I am sick and tired of being sick and tired

No, those are not my words. This is not one of those essays where I declare my vast and eternal disenchantment with Blogtopia, the net roots, America, western civilization, the Democratic party, or french fries that aren’t crispy. When I need a break, I will take one. Until then, I need to engage in the tremulous task of saving my brain from impending calcification and trying to look for sources of inspiration.

No, those words were spoken by Fannie Lou Hamer, a brilliant, compassionate, and straight talking Black woman from Mississippi who was a grass roots civil rights activist and anti-poverty worker. She was born poor and she died that way. Americans all seem to want their political/historical struggles to have a happy ending, a conclusive convergence of harmony, perhaps so they can hang on to their myths.

A few other things Mrs.Hamer said:

Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.

There is one thing you have got to learn about our movement. Three people are better than no people.

With the people, for the people, by the people. I crack up when I hear it: I say with the handful, for the handful, by the handful, cause that’s what really happens.

If the white man gives you anything-just remember when he gets ready he will take it back. We have to take it for ourselves.


Here is a selection of biographical material about her if anybody is still intrigued after my inevitably inadequate introduction to her. Fascinating people just cannot be presented fairly in an essay.

Naturally there is no irony in the fact that Fannie Lou Hamer’s name was specifically attached along with Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King to the Voting Rights Reauthorization Bill thus recognized and canonized but was so poor right before she died that she could not afford a post mastectomy prosthesis that she had to stuff socks in her clothing. When she died she and her husband had no money friends had to raise money for the funeral. She chose to stay in Mississippi and continue as an anti-poverty crusader rather capitalize financially through being recognized. It seems we love agitators most when they are gone and we merely tolerate them or seek to mold them when they are with us. We wish to harness the raw power of those who step beyond the the accepted battle lines in order to push our won agenda and then they are often discarded. Many Black women played crucial roles in the civil rights movement. Lynne Olson, an author who looks at the significant role women played in that era notes that Rosa Parks was often depicted as being very deferential when she was actually a careful planner who had put much thought and effort into her actions. And further once the Montgomery bus boycott was initiated, and Martin Luther King was involved, Parks was not allowed to speak at the first mass meeting.She asked to speak, and one of the ministers there said he thought she had done enough. It was time for the men to drive the movement apparently.

Fannie Lou Hamer recalled an impoverished childhood. She was one of twenty children born to sharecropper parents. She began working at age six going to school intermittently, and rarely having proper clothing or enough food to eat. She did not remember enjoying specific subjects but loved reading. She was a devout Christian and always drew inspiration from the Bible. Hamer contactedpolio which made it hard for her to work in the field. She worked for the same man for several years until 1962 because she was literate she did record keeping in addition to cooking and cleaning in the home of the landowner.

Fannie Lou Hamer married and discovered she could not have children. When she sought medical help her reward was what was called a Mississippi apendectomy… a hysterectomy that she did not consent to. It seems outrageous today, but merely illustrates the way in which black southerners were not considered human beings.

She indicated in an interview that she did not realize she could vote. She discovered she had this right at a church meeting. Hamer went to vote and was asked to copy and interpreted a section of the Mississippi. She was unable to do so and after she tried to register to vote a second time she and her husband were told to leave the farm where they worked. Hamer ultimately joined SNCC or “snick” as they were called. Activists from SNCC were heavily involved in voter registration all over Mississippi. Hamer and other activists were not allowed to participate in the local Democratic party and thus Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was formed. They registered 50,000 voters and selected delegates to the 1964 National Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City.

It was at this convention that Fannie Lou Hamer shamed and horrified those present by detailing the systemic abuse she and other suffered when they attempted to register to vote. The entire speech can be read here.

Hamer gave that speech to the “credentials” committee at the convention.  President Johnson, sensing trouble gave a last minute press conference to try and undercut Hamer’s powerful words. The delegation was offered two seats as a “compromise” and the offer was rejected. Mrs. Hamer stated,We didn’t come for for no two seats when all of us is tired. They believed the entire delegation should be seated given the amount of work they had put into organizing and registering voters. She asked the ultimate question saying,if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America, is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave?Where we have to sleep with our phones off the hook, because our lives are threatened daily? A good question for any activist to ask when they are threatened and critiqued for simply exercising rights. Though less physically dangerous, it is the same question we must ask when any of us are told we are lacking in patriotism for challenging the status quo. Which America do we live in?

In 1968, Fannie Lou Hamer, was a delegate as a member of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, and received a standing ovation. Not much reward for a life of struggle and bravery, no doubt it was the applause of the ashamed and guilty.

She continued local activism and speaking for the rest of her life. Among her projects were freedom farms aimed at helping poor locals grow crops, start businesses, get educational assistance and social service assistance. Hamer is remember as somebody who liked to sing this little light is mine. She thought All in the Family was funny for its accurate depiction of a white bigot. She had compassion for the anger her husband felt at being denied opportunities. When an activist came to the house and helped with the dishes, her husband was mad that he was doing “women’s work.” She explained that her husband had few ways left of being a man.

Fannie Lou Hamer is an American hero, a testimony to guts, faith, and intelligence, a reminder that the best and brightest do not automatically go to the best schools or come from the elite classes.  Her status as a poor black woman is what keeps her from being considered among our great political leaders. She gained little and gave much. She helps to remind us that the poor and working classes are not always silent, are not destined to be so. Turns out inspiration isn’t all that hard to find at all.


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  1. goes to Fannie Lou Hamer.

  2. in Eyes on the Prize.

    Thanks for this.

    • Alma on December 1, 2007 at 06:00

    I’m so glad you brought us more on Fannie.  She is fascinating and such an inspiration.  

    This line hit me as saddly being so true:

    “It seems we love agitators most when they are gone and we merely tolerate them or seek to mold them when they are with us.”

    I love your essay style.  Its always easy to read. 🙂

  3. … undercovercalico, about an outstanding woman.

    She died rich as far as I’m concerned.  They say you can’t take it with you, but that means only material wealth.  She died rich, she left behind enduring wealth.

  4. for fixing the date problem….

  5. I feel like I just went to school AND church this Saturday morning because both my mind and heart were stretched and blessed. This is why I love the blogosphere. Thanks so much!!

    • kj on December 1, 2007 at 17:31

    great essay with links to read, read, read! on a rainy Saturday.  Thank you, ucc.  🙂

  6. But I am really really proud of my sister who is the executive music director at The Newark School of the arts

    Fannie is one of her idols. Here is a video of one of her pupils – the music is ah different – classical

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