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MPH Program in Health Services
More Black History Month Profiles . . .

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Remarkable civil rights activist, feminist, and community organizer Fannie Lou Hamer was the vanguard for Barack Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement. Hamer was born into poverty in racially-segregated Montgomery, Mississippi, the 20th child of sharecroppers, picking cotton at age 6 and forced to leave school at 12. She worked on a plantation until she was 45, along with her husband, Perry Hamer, under the racist Jim Crow laws. 

In 1961, Hamer checked into to a Sunflower County hospital for a minor surgery, but became the victim of a “Mississippi appendectomy,” a term for the popular practice of forced sterilization (complete hysterectomy) perpetrated by the medical profession on unknowing Black patients, in order to control the birthrate of African Americans. Unable to have children, the couple adopted two girls (one of whom later died of internal hemorrhaging, when she was denied medical care, due to her mother’s activism).

In the summer of 1961, Hamer attended a meeting of civil rights activists, and became an organizer for the Southern Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the organizations guided by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. By 1962, Hamer was leading volunteers to register to vote at the Indianola, Mississippi Courthouse. She was harassed by the police and fired from her employment, her family’s property was unlawfully confiscated, and they were forced to move to Rueville, Mississippi. In 1963, she and several other Black women staged a sit-in at a White-only bus station in Charleston, South Carolina. All were arrested and beaten by the police, leaving Hamer with a permanent blot clot, kidney damage, and leg injuries. 

By 1964, she had co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and was ahead of her time in challenging the Democratic Party not to take the African American voter for granted. Her delegation attended the Democratic National Convention that year, and demanded to be recognized. President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) maneuvered a press conference at the same time Hamer spoke, in order to undermine her presentation (this event was portrayed in the 2016 TV movie, All The Way, with Aisha Hinds as Fannie Lou Hamer, and Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson). 

Hamer helped spur the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act, by helping to organize Freedom Summer in 1964, when hundreds of White and Black college students came to the South to help register African American citizens to vote. Many lost their lives doing so, such as James Chaney (1943-1964), Andrew Goodman (1943-1964), and Michael Schwerner (1939-1964), who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in collaboration with local law enforcement. 

The following year, after massive African American-led protests in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama were televised, Johnson introduced the legislation which would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

That same year, when Medicaid and Medicare were founded, Hamer famously stated she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Her words were televised and had a major impact on the national discussion of racism, and the unequal health conditions of African Americans.

It is of significance that Hamer died at age 59 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a town founded in 1887 by ex-slaves, as an independent African American community. Drs. H. Jack Geiger (1926 - ) and Count Gibson (1921-2002) established the Delta Health Center as a community health center in Mound Bayou. These two White physicians echoed Hamer’s diagnosis of poverty and racism as the cause of the area’s health disparities, and her prescription of jobs and equal opportunity as the cures (see Branch, Parting the Waters). 

Author: Dr. Clarence Spigner, Health Services Professor and MPH Program Director

Photo: Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer

Sources and further exploration: