Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi on October 6, 1917. She was the 20th, and last, child of sharecroppers. Hamer and her siblings all grew up in poverty. As a result, she began working, picking up cotton with her family at the age of 6. By age 12, she completely left school to work full time. In 1944, she married Perry Hamer and toiled with him at a Mississippi plantation. Since she was the only worker that knew how to read and write, she was also the plantation timekeeper.
In 1961, when she was 44 years old, Fannie Lou Hamer went to the hospital for the removal of a small uterine tumor, which is now thought to have been a fibroid. While she was under anesthesia, she was given a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. This medical malfeasance was common and known as the “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Often times, many women went in believing they were going to have a specific surgery for a persistent medical concern, such as lower abdomen pain, but experienced forced sterilization while under anesthesia. Teaching hospitals frequently performed these unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women as “practice” for medical students. Before 1960, there were approximately 70,000 forced sterilizations that occurred in the United States. A large percentage of these victims were either people with cognitive disabilities or poor women of color. According to Hamer’s research, 60% of the Black women in Sunflower County, Mississippi, where she received the forced sterilization, were victims of the same malfeasance while they were giving birth.
This atrocity and personal experience became a pivotal point in Hamer’s life and ultimately contributed to her decision to join the Civil Rights Movement. In the summer of 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer decided to attend a meeting held by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that encouraged African Americans to vote. That same year, Hamer, along with 17 others, showed up at the Indianola Courthouse in order to register to vote. This attempt was not successful and led to the harassment of Hamer and the volunteers. That same night, she was fired and kicked out of the plantation where she had been working for over two decades. However, this only solidified her resolve to vote and help other African Americans to do the same.
Fannie Lou Hamer became an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement. She organized voter registration drives and relief efforts, all of which put her in harm’s way. Throughout all of these ordeals, Hamer was threatened, beaten and arrested. At the jailhouse, she and several other women were brutally beaten, leaving Hamer with a blood clot in her eye, permanent kidney failure, and leg damage. Her activism never wavered, for instance, in 1964, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and announced her bid for Congress. Even though she lost, she still managed to bring the whole nation’s attention towards the struggle for civil rights. Hamer’s efforts were not in vain, she increased business opportunities for minorities and provided childcare and other family services.
In 1976, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She continued in her fight for civil rights in spite of being sick. Hamer passed away on March 14th, 1977. She was buried in the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden in Ruleville, Mississippi where her tombstone is encrypted with one of her most famous quotes “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired”. In 2004, the Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation (FLHCF) was established in her honor which works to prevent and decrease the burden of cancer in the Mississippi Delta Region.