Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was born October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, and raised in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta. She was the youngest of 20 children and began picking cotton at the age of 6, leaving school in sixth grade to work full time in the fields. When she was in her twenties her employer found out she could read and write and made her a time keeper; in the evenings she cleaned his family's home.
In 1962 Hamer attended a SNCC rally at her church where speaker James Bevel urged the audience to register to vote. The next week she and 17 others rode in a rented bus to the county seat of Indianola to register, with Hamer leading the group in singing hymns and praying during the journey. She was unable to pass the test, which contained questions about such things as the state constitution, but passed it on the third try. Those involved in the voter drive were threatened and shots fired into their homes at night. Hamer and her husband lost their jobs and were evicted, losing their car and their furniture.
Freedom Summer of 1964 she worked with youth volunteers from around the country and helped organize the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the different civil rights groups working on voting rights.
In response to the all-white state Democratic Party, African Americans founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, open to all residents. Hamer became the Vice Chair and spokesperson, leading a delegation at the Democratic National Convention in August 1964. In a nationally televised address the the Credentials Committee she outlined conditions in Mississippi and asked that the group be seated. President Lyndon Johnson, afraid of losing southern support, sent Humbert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and others to negotiate. When offered only two at-large seats, the MFDP refused. Although they were not represented in 1964, the publicity helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and changes in the party representation in 1968.
Hamer, along with Victoria Gray and Annie Devine, ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965 primaries on the MFDC ticket, again to challenge the legitimacy of the "regular" Democratic Party. Although all three lost, they challenged the seating of the elected representatives, claiming the state registrar's office had not recognized their petitions. The U. S. House of Representatives denied the challenge by an 85-vote margin.
|Hamer with (l-r) Emory Harris, Stokely|
Carmichael, Sam Block, Eleanor
Holmes and Ella Baker