Cheryl Townsend Gilkes’ book title “If it wasn’t for the women” is a fitting one that captures the centrality of Fanny Lou Hamer’s role in changing American culture. When people are sick and tired, they become instigators of revolution. Revolution is birthed through the angst of being sick and tired of oppression, sick and tired of dis-enfranchisement, and sick and tired of injustice.
That was the case with women on the frontline of the Civil Rights movement and such was the case with Fanny Lou Hamer. More people are familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr and his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” but Fanny Lou Hamer’s testimony and her relentless activism for civil rights were pivotal in making visible the oppression of blacks and the hindrances that prevented their desire to be first class citizens. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., however, Fanny Lou Hamer was a dreamer. She had a desire for a preferred future reality for herself, blacks and for America as a whole. Suffrage for blacks, or human rights, as she defined it, was the platform for her revolution.
When women are sick and tired, oppression is an opportunity for resistance. The 20th child born to poor Mississippi parents, Ms. Hamer started to work picking cotton on a plantation when she was just 6 years old. As an adult, Hamer was influenced by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee about the opportunity to vote and on August 31st 1962, she registered to vote. Blacks who registered to vote were subjected to literacy tests intended to disenfranchise racial minorities. Poll taxes, property restriction, violence, terrorization and literacy tests were the means through which suffrage was denied. The test asks such questions as: how many jelly beans are in a pound of candy? How many bubbles are in a soap? How do you spell backwards, forwards? She was kicked off the plantation she worked and almost murdered because the plantation owner was angry that she had tried to register to vote. Claiming that they weren’t ready for that in Mississippi, he ordered her to destroy her registration or she would have to leave. Hamer told him, “I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself” (Centennial Tribute).
When women are sick and tired, they are persistence. After three attempts at the literacy test, Hamer finally passed and in one experience, on her way back to Louisville after having attended a voter registration workshop, the bus she was in was stopped, the driver charged with driving a bus that was too yellow, and she and her companions were arrested, cursed, beaten relentlessly by several law enforcers and demeaned (Encylcopedia.com). The beating left her with a blood clot in her eye and permanent kidney injury as a result of the beating. Like organized sit-ins and marches, her testimony did much to illustrate the cruel hindrances prohibiting blacks from equality in America.
When women are sick and tired, they empathize. Because her “soul was tired of seeing people suffer,” despite her personal degradation, Hamer continued to work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and helped organize the 1964 Freedom Summer African-American voter registration drive. At the Democratic National Convention (DNC) later that year, she was part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a group of civil rights activists who challenged the legality of Mississippi’s all-white, segregated delegation to the DNC.
As the #Me Too movement evinces, when women become fed-up, they become radical. They gain their voice. If it wasn’t for this woman, many would not have been conscious of the fact that racism that produced disenfranchisement and inequality was America’s problem (Encylopedia.com), a problem that W.E.B. Dubois attested to in The Souls of Black Folk. Hamer was passionately instrumental in helping thousands of people to register to vote despite the opposition of the majority culture. Ironically, what the dominant culture meant for evil, God used for good (Genesis 50). Hamer‘s faith in God undergirded her revolutionary spirit and established her resolve to use her feeling of being “sick and tired of being sick and tired” to help many achieve human rights. As such, Hamer was a revolutionary who helped change the landscape of American culture.
Assistant Vice-President of Academic Affairs (TRAD PROGRAMS)
Professor of English