In 1969, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer bought forty acres of farmland in the Mississippi Delta and started the Freedom Farm Cooperative of Sunflower County. The co-op was Hamer’s version of direct action, meant to create both economic power and community solidarity among local families. And it was worked, and owned, by blacks and whites together.

Fifteen hundred families joined, putting in work in exchange for a share of the harvest. They could also borrow a pregnant pig, keeping the piglets and returning the mother to the farm’s so-called pig bank. The results: food for families who had struggled to afford it, a hedge against the uncertainties of the collapsing sharecropping economy, and a sense of independence.

“All the qualifications that you have to have to become part of the co-op is you have to be poor,” Hamer said. That was something she knew about. The youngest of twenty children, Hamer was born into a sharecropping family in 1917, one hundred years ago this October. She started picking cotton at age six and had to quit school at age twelve, working adult hours on the plantation to help put food on the table. Still eager to learn, she attended Bible classes at the local church and read everything she could get her hands on. 

Jason Landsel, Forerunners: Fannie Lou Hamer 

The injustice around her ate at her heart. She knew the local waterways contained the murdered remains of many like herself. She knew that her family, having struggled to save enough to buy mules and a pair of cows, had been thrown back into poverty when a resentful white neighbor poisoned their livestock. She once asked her mother why she wasn’t white. Her mother, who illegally packed a 9mm Luger in the fields to keep her kids safe, told her that she must respect herself for who she was. Her mother also taught her to sing: songs of freedom, of trust in God. 

Hamer retained her mother’s fighting spirit – and commitment to forgiveness. “Ain’t no such a thing as I can hate anybody and hope to see God’s face,” she’d later say. She loved the words of Paul quoted in Acts 17:26, remarking:

 It’s long past time for the churches to wake up. Jesus wasn’t talking about black people, or about white people.… There’s no difference in people, for … Paul says, “God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” That means that whether we’re white, black, red, yellow, or polka dot, we’re made from the same blood.

When she was twenty-seven, she married Perry Hamer. Unable to have children, the couple took in two little girls and would later adopt two more. Then, in 1961, Mrs. Hamer went in for a surgery and woke up to find that she’d been given a hysterectomy. This was common at the time: a “eugenic” measure, meant to prevent black women from “breeding.” This experience colored her lifelong opposition to abortion, which was fundamentally driven by her understanding of the sacredness of human life. “Legal abortion is legal murder,” she would say, claiming that it “amounts to genocide” against African Americans.

Fannie Lou Hamer Photograph by Ken Thompson

Her “Mississippi appendectomy” (she coined the term) finally spurred Hamer to action. She began working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to recruit local blacks to register to vote. She knew that she was risking her home, her job, her life. But “the only thing they could do to me was kill me,” she said, “and it seemed they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

Although eighteen prospective registrants traveled to the county courthouse, only Hamer and one companion were permitted to take the literacy test, which they “failed.” (Examinees were required to interpret sections of the Mississippi constitution; examiners routinely applied far more rigorous standards to blacks than to whites.) In the bus on the way back, the group was discouraged, afraid of consequences awaiting them. Hamer began to sing, and others joined in. “This little light of mine,” they sang, “I’m gonna let it shine.…” The song would become her signature.

Back home, Hamer found W. D. Marlow, the owner of the plantation where she and her husband had worked for eighteen years, in a rage. He demanded that she withdraw her registration. She refused, quitting her job on the spot. She and the children left the plantation that same night. Hamer kept organizing – and singing. By 1963, she had become recognized as a significant leader in the Mississippi civil rights struggle.

On June 9, 1963, on their way back from a citizen training workshop, Hamer and several other civil rights workers were arrested. In jail, they were tortured and sexually violated. Hamer, beaten brutally, suffered permanent eye and kidney damage.