On August 31, 1962—50 years ago today—Fannie Lou Hamer led seventeen people to a courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi, to attempt to register to vote. It was the beginning of a long struggle.
For decades, white supremacists had blocked African American voter registration by enacting various discriminatory rules and regulations—particularly unreasonable tests that most applicants would inevitably fail. Despite voter registration drives, only a tiny segment of the African American population was registered.
When Hamer and the others arrived at the courthouse on August 31 to register, they were met by men with rifles determined to prevent their registration. Ultimately, not one member of the group was able to register that day. And Hamer lost her job because her employer objected to her attempted registration.
Unwilling to give up, Hamer attended a SNCC leadership training conference, and then continued her registration attempts until officials finally allowed her to register in December 1962. But Hamer wasn’t just seeking registration for herself; she wanted true voting equality for all.
Hostility and violence always loomed over fights for civil rights. In June 1963, on her way back from a SCLC citizenship training program, Hamer was arrested after being refused service in a restaurant. She and her 15-year-old traveling companion were beaten by two other African American prisoners under orders from the police. Although five were charged in the beating, an all-white jury later acquitted the police.
Undeterred, Hamer continued the struggle, walking in James Meredith’s march against fear and in 1968 sitting as a delegate at the Democratic Party’s nominating convention. Her later activism included not only voting rights but also anti-poverty campaigns and desegregation protests.
A testament to her influence and contributions, Hamer’s funeral was attended by hundreds of people, including Andrew Young, who gave the eulogy. A member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she was also honored as the namesake of several institutions, including parks and educational facilities.
Hamer, like so many other civil rights activists and ordinary citizens, risked hostility and violence to make major contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1964, poll taxes—another common disfranchisement tool—were banned through the passage of the 24th Amendment; in 1965, the Voting Rights Act outlawed the disfranchisement practices that kept Hamer and many other African Americans from registering to vote.
To learn more about voting rights, take a look at this lengthy contextual report published by the National Park Service.
To learn more about Hamer, check out this page from Mississippi History Now, an online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society, and this page from Howard University. The Encyclopedia Britannica article can be found here.
For more on Hamer’s life and work, check out Kay Mills’ This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (University Press of Kentucky 1993) and Chana Kai Lee’s For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (University Press of Illinois 2000). Hamer herself wrote an autobiography in 1967: To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography.
For a study of the opposing activities of Fannie Lou Hamer and segregationist politician James Eastland, check out Chris Myers Asch’s The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer (UNC Press 2011).
To listen to Hamer’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which she recalls the August 31 registration effort and the events which followed, click here. To read the text, and to access a summary, check out this page from American Public Media.
To learn more about the freedom struggle in Sunflower County—the location of the August 31 voter registration attempt—check out J. Todd Moye’s Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986 (UNC Press 2004).
To learn about voting rights in Mississippi, check out Frank Parker’s Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi after 1965 (UNC Press 1990).
Disfranchisement began long before Hamer was born. To learn more about the systematic exclusion of African Americans from elections, check out Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (UNC Press 2001).