Today marks the 100th birthday of Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights leader whose striking speeches remain an integral part of the language of the movement.
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,“ for example, remains a mantra of the Civil Rights movement. She famously said that phrase while giving a speech at the Williams Institutional Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, N.Y., at a rally with Malcolm X.
Black congressmen marked the 100th year of Hamer’s birth at the House in Washington this week:
“Tonight, I recognize a civil rights hero whose work is no small part of the reason I and many other African American members of Congress are able to stand before you today,” said Democratic Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, who worked on Hamer’s unsuccessful 1964 congressional campaign and now represents Mississippi’s 2nd District. “Ms. Hamer taught black Mississippians how to read and write in order for them to pass discriminatory voter tests designed to prevent black Americans from utilizing their right to vote.”
Hamer, one of 20 children by two sharecroppers, was prompted to activism due to the subpar medical treatment given to black women. In 1961, she went to see a doctor after struggling to conceive with her husband. The doctor ended up giving her a hysterectomy when she was expecting him to remove a uterine tumor through a routine procedure.
Forced sterilization of black women was very common. And the permanent procedure, coupled with other civil rights abuses she was witnessing, prompted Hamer to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
These were not her only health problems: she walked with a limp and still had a blood clot behind her eye from being severely beaten by police in a Mississippi jail.
But despite this, many politicians, including President Lyndon B. Johnson feared her ability to rouse and organize voters and unions. When she was scheduled speak at the Democratic National Convention’s credentials committee in Aug. 22, 1964 — where she planned to call for her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be integrated with the state’s all-white delegation to the convention — President Johnson stepped in. After she refused his appeal to not speak, Johnson called an impromptu news conference which prevented the national networks from carrying her speech live.
It didn’t matter. Her speech was eventually aired, and one of her most popular phrases came from it: “every red stripe in that flag represents the black man’s blood that has been shed.”
Those words are especially true today.
We celebrate Hamer for her strength and courage on this 100th birthday.