Fannie Lou Hamer testifying at the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City in 1964. Photo–Wikipedia
Fannie Lou Hamer once said: “You can pray until you faint, but unless you get up and do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”
At a time when the right to vote is being threatened, we look for inspiration in the lives of those who fought most valiantly to extend and protect that right. This fall we recognize the 100th anniversary of one of our greatest champions, Fannie Lou Hamer.
Born to a family of sharecroppers in rural Mississippi, she was forced at the age of 13 from her one-room schoolhouse into the cotton fields. She was forced off the plantation where she worked when the owner found out she had tried to register to vote. She was blocked from actually registering, however, by Mississippi’s notorious racially-discriminatory literacy test. At that time, Black voters not only had to prove they could read, but also had to compose an essay analyzing a portion of the U.S. Constitution – to the satisfaction of a white registrar. White applicants were exempt from such requirements under so-called “grandfather clauses.”
Her willingness to challenge the registrar and demand she be alone to fill out an application attracted the attention of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which hired her as a field organizer.
The beating she suffered in prison in 1963 as a result of her activism left her with permanent injuries to her kidneys, eyes and legs.
While her work with SNCC raised her public profile, it was as a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that she gained national celebrity. The party selected 64 delegates to send to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and Hamer was elected vice-chair of the delegation. Hamer’s powerfully moving testimony to the credentials committee was broadcast on national television, drawing attention to the humiliations and violence visited upon Black Americans in the South who tried to vote.
The work of Hamer and others led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It placed restrictions states with a history of discrimination – Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia and Hamer’s home state of Mississippi – and certain jurisdictions in other states, requiring the approval of the federal government for any election law changes. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, ruling that “preclearance” no longer was necessary. States wasted no time in proving the Supreme Court wrong. Within two months, North Carolina passed racially-discriminatory voting restrictions that later were struck down in federal court. Overall, 23 states have passed restrictive voting laws.
Meanwhile, the White House has established a sham Commission to perpetuate the myth of widespread voter fraud. The commission is a weapon of mass deception, a Trojan horse to usher in even greater voting restrictions on people of color, the poor, senior citizens and students.
Despite her worsening health, complicated by a lifetime spent in poverty and the beating she suffered in prison, she spent her life battling racism and poverty.
It would be a disgrace to her memory if we did not make every effort to defeat the effort to restrict voting rights.
Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League