Before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he was to meet one of America’s formidable civil rights activists, Fannie Lou Hamer.
Hamer was to make a presentation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention as the co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which she established as a way to stop the stifling of African-American voices by the all-white Democratic party and delegation from Mississippi.
A scared Johnson wanted Hamer and her party stopped. According to the Washington Post, the president said:
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“Last night I couldn’t sleep,” he said, according to White House tapes. “About 2:30, I waked [sic] up . . . I do not believe I can physically and mentally carry the responsibilities of the world, and the Niggras, and the South.”
And try to stop her, he did. Hamer’s testimony at the Convention was interrupted by Johnson’s speech but to the latter’s chagrin, most TV news channels broadcast the testimony later in the evening, giving Hamer and her party the much-needed exposure.
Born on this day in Mississippi in 1917, Hamer ventured into activism in 1962 after she learnt of her constitutional right to vote. She tried to register, but her failure to answer a question about de facto law rendered her ‘ineligible.’ This move saw her fired and kicked off the plantation on which she worked. She was also shot at 16 times by white supremacists but was not injured.
These events did not stop her as she went back to register to vote and was successful in her third attempt on January 10, 1963. However, upon discovering that registering to vote did not actually allow her to vote, she made it her mission to teach black people in Mississippi how to read and write so that they could vote.
Later in the year, she was arrested and beaten up by police officers after an incident in which she and her team were chased out of a diner. The beating resulted in profound physical and psychological effects, including a blood clot behind her left eye and permanent damage to one of her kidneys.
When she was released and had recuperated, she went back to conducting voter drives and mentor some of Mississippi’s black activists.
Her appearance at the Democratic Convention saw her party get two seats in 1968 and in 1972, she was made a national party delegate.
She would die five years later of complications from hypertension and breast cancer. For her efforts, she was recognised with awards and honours, including the National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Award.
Here are some quotes Fannie Lou Hamer is remembered for: