Fannie Lou Hamer: Civil Rights Activist and Founder of the Freedom Farm Cooperative
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 – 1977) was born into a sharecropping family in Mississippi and become a leader in civil rights. She established a cooperative farm to provide economic support to her community.
Fannie Lou Hamer was born to a family of sharecroppers in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She began picking cotton with her family at age 6. She was able to attend school sporadically and learned to read and write, but she began working full time by age 12. After marrying Perry Hamer in 1944, she moved with him to a plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi. The Hamers did not have children of their own. Mrs. Hamer reportedly suffered failed pregnancies; then, in 1961, she underwent surgery for a uterine tumor, during which the white doctor removed her uterus without her consent. The Hamers later adopted two daughters.
In the summer of 1962, Hamer went to a church meeting about voting rights. (She told Neil McMillan in a 1972 interview that that meeting was the first time she learned that Black people had the right under the U.S. Constitution to register to vote). The meeting was organized by James Forman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights activists. Hamer joined the SNCC as an organizer, and on August 31, 1962, she traveled with 17 other volunteers to the Mississippi Courthouse in Indianola to register to vote. At the courthouse, only she and one other volunteer were admitted to take the literacy test required to register to vote. The test required them to copy a section of the Mississippi State Constitution word for word, and then to write an interpretation of the passage. Hamer and the other volunteer failed this unfair test and were denied registering to vote.
On their way home, police stopped the group’s bus, told them to return to Indianola, arrested one of the organizers, and fined the bus driver $100 for the bus being too yellow (the fine was eventually reduced to $30). The group paid the fine and returned home that evening, but when Hamer got back home, their landlord confronted them and told Mrs. Hamer she’d have to withdraw her voter registration if she wanted to continue working on his plantation. She refused, and was told to leave the property that night. Her husband was ordered to stay until the crop was harvested, or else the landlord would confiscate their belongings (the landlord did confiscate many of their possessions, including their car). Mrs. Hamer moved in with friends in Ruleville, Mississippi, also in Sunflower County, that night, but soon after the couple moved with their daughters to Tallahatchi County to stay with relatives to avoid acts of retaliation against those who had gone to the courthouse.
In autumn 1962, the SNCC’s field secretary asked Mrs. Hamer to participate in a conference at Fisk University in Nashville. The conference was successful, and the SNCC began paying Hamer a stipend of $10 per week (when it could) to continue working as a community organizer. Furthermore, SNCC volunteers had obtained a copy of the Mississippi State Constitution and coached Hamer on how to interpret it, and on December 4, 1962, she returned to the Indianola courthouse to retake the literacy test and register to vote. She wasn’t able to return to the courthouse until January 1963, when she learned she had passed the test. In August of that year, she attempted to vote in a primary election, but she lacked 2 years’ worth of poll tax receipts. The first vote Hamer ever cast was for herself, when she ran for Congress in 1964. The year prior, she had co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (to challenge the state’s dominant pro-segregation Democratic party), and in early 1964 she ran in the Democratic primary as the MFDP candidate. Although she lost, her run set a precedent and elevated the MFDP to the national stage.
An incomplete summary of Hamer’s political achievements:
1963 – co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
1964 – helped organize Freedom Summer, an effort to bring hundreds of college students (Black and white) to help register Southern Black Americans to vote
1964 – declared herself a candidate for the Mississippi House of Representatives, but was barred from the ballot
1965 – joined Victoria Gray and Annie Devine to become the first Black women to stand before the U.S. Congress as they protested the Mississippi House election of 1964
1968 – became a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation
1971 – helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus
The Freedom Farm Cooperative
Because of the circumstances of her youth, Hamer understood that it was necessary for the disenfranchised to achieve economic security as another pillar of racial equality. With a donation of $10,000 from a charitable organization in Wisconsin, Hamer purchased 40 acres in Sunflower County in 1969 and established the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), which had three main goals: to provide food, housing, and work opportunities for the Black community. Membership in the co-op cost $1 per month (which approximately 30 families could afford), and 1,500 more families were members in name. The co-op grew cotton and soybeans as cash crops to cover the taxes and administrative expenses, and vegetables and legumes to feed the families who worked the farm. Hamer also oversaw the building of 200 units of low-income housing, which had heat and running water.
In the FFC’s second year, it received a donation from the National Council of Negro Women that enabled the purchase of 640 acres and the establishment of a ‘pig bank’ with an initial purchase of five boars (male pigs) and 35 gilts (female pigs). The co-op would loan a gilt to a family, who would pay the interest back in piglets. When the pigs were big enough to be butchered, each family would receive a year’s worth of ham and lard.
The co-op’s importance to the Black residents of Ruleville in the 1960s likely cannot be overstated. White plantation owners usually fired and evicted Black sharecroppers for registering to vote—in 1969, for example, more than 100 families were evicted. For those who were not evicted, having the resources of vegetables, meat, and lard meant that families were less dependent on purchasing from their plantation’s commissary and could therefore reduce the debts they owed to plantation owners. Prior to the co-op’s housing development, most Black households did not have indoor plumbing. Furthermore, technological advances of that time were beginning to eliminate farming jobs; the FCFC provided job training, financial services, and schooling (it had a Head Start preschool, as well as a community center where members could learn about their civil rights).
Unfortunately, the FFC only survived into the 1970s. Despite Hamer’s fundraising efforts, it was not a commercial venture, and it did not receive governmental or institutional support. The co-op lost some donors due to economic downturns; it suffered from organizational and management issues; and floods and droughts between 1972 and 1973 destroyed the cash crops the co-op needed to pay its mortgage. By 1974, Hamer was in poor health and stopped traveling (her speaking fees being another source of income for the FFC). The FFC folded in 1976. Hamer died of breast cancer in 1977. She was 59. She left an impressive legacy of political activism and community building. She was buried in Ruleville, Mississippi, where she was given two memorial services to accommodate the number of people who came to honor her. This link provides a nice summary of the many honors and awards Hamer earned for her work.
Michals D (Ed). Fanny Lou Hamer. National Women’s History Museum. 2017. Accessed January 26, 2022. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/fannie-lou-hamer
Fanny Lou Hamer. PBS. Access January 26, 2022. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedomsummer-hamer/
Fannie Lou Hamer Founds Freedom Farm Cooperative. SNCC Digital Gateway. Accessed January 26, 2022. https://snccdigital.org/events/fannie-lou-hamer-founds-freedom-farm-cooperative/
Freedom Farm Cooperative. Wikipedia. May 11, 2021. Accessed January 26, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_Farm_Cooperative
Hamilton, RN. Fannie Lou Hamer – Life and Legacy. Around Robin Production Company. August 28, 2020. Accessed January 29, 2022. https://www.aroundrobin.com/fannie-lou-hamer/
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