Fannie Lou Hamer started as a sharecropper but would go on to become one of the most passionate voices of the civil rights movement, leading the fight for voting rights and greater economic opportunities for Black people, as well as women’s rights.
Yet her story is still relatively unknown to many – and a Chicago-based filmmaker wants to change that with a new documentary, Fannie Lou Hamer’s America.
Joy Davenport directed and edited the project, which Hamer’s grandniece, Monica Land, produced. It features rare archival footage, allowing Hamer to tell her story in her own words.
The film’s team spent a decade collecting that footage, Davenport said, with parts of it coming in stages.
“There was the initial stage of just trying to find what was out there and then to catalog it and transcribe it and then ultimately to pay for it and find out who owns it,” Davenport said. “Because so much of it was just out there, poorly documented, hidden or not even documented at all. It took just so much blood, sweat and tears.”
Land told Reset there’s no shortage of stories to tell about Hamer’s life, and her memory lived on through tales Land heard from her grandparents.
“There were a lot of family stories and that’s what kind of actually piqued my interest to want to do a film,” Land said. “I had seen so many segments and documentaries about her with her colleagues, her peers, which were wonderful, but I never seen the personal side of her life, the family element, explored and that was something that I really wanted to do was to be able to bring that.”
Land said she actually hadn’t learned much about Hamer’s activism until she took a Black history class in high school, which led her to investigate.
Hamer was born on Oct. 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, according to the National Women’s History Museum. She was the 20th – and last – child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend. Growing up in poverty, Hamer started helping her family pick cotton at age 6, leaving school to work full-time by age 12.
She married Perry Hamer in 1944, working with him on the plantation owned by B.D. Marlowe until 1962.
A white doctor gave Hamer a hysterectomy without her consent in 1961, when she went in for surgery to remove a uterine tumor. Forced sterilization of Black women – in order to limit the Black population – was common at the time, according to the National Women’s History Museum.
By her 40s, Hamer had become deeply involved in activism regarding voting and women’s rights. She co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and went to the 1964 Democratic National Convention to demand her party’s representation at the convention.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, who needed the support of Southern Democrats to win the election, sent political advisers to Hamer to try to stop her from giving her testimony, then called for a last-minute news conference so the national TV networks couldn’t carry Hamer live, according to a Washington Post article.
Johnson’s efforts would be in vain, as Hamer’s testimony drew national attention to the struggles Black people faced in the South.
“Her life and her fight for civil rights are emblematic of just about everything that we still fight for today,” Davenport, the documentary’s director, recently told WBEZ’s Reset. “She lived a very difficult life as a sharecropper, she was able to see just how skewed the structures of America were against people like her and she made a determination in a young age to make a difference and to change that so that other people would not have to suffer like she did, like her mother did, like her grandmother did.”
During her efforts to effect change, Hamer faced assaults from those who disagreed with her, according to the National Women’s History Museum.
When Hamer, as a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer, led a group of 17 volunteers to register to vote in August 1962, she was denied the vote because of a literacy test, then got fined $100 by police who claimed the group’s bus was too yellow.
Then, in June 1963, Hamer and several other Black women were arrested for sitting in a “whites-only” bus station restaurant in Winona, Mississippi. While in jail, the women were beaten so badly that Hamer would have lifelong injuries from a blood clot in her eye, kidney damage and leg damage.
Land says her great-aunt was a strong example of finding one’s own voice.
“Your reach does not have to be limited because of where you’re from,” Land said. “Fannie Lou came from the Mississippi cotton field, and look at what she did. She helped to change law, specifically the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Land wants minority students in particular to not be hindered by their background, community or neighborhood.
Despite all that Hamer helped accomplish, Land said it’s hard to tell exactly how her great-aunt would feel about challenges Black people continue to face today.
“I think that she would be excited to see so many Black elected officials,” Land said. “I think she would be over the moon to know that we had a Black president. But […] I think she would be disappointed that 50 years after what she fought and sacrificed so much for, that people are still fighting for the exact same things today.
“There has been progress, of course, from where she came from. But still, the same elements are here and I think she’d be disappointed by that, that the struggle continues.”
Fannie Lou Hamer’s America premiers at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 22 on PBS. If you miss it then, it’ll also be available to stream on worldchannel.org, the World YouTube channel and on all station-branded PBS platforms.
Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.