The descriptions of the men and women in this magazine bear testament to the fact that it took many people of good conscience and heroic action to open the franchise across racial lines. This issue’s Human Rights Hero, Fanny Lou Hamer (1917–1977), embodies the essential qualities that it took to question America and move this country toward a more perfect union with its people. Her authentic call for social justice, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” serves as a source of inspiration for all seeking human rights.
Hamer was born the youngest of twenty children to a family of sharecroppers on the Marlow plantation in the Mississippi Delta. In 1942 she married Perry “Pap” Hamer, a tractor driver on the plantation. Unable to have children, Hamer discovered that she had been sterilized without her knowledge or consent. Subsequently, the Hamers adopted two boys and two girls.
At age thirty-seven, Hamer attended a sermon given by Reverend James Bevel, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where she learned that the Constitution gave her the right to vote. Bevel implored listeners to register to vote. Hamer was the first to sign up. Later she said, “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been scared—but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it seemed they’d been trying to do that a little at a time since I could remember.”
After attempting to register to vote—she failed the literacy test the first two times—she was told to leave the plantation by its owner. Andrew Young, then a SNCC organizer, and Bevel helped her find other housing. When members of the KKK found where she lived, they fired sixteen shots into the house. Luckily, no one was injured.
As a field secretary for SNCC, Hamer traveled throughout the South, speaking and registering people to vote. In 1963 in Winona, Mississippi, police arrested her and several colleagues. While in police custody, on the order of the guards, other prisoners brutally beat her, causing permanent injury. News of this caused an outcry and several people were arrested. An all-white jury acquitted those accused.
At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Hamer used her own life and the Winona beatings in particular as an abject lesson in the importance of the franchise. In a televised speech that reached millions, she challenged the credentials of the all-white Mississippi Democratic delegation and sought to have the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) seated.
The Democratic Party leadership proposed that the Convention, as a whole, choose two MFDP members to be seated as delegates at-large, and that the Mississippi Democrats promise not to send a segregated delegation to future conventions. Both sides found the proposal unacceptable. The Mississippi Democrats refused the pledge and walked out. And, speaking for the MFDP, Hamer simply declared, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats! We didn’t come for no two seats when all of us is tired.” While the MFDP did not win the immediate issue, Hamer and the MFDP members irrevocably changed terms of the debate and galvanized the nation on the need for federal voting rights legislation.
Hamer viewed the struggle for the franchise and civil rights as a spiritual and transformational one, famously singing hymns such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” as a source of inspirational courage. Hamer’s life provides such inspiration, too, making her a human rights hero of the American franchise.
Nicholas Targ is an adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Law and the associate director for Environmental Justice Integration and counsel for the Office of Environmental Justice at the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the EPA or any other agency of the federal government.