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50 Years/50 Collections: The Fannie Lou Hamer Papers, 1981

Dear fanny lou, we have gust studied some fammouise black leaders it’s hard to explain about how I feel but there [is] one thing I can write that’s true in my heart I wish I could give you as much freedom as I could give It’s gust not fair to treet blacks so cruelly…if I could give you eneything I’d give you freedom so free as the wind the birds and trees and the sky…I care for you. Love, Laura. Laura’s letter is one of many received by civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer from school children in 1976 after their teacher had read to them from a children’s biography of Hamer by June Jordan. That she wished to give Hamer “as much freedom as I could give” likely indicates that young Laura had listened intently to her teacher as Jordan’s book focuses on Hamer’s participation in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and her founding of the Freedom Farms Corporation.

Fannie Lou Hamer speaking to a crowd.

Fannie Lou Hamer’s efforts to bring about more freedom for African Americans, whether through voting or through land ownership and economic sufficiency, are well documented in her papers at the Amistad Research Center. One of the foundational civil rights era collections at the Center, the Fannie Lou Hamer papers encompass 16 linear feet and date from 1966 to 1978. The collection documents not only Hamer’s personal life and work, but also contain the records of many of the organizations that she founded or participated in, including the MFDP, Freedom Farms Corporation, the Delta Ministry, the Delta Opportunities Corporation, Mississippians United to Elect Negro Candidates, the Sunflower County Voter Education Project, and others. Born on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Hamer was the youngest of twenty children born to Jim and Ella Townsend. The family worked as sharecroppers moving to Sunflower County, Mississippi, in 1919. At the age of nine, Hamer joined the family picking cotton, but was able to start her education in a plantation school at that time. She married Perry "Pap" Hamer, another sharecropper in 1945, and worked on the Dee Marlow Plantation from 1947-1962. She attended the first mass meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Ruleville, Mississippi, and then made her first failed attempt to register to vote with eighteen other sharecroppers in Indianola, Mississippi. As a result of this failed attempt, she was fired from her job on the Marlow Plantation and forced from her home. The Hamer's moved to the town of Ruleville, where the William Tucker family took them in until the violence forced them to move again to a neighboring county. In 1963, she passed the Mississippi literacy test and became a registered voter. She began a more active role in the Civil Rights Movement, working to obtain federal commodities for underprivileged black families, and with SNCC as a field secretary organizing voter registration campaigns and welfare programs. Hamer was arrested in Winona, Mississippi, on a return trip from a voter registration workshop and severely beaten while in custody as were three others also arrested. They remained jailed for three days until their release was demanded by James Bevel and Andrew Young.

In 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was founded due to a lack of acceptance of Blacks into the regular state Democratic Party. Hamer became vice chairperson of MFDP, which sent a delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey as a challenge to the seating of the regular Mississippi delegation. During the National Convention, Hamer made a television address to the convention explaining the poverty, unemployment, disfranchisement, intimidation, and violence that existed in Mississippi toward African Americans. The Convention offered a compromise, which was refused by MFDP, to seat two members of the regular delegation and two members of MFDP with no voting power. After the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the National Convention pledged not to seat any delegation in the 1968 Democratic Convention, which discriminated against Blacks in the selection of delegates. Hamer also attempted to run for Congress in 1964 from the Second Mississippi Congressional District against the white incumbent, Jamie Whitten, but was not allowed on the regular ballot. The MFDP conceived the "Freedom Ballot" on which all candidates' names were placed. Jamie Whitten received only 49 votes to 33,009 votes on the "Freedom Ballot." In continuing the fight for the vote, Hamer appealed to Congress, with Victoria Grey and Annie Devine, in a dramatic challenge to the House of Representatives against the seating of the five regular Mississippi representatives. Their challenge was argued on the floor of the House and defeated. In 1966, she became a member of the National Committee for Free Elections in Sunflower, Mississippi. Hamer was the plaintiff in a suit charging discrimination for the 1965 election. In June 8, 1967 the municipal elections in Sunflower and Moorhead Counties were overturned by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and were the first elections set aside because African Americans were denied the vote. Hamer continued to be active as a member of the Democratic National Committee for Mississippi from 1968 to 1971. In 1969, Hamer founded the Freedom Farms Corporation (FFC), a nonprofit venture designed to help needy families, both black and white, to raise food and livestock on which to live. The FFC provided social services, minority business opportunities, scholarships, and grants for education. Hamer continued her civic and political activities throughout the seventies and received many awards and honorary degrees for her activism. By 1976, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery. Unfortunately, her fight with cancer was not won and she died in Mound Bayou Hospital on March 14, 1977. The guide to the Fannie Lou Hamer papers is located here.

Image from the Fannie Lou Hamer papers. Images from the Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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