Image by William J. Smith
Today we commemorate the 99th birthday of this remarkable woman, who went to the Democratic convention in 1964 with a message that will resonate with supporters of Bernie Sanders today. This piece was originally published on August 25, 2004.
In August 1964, a ragtag caravan of Southern sharecroppers, teachers, organizers and idealistic young people converged on Atlantic City, N.J., for the Democratic National Convention. Their leader and the vice chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was Fannie Lou Hamer.
Their message was simple: Poor people, especially poor black people, have been forcibly excluded from political and economic power. That has to change.
While some things have certainly changed over the past four decades, we would still benefit from absorbing some of Hamer's wisdom, passion and clear sense of values.
On the surface, one might say that the Mississippi delegation and other 1960s civil-rights activists were demanding racial inclusion, and they won it. Today we have Barack Obama about to desegregate the U.S. Senate, and a Republican president whose two closest and highest-ranking advisers are African-Americans.
But simple inclusion was not really what Hamer and her band of social-justice crusaders were demanding in 1964. They did not simply want brown faces in high places. Their demand was that elected officials take a long hard look at the lives of people like Hamer, people at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy. They wanted these officials to develop policies that improve those conditions.
It's sad to say, but today, those who live Hamer's pain are still with us. They live in migrant-worker communities, in soon-to-be-torn-down housing projects, prison cells, homeless shelters and cramped shacks. They exist with few resources and dwindling allies.
Fannie Lou Hamer was an impoverished Mississippi sharecropper with a sixth-grade education. She also became a charismatic leader of the grassroots Southern-based black freedom movement of the 1960s. Young organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to Ruleville, Miss., in 1962. Hamer, then in her 40s, joined forces with them because, as she put it, she was "sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Before dying prematurely at age 59, Hamer spent her life immersed in political activity and community organizing.
She was fired and evicted from the farm on which she worked for daring to register to vote in 1962.
The following year, she was beaten bloody by racist sheriffs in a Winona, Miss., jail because of her civil-rights activities.
The beauty of Hamer's leadership is embodied in a simple concept: Poor and disenfranchised people have the right to speak for themselves. And the duty of those with privilege is not to preach to, or about, them but to support them in making their own case.
Hamer's eloquence and insight countered the assumption that poor black Southerners were too uninterested or not smart enough to be political actors. Her struggle and endurance belied any notion that poor people were lazy or unmotivated.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party never made it to the national platform in 1964. They were offered two token seats as a concession but the entire delegation was not seated on the floor. They were the voice of principle but they made their case outside the convention walls -- on the Atlantic City boardwalk, singing, praying and protesting.
The modern-day descendants of Hamer are gathering at the GOP convention. And, like Hamer, they are outsiders. This time they are filling the streets of New York demanding jobs, health care, justice at home and peace in Iraq.
Fannie Lou Hamer's spirit is with them.
Barbara Ransby is the author of the award-winning biography "Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision" (UNC Press, 2003).