Fannie Lou Hamer’s Dauntless Fight for Black Americans’ Right to VoteRoundup
tags: civil rights, Mississippi, Democratic Party, voting rights, Fannie Lou Hamer
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and President of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom and Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Vision of America, which will be published by Beacon Press in 2021.
Like many African Americans living in the Jim Crow South, Fannie Lou Hamer was not aware she had voting rights. “I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote,” she once explained. The granddaughter of enslaved black people, Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, in 1917. As the youngest of 20 children in a family of sharecroppers, she was forced to leave school during the sixth grade to help on the plantation. In 1925, when Hamer was only 8, she witnessed the lynching of a local sharecropper named Joe Pulliam who had dared to speak up for himself when local whites refused to pay him for his work. “I remember that until this day, and I won't forget it,” she admitted in a 1965 interview. By that point, Hamer had become a nationally recognized civil rights activist, boldly advocating for the right to political participation that black Americans had long been denied.
Pulliam’s lynching revealed the stringent conditions of the Jim Crow South. Black Americans were expected to be subordinate to whites, hardly valued for their labor and certainly not their intellect. On a daily basis, white Southerners told black Americans where to live, where to work and how to act. Transgressions could result in devastating consequences.
White Southerners also completely shut black people out of the formal political process. In the wake of the Civil War, the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments confirmed that formerly enslaved people were citizens and enfranchised black men. During the Reconstruction era, black men made use of this right, voting and running for public office; black women were not afforded that right. Upon the dissolution of Reconstruction, white Southerners used an array of legal and extralegal measures—including poll taxes, grandfather clauses and mob violence—to make it nearly impossible for African American men to vote.
When the 19th Amendment extended the vote to women in 1920, these voter suppression tactics meant that the rights black suffragists had fought for were inaccessible in practice. By the 1960s, only 5 percent of Mississippi’s 450,000 black residents were registered to vote.
In 1962, Hamer attended a meeting arranged by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an interracial civil rights group that played a central role in organizing and encouraging black residents in the South to register to vote. “They were talking about [how] we could vote out people that we didn’t want in office,” she recalled. “That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it.” What Hamer came to realize in that moment was her ability to transform American society. Despite humble beginnings and a limited formal education, access to the ballot meant that she would be empowered to shape local, state and national politics.
That year, at the age of 44, Hamer joined SNCC and vowed to try to register to vote.
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