22 março 2019

"If I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom"

“If I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom”


Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was a civil rights leader from Mississippi – the youngest of 20 children born to parents who were sharecroppers. Despite polio disabling one leg, she worked in the fields picking cotton. When the farm’s owner discovered Fannie Lou could read and write – reportedly the only farmworker who could – he made her the plantation’s record keeper as well as cook and house cleaner.

She later married a tractor driver on the same plantation. While receiving treatment for a uterine tumor she was, unwittingly, given a hysterectomy by a white doctor. Doctors at the time routinely found “reasons” to sterilize black women,  a practice so common it even had a name – a “Mississippi appendectomy.”

In 1962, at the age of 45, Hamer learned she had a Constitutional right to vote. She and 17 others took a bus 30 miles to the courthouse to try to register. But she was rejected after failing a literacy test, despite her ability to read and write. On the way home, the bus was pulled over by a police officer because he said it was "too yellow” and they were fined $100. When she returned home, she was fired and kicked off the plantation – though her husband was required to stay on the land until the end of the harvest – and moved from home to home to escape death threats. She was shot at 16 times.

She continued trying to register anyway. When she was told she’d failed the literacy test a second time, she told the clerk “You’ll see me every 30 days til I pass.” Hamer took it again a third time and this time she passed – but discovered the literacy test was just the first hurdle to voting in Mississippi. When she tried to vote, she was told she hadn’t paid the poll tax. She paid it, and was finally allowed to vote.

After continuing to try to get other blacks to register, Hamer was arrested, beaten, and sexually assaulted. The beatings caused permanent damage to her eye, a kidney, and her leg. But she kept at it, making a speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention that was nationally televised.  She died at the age of 59 from breast cancer.

Fanny Lou Hamer’s tombstone reads “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

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