Today is Election Day in the United States. Election Day, for me, is a day to honor one of my heroes, Fannie Lou Hamer. She was the granddaughter of a slave, born to a sharecropping family in Mississippi. She worked the fields starting when she was six, dropped out of school when she twelve to work more hours and married a sharecropper. She was one of many black women sterilized without her knowledge or consent as part of Mississippi’s plan to reduce the black population. Although she did not have much formal education, she was concerned about her rights and attended civil rights meetings in the 50s.
In 1962, when she was 45 years old, she took the bus with 17 others into the county courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi, to register to vote. This was an action of singular courage because nowhere was segregation more steeped in violence and terrorism than Mississippi. On her way home, her bus was stopped and she and the others were arrested. The land owner came to her home and said they would be evicted if she tried to vote. She left the next day, seeking refuge with friends. Ten days later, the Klan visited the home where she was staying and fired on it.
She began volunteering for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1963, she was again arrested and beaten so badly that it took over a month for her to recover. Explaining how she could face such dangers, she said, “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”
Hamer was part of the pivotal Freedom Summer and a delegate to the Democratic convention in 1964 with the Freedom Democrats – a delegation of blacks from Mississippi who challenged the credentials of the all-white official delegates because blacks were not allowed to vote. President Johnson shamed himself by brokering a deal that only seated two non-voting delegates and absolutely refusing Hamer, whose testimony to the credentials committee shamed him and America so thoroughly. She told her story that day, ending with “All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings – in America?”
Hamer is a forgotten hero of the civil rights movement, her many contributions overshadowed by the more socially acceptable leadership who were educated, middle class and well-spoken. However, that did not stop her. She worked for social justice the rest of her life, becoming an active leader in promoting Head Start. Although her name is often forgotten, though, nearly everybody quotes Fannie Lou Hamer from time to time, even if they don’t know it. So next time you say, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” think of Hamer and her courage.
And today, of all days, please honor her courage and her spirit and vote. If the lines are long, think of Fannie Lou Hamer and realize that’s a small price to pay.
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