Fannie Lou Hamer and the Ongoing Struggle for Voting Rights

Old Lessons for the New Emergency

Fannie Lou Hamer was a firebrand. She was a civil rights organizer that doesn’t come along every day. Charismatic, she did not kowtow to charismatic leaders. An individual who was a force of nature, she preferred group leadership. A politician who could have led nationally, she believed fiercely in the local and in grassroots organizing.

One of 20 children in a sharecropper’s Mississippi family, Hamer grew up in the 1920s and ‘30s no stranger to hunger. As a young child, she helped her parents pick cotton in the fields which ended her formal education at age 12. Often, she and her siblings had nothing for dinner besides a little four mixed with cooking grease. Lynchings of Black people were not uncommon in mid-20th century Mississippi, and it was not until Hamer was well into adulthood that she learned she had the right to vote. This knowledge changed her life. She became a voting rights activist. Getting her fellow African Americans to vote became her life’s work.

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Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.

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