Like virtually all African Americans who grew up in Mississippi during the first half of the 20th century, Fannie Lou Hamer endured many injustices in her life.
Some went beyond the typical day-to-day discrimination of the Southern “Jim Crow” social system.
In 1961, Hamer was sterilized without her consent or knowledge by a white doctor, as a part of an officially sanctioned plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state.
When she tried to register to vote, the white farmer she worked for fired and evicted her.
In 1962, Hamer become an active volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the leading civil rights groups of the era.
In 1963, during a trip to register black voters in Winona, Mississippi, Hamer and four other SNCC volunteers were savagely beaten and arrested by the police. She later recalled that, from her cell, she could hear the sound of continued beatings and a policeman yelling: “Can you say, ‘yes, sir,’ nigger?”
It took Hamer more than a month to recover and she was left partially disabled for the rest of her life.
Undeterred, she went on to help organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
In 1964, the MFDP officially asked the the National Democratic Party to seat their chosen delegates at the party’s upcoming National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
This created a dilemma for the Democrats. At the time, the official Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi was all white. Those members demanded that the Credentials Committee reject the MFDP’s request. They warned that Southern Democrats would abandon President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election if any black delegates were seated.
The Credentials Committee members were concerned about a white voter backlash in the South. But they were also concerned about appearing to be opposed to the civil rights movement. So, they invited Hamer and her group to make a presentation to them during the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
Hamer appeared before the committee on August 22, 1964.
She gave an amazingly moving account of the harassment and violence she and other blacks had been subjected to while trying to gain the right to vote in Mississippi.
President Johnson quickly tried to divert attention from Hamer’s appearance and the delegate seating issue by holding an impromptu press conference focusing on other issues. But, to his dismay, Hamer’s speech received widespread coverage in the national press.
Johnson then sent Senator Hubert Humphrey and other Democratic leaders to meet with Hamer and her colleagues. He offered to give the MFDP two non-voting seats at the convention. They refused to accept this crumb or any other token “compromises” the Democrats offered.
When asked why she persisted, Fannie Lou gave an answer she’d used before when asked why she persevered in her civil rights efforts.
“All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”
The last part of Hamer’s response — “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” — became a famous quote forever associated with her.
After failing to get Hamer and the MFDP to accept a compromise, Johnson and the Democrats decided they feared a white Southern backlash in 1964 more than rejection by the black Americans who were able to vote. They refused to seat any MFDP members as voting delegates.
But the public attention generated by the issue and by Hamer’s speech added to the momentum for change.
A year later, the Democratically-controlled Congress passed — and President Johnson signed into law — the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited states from denying voting rights “on account of race.”
For its 1968 national convention, the National Democratic Party adopted a policy requiring African Americans to be fairly represented in state delegations.
One of the voting delegates seated at that 1968 convention was Fannie Lou Hamer.
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