Bruell column: Drawing inspiration from our nation’s heroes during Black History Month

Debbie Bruell

In honor of Black History Month I want to share an inspiring story about one of the countless Black American heroes who have moved our country toward becoming a more perfect union. 

Fannie Lou Hamer (née Townsend) was born in Mississippi in 1917 to the parents of sharecroppers. She began working in the fields herself at the age of 6, dropping out of school when she was 12 to pick cotton full-time to support her family. 

At age 27, she married Perry “Pap” Hamer. They sharecropped on another Mississippi plantation, where they raised two daughters. Sharecropping then was essentially slavery – often workers were forbidden from leaving and earned so little income they went hungry. 

In 1962, at age 45, Hamer attended a meeting led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She learned, for the first time, that Black people could register and vote. Days later she boarded a school bus with 17 others, heading to the county seat to register. 

White supremacists drove beside them, waving guns and yelling obscenities. When they finally arrived, she had to take a “literacy test,” full of obscure questions about the Mississippi constitution. (The test was not a prerequisite for white voters). Not surprisingly, she failed the test.

By the time Hamer returned home, the county registrar had called her boss, who told her, if she didn’t withdraw her registration, he would drive her off the plantation. His threat only strengthened her resolve. She left the plantation and began working as a community organizer for SNCC, dedicating the rest of her life to fighting for civil rights.

Hamer gained national attention in 1964, when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention, arguing that the Mississippi delegates had not been legally elected because Black people in the state had been denied their right to vote. 

She gave testimony about her obstructed attempts to register to vote and the brutal beating she suffered in a jail a year earlier, when she was unjustly arrested with several other women after completing a voter registration drive. The beating left Hamer with a lifelong limp and permanent kidney damage.

“Is this America,” Hamer stated at the National Convention, “the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hook because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings?”

Hamer’s work, alongside that of so many other American heroes, was critical to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This Act outlawed literacy tests as a prerequisite for voter registration and other common local and state discriminatory voting practices.

Hamer’s life story sheds light on critical issues we continue to struggle with today. 

In 2021, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court essentially dismantled the Voting Rights Act. In that year alone, nineteen states passed laws making it harder to vote, aimed primarily at people of color. 

Hamer’s experience having a uterine tumor removed in 1961 also offers a window into our country’s convoluted history related to women’s freedom to control their own bodies. Hamer woke up from her surgery to find that the white doctor had given her a hysterectomy. Forced sterilization of Black women was so widespread at the time that it was dubbed a “Mississippi appendectomy.” 

Hamer also addressed the lack of economic opportunities for Black people. She initiated a “pig bank” to provide free pigs to Black farmers, who would pay interest in the form of some of the piglets they had bred, which would then be given to other Black farmers. She bought up land for Blacks to own and farm collectively, so that the fruits of their labor would be returned to them, rather than being siphoned off by rich plantation owners. 

Hamer died at the age of 59, in 1977. Her immediate cause of death was breast cancer, but who knows how many more years she would have lived had she had access to the preventative care and medical treatment available to wealthy white people at that time. Or if she hadn’t experienced the extreme poverty, brutality, and racism that make people from historically oppressed groups more susceptible to disease, including cancer. Huge disparities continue in our country today between the health of Black women and white women.

We cannot understand who we are as a nation without understanding our history. Our history at its best is the history of incredible human beings who have fought for voting rights, racial equality, economic opportunity, women’s reproductive freedom, affordable health care, and so many other vital components of a humane and just society. 

We have a long way to go to reach these ideals. Black History month is an opportunity to learn about people like Fannie Lou Hamer who inspire us to continue this all-important work. 

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats and is a past member of the Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education.

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