hamer told her story of how she was trying to register to vote in the state, and how she and others were brutally beaten and mistreated by the police, according to AmericanRadioWorks.PublicRadio.org.
Her speech was broadcast on major television networks later that day. Lyndon B. Johnson, the president at the time, interrupted her broadcast with a press conference, but the networks later picked up her speech. (Listen to her speech here.)
“She endured police brutality, violence at the hands of police,” said Dr. Maegan Brooks, Fannie Lou Hamer scholar and assistant professor in the Civic Communication and Media Department at Willamette University.
“She suffered both physically and emotionally. The way she brought that experience to the national attention at the Democratic National Convention in ’64 is so connected to what we’re experiencing right now in our culture in fighting this plague of police brutality.”
McLaurin recalled how he was in the credentials committee room when she spoke. He said she was so confident when she walked up to the table. After her speech, Johnson and Humphrey offered the freedom democrats a compromise, but Hamer was the only one who refused, he said.
“They offered us two seats at large representing nobody really and when all of us got together to talk about that, Mrs. Hamer got up and said we wouldn’t take it,” said McLaurin.
He noted that leaders from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Urban League, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and more were there, but “of all of these people, only one strong voice, Fannie Lou Hamer, turned it down … when she got up and said no, everybody there supported her effort.”
Hamer was unbending in her values, Wilkie said.
Although he was only an acquaintance of Hamer, he got a chance to see her in action during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Wilkie said he helped to challenge the Democratic Party delegation.
The challengers wanted to end the war in Vietnam and get the delegation to make changes. The purpose was to pick a new presidential nominee for the Democratic Party.
At the convention, Wilkie said he could remember the delegation being divided among candidates – Vice President Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern and Senator Eugene McCarthy.
However, Hamer stood her ground on why Humphrey should not win.
“Mrs. Hamer was very uncompromising and very principled and she resisted any attempts to persuade people to come around and be for Humphrey who was going to get the nomination … she stood her ground along with a number of other people who were a part of the freedom democrats. I just remembered how she was not going to bend on her principals there, and to me, that was very impressive,” he said.
Wilkie noted that Hamer’s influence in a movement dominated by males.
“Not many women stood out or had leadership roles (during that time). She never had a title, but she had a real moral authority about her that one could just sense being around her. Mrs. Hamer was generations older than I was, but young people looked up to her and admired her and so she became a major force in the movement,” he said.
Brooks said women like Hamer have helped shaped future leaders – like the women spearheading the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. Not only that, but Hamer’s story inspired Brooks to start researching deeper into her story since 2004 with the help of her colleague, Davis Houck.
She has published two books on Hamer including: Fannie Lou Hamer, The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is (co-edited with Davis Houck) and A Voice that Could Stir an Army: Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rhetoric of the Black Freedom Movement.
Now, this research is being used to create a K-12 public school curriculum for students in Mississippi to learn more about Hamer. Brooks said this curriculum will be student-centered and will utilize the school district’s perspective, too.
Brooks and Houck’s research is being used as a base for Fannie Lou Hamer’s America, the first full-length documentary using Hamer’s voice through song, speeches, and more. The project is being funded by the Mississippi Humanities Council, read more here.
“No one has produced a documentary from the family’s perspective, and to me, that’s what made me sign on to this,” said Brooks. “The audience can expect artistic rendering of Hamer a chance to tell her own story. I know it’s going to be powerful.”
According to Brooks, clips of the documentary will be shown at the centennial celebration here on Oct. 6. Watch the trailer for the movie here.