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Fannie Lou Hamer

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Fannie Lou Hamer Fannie Lou Hamer, sharecropper, fieldworker for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), was born on a plantation in the Mississippi hill country in 1918, the last child in a family of 20 children. She went on to become one of the most outspoken activists of the civil rights era, first gaining national notice in 1968 when, with the MFDP, she succeeded in unseating the all-white delegation from Mississippi to the Democratic National Convention. That year, Hamer turned her efforts to the Freedom Farm Cooperation (FCC), an organization that leased land to African American farmers and provided social services, scholarships and assistance to minority-owned businesses. Hamer continued to work for the welfare of African Americans until her death in 1977 from cancer.

The following excerpts are from an interview conducted in April 14, 1972 by Professsor Neil McMillen for the Mississippi Oral History Program of the University of Southern Mississippi. This interview is part of USM's Civil Rights Documentation Project.


McMillen: Mrs. Hamer, why don't we begin with something about your childhood life? Where were you born and what was your life like when you were a little girl?

Hamer: Well, I was born 54 years ago on a plantation in the hills, the kind of place that's something similar to Hattiesburg, the place where you are from. In fact I was the last child of 20 children, six girls and 14 boys. I'm the twentieth child of a very poor family, sharecroppers [who] never had anything . . . [We] didn't hardly have food to eat.

My family moved to Sunflower County when I was two years old. . . so I was mostly raised here in the Delta. In fact, from two years old up until now, I've been in the Delta. My family moved here, and we moved on a plantation; the landowner was named Mr. E. W . Brandon. So we lived on his place until I was grown, but it was just hard. Life was very hard; we never hardly had enough to eat; we didn't have clothes to wear. We had to work real hard, because I started working when I was about six years old. I didn't have a chance to go to school too much, because school would only last about four months at the time when I was a kid going to school. Most of the time we didn't have clothes to wear to that [school]; and then if any work would come up that we would have to do, the parents would take us out of the school to cut stalks and burn stalks or work in dead lands or things like that. It was just really tough as a kid when I was a child.

McMillen: So how did you spend your life then from when you were finished with your six years of school?

Hamer: Well, that was just in and out of school--in and out of school, until I was grown. I'd just have some months I'd be in school and some I wouldn't.

McMillen:Then you worked, of course?

Hamer: Yes.

McMillen: Did you work in the fields?

Hamer: Yes, I worked in the fields. In fact, all the kids around in this Delta worked in the fields. Wasn't no other work to do. They didn't have no such thing as factories; these factories are something new. . . This time of year, well, when there was no cotton to chop, we would be raking corn stalks or doing something like this. But there was never, never a time in April that kids would be in school when I was a kid. . .


McMillen: Let's move forward in time, Mrs. Hamer. When was the first time you really wanted to vote?

Hamer:That was 1962.

McMillen: Tell us about your efforts to vote.

Hamer:Well, I didn't know anything about voting; I didn't know anything about registering to vote. One night I went to the church. They had a mass meeting. And I went to the church, and they talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote. They were talking about we could vote out people that we didn't want in office, we thought that wasn't right, that we could vote them out. That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it. I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote.

McMillen: Never heard that in your life?

Hamer: I'd never heard that. We hadn't heard anything about registering to vote because when you see this flat land in here, when the people would get out of the fields if they had a radio, they'd be too tired to play it. So we didn't know what was going on in the rest of the state, even, much less in other places.

McMillen: When you were a child at school, did the books you have say anything about voting or democracy?

Hamer: Never! I'd never even heard that that was in the Constitution. I never heard anything about it. In fact, the first time I was aware that Mississippi had a constitution was when I tried to register to vote, and they gave me a section of the Constitution of Mississippi to write, to copy, and then to give a reasonable interpretation of it. I didn't know that we had that right.

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Published with permission from the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage
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